In another instance of an opportunistic politician going after small money and getting in the NYT, Republican Senator Tom Coburn is riding high on his brilliant plan to get rid of government waste by going after political science funding in NSF. We’ll leave aside the fact that this is really really small money we’re talking here–we might as well just not fund 20 box culverts–and just go after the heart of this: we need to not fund political science research at the Federal level because this senator wants to claim a ‘win’ and lots of people resent professors, particularly those associated with the humanities or social sciences because we supposedly aren’t curing cancer or, in Coburn’s case, coming up with the newest, most profit-enhancing ranch or oil technology, or since he’s a doctor, a new technology that would allow doctors to spend on average 5 minutes with patients instead that lengthy 7 minutes they spend now. It could save lives.
I also think it is imperative that scholars do relevant work. But the decision rule at NSF or any funder should be about ideas–not disciplines, necessarily–and what seems on its surface less useful sometimes proves over the long term to be immensely useful. So those early experiments in behavioral economics were not particularly well-received. But I’d say they look pretty useful now, don’t you think? Nash’s early work on game theory went unrecognized for years, and now it’s one of the most valuable tools in the anti-terrorism toolkit I suspect Coburn approves of highly. Lots of computer science things absolutely necessary to military and industry began with little abstractions in math or philosophy. Knowledge and human capital are like quicksilver to forecast, and yet the consequences of them are all around us, all the time.
So let’s turn this issue on its head and go after some big money. Do we really need Oklahoma? Is it relevant for anything? Now, we can’t afford to go indulging in jingoistic arguments about how Oklahoma is significant to Oklahoman’s identities and whatnot; that’s just like the “life of the mind” arguments Coburn wouldn’t want us to listen to about political science. Let’s actually look at whether the state of Oklahoma is a worthy and efficient usage of public funds. Couldn’t most of the administrative functions of the state be absorbed rather easily into those of its neighboring states? Couldn’t its universities just close down and send their students elsewhere? Or couldn’t they simply get renamed the University of Texas-Stillwater or the University of Texas–Oklahoma City?** Wouldn’t that save a lot of money? Let’s go at it hard and faster: in two generations, I suspect we will be able to govern most of the US population via mayors’ offices and metropolitan planning organizations. Aren’t states struggling financially? States still wield a lot of political and financial capital because of past political decisions, not because of efficiency criteria, and now that we are an urban country in an urban world, aren’t states by and large redundant? Shouldn’t we be thinking about dismantling them?
I think the answer is no largely because states, like universities, are major employers and provide a lot of economic development for their surrounding cities more so. Maybe some political scientists can apply to NSF for some grant funding to prove me wrong here–to establish a compelling rationale for state-level governance over local or regional administration…
**I’m pretty sure just by writing that, I probably caused a Sooners fan to burst a blood vessel in his temple.