Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Are the APSA President and Executive Director Hypocrits? An Open Letter Responding to their Open Letter to Senators

The American Political Science Association is still issuing alarmist statements about Congress voting to defund political science research along the lines of the rhetoric that inspired me to write "Political Scientists are Lousy Forecasters," an opinion piece published in the New York Times Sunday Review on June 24, 2012.

I have never endorsed the Congressional proposals to defund political science research, but in the June opinion piece, and in other correspondence and posts on this blog, I have argued that the apoplexy about this is irrational; that our country would be better served by funding priorities other than those currently used by NSF grant adjudicators; and that the APSA needs to have an open conversation about the criteria we believe are reasonable for assessing grant proposals, including entertaining the possibility that distributing research funding at random to proposals that are coherent and have sound budgets might be a strategy most likely to yield robust research agendas and knowledge that isn't just a hot finding for a few years and then displaced by the next election or war or spurious correlation announced as a breakthrough in discovering a new causal mechanism.

A colleague this morning brought to my attention that Sen. Tom Coburn quoted from the Times article in his floor speech in support of defunding the discipline.  He is not a very good reader.  I wrote:
To shield research from disciplinary biases of the moment, the government should finance scholars through a lottery: anyone with a political science Ph.D. and a defensible budget could apply for grants at different financing levels. And of course government needs to finance graduate student studies and thorough demographic, political and economic data collection. I look forward to seeing what happens to my discipline and politics more generally once we stop mistaking probability studies and statistical significance for knowledge.
Still, I understood when I wrote the opinion piece that it might be misused in exactly the way Coburn misused it and decided that these consequences and any debate about this would be preferable to business-as-usual.

For that discussion to occur, however, requires that the APSA stop worrying about protecting democracy in Congress and start practicing it in our own organization.  What follows is a letter I sent via email this morning to Jane Mansbridge, President, APSA and Michael Brintnall, Executive Director, APSA.

Dear Professor Mansbridge and Mr. Brintall,
I hope this finds you well.  I am writing because a colleague just brought to my attention that Senator Tom Coburn cited in his floor speech last week an opinion piece I wrote last summer in which I questioned whether quantitative political science research of the sort prioritized by the NSF contributes to knowledge about politics. 

As a result of that piece not appearing on the APSA NSF page alongside other opinion pieces about the NSF controversy, including another piece critical of NSF funding, I was in correspondence over the summer with Mr. Brintnall and Professor Powell about how how they had ascertained that the position statements coming out of the APSA actually were representing the interests of its membership.

The response was that they had no specific authorization from either the Council nor the membership for these statements and were issuing them on the basis of previous commitments that also had no specific authorization from the APSA membership or Council.  Professor Powell indicated that there would be a discussion of the APSA relation to the NSF, including input on funding criteria, at the Council meeting in New Orleans.

That meeting was cancelled and I am wondering if the Council has actually discussed the statements issued in our name.  I am especially concerned about the language in your March 15, 2013 letter echoing previous statements offering our colleagues' services to so-called national security and defense interests.  Senator Coburn seems to have taken you up on this.  I am wondering on what basis you decided to emphasize our colleagues' availability for this research, and not, say, research on how vague nativist national security anxieties such as those invoked by your letter undermine the rule of law, not to mention rational research priorities.

Senator Coburn affirmed one part of my argument but then contradicted himself by creating an exception to the ban on NSF funding for political science if it is used to advance the national security or economic interests of the United States.  If political scientists are bad at producing useful knowledge, the part of my argument Coburn affirms, then it seems illogical to rely on these dart-throwing monkey equivalents in areas about which Coburn prioritizes. However, alas, this is exactly the exception emphasized in your open letter.

Your open letter to senators also states that our "discipline [is] devoted to learning how to make democracies work better" and you mention your concern that the passage of this measure would be an "embarrassment for the world's exemplary democracy."  In light of the fact that you are advancing positions without following a single recognized procedure of representative democracy these lofty sentiments seem hypocritical and absurd.  The Senate openly debated and voted on a measure and amendment ascertaining the relationship between the NSF and our discipline.  I am aware of no deliberative or decision-making procedures that have been followed pursuant to establishing a position on NSF funding for our own organization.  Instead, the President and Executive Director in 2012 and 2013 appear to have been simply issuing these statements by fiat.

We do not need NSF funding to bring democracy to our own organization. Why not a moderated digital conversation under the aegis of the APSA about the priorities we would seek of the NSF funding of political science?  What about actually being the democratic change and using tools for digital democracy among our own membership?

In short, the APSA is a membership organization but follows no procedures for ascertaining its best interests much less for representing these to the public.  Without this, the claims you make on behalf of political scientists as saviors of democratic values lack any integrity.  Instead of presenting your membership as eager to lick up the scraps alongside the trough of the country's militarist, homeland security funding, why not treat us as serious intellectuals who may be driven by intellectual curiosity and ideals of creativity, justice, freedom, peace, and, yes, democracy?

I am copying this to the Council Secretary John Green and am requesting that he distribute this to the current Council members (not all of them have their email addresses available online).  I understand it is possible that there has been some conversation among them and look forward to having these views more openly distributed and a range of positions on important questions such as the government funding for our discipline more systematically deliberated.



-- Jacqueline Stevens
Political Science and Legal Studies Board
Northwestern University

Deportation Research Clinic
Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies

phone 847-467-2093
fax  847-491-8985

601 University Place
Department of Political Science
Northwestern University
Evanston, IL  60208



1 comment:

mh said...

not relevant to your last post, but: You have seen? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_koO3eXwaCA&feature=youtu.be

#End read more