An open letter to Senators Cruz and Cornyn, re: cutting the NSF’s Political Science program

by Justin Esarey

Dear Senators Cruz and Cornyn,

I’m an assistant professor of Political Science at Rice University, and I hope that you’ll oppose Senator Coburn’s amendment to de-fund the Political Science program at the National Science Foundation (the Coburn amendment to HR 933 currently before the Senate).

Political Science has evolved into a data-intensive, methodologically sophisticated STEM discipline over the last 40 years. Our work is ultimately focused on the understanding and forecasting of politically important phenomena. We model and predict civil war outbreaks, coups, regime changes, election outcomes, voting behavior, corruption, and many other scientifically important topics. Techniques that we develop are used by national security agencies like the CIA and DOD to forecast events of political importance to the United States, and many of our PhDs go on to work directly for the government or contracting firms in this capacity. Indeed, many political scientists consult for these and other agencies to supplement our normal teaching and research.

The basic scientific work that underlies these activities and enables them to improve in accuracy is funded by the National Science Foundation. As in any science, much of this work is technical or deals with smaller questions. The technology that allows for image enhancement in spy satellites and telescopes was built upon statistical work in image processing and machine learning that seemed just as technical and trivial at first (as I recall, much of this work focused on enhancing a picture of a Playboy centerfold!). The technology that allows for sifting and identification of important information in large databases (used in various surveillance programs) stems from work on machine learning that ultimately grew from (among many other things) simple mathematical models of a single neuron.

We buy the NSF Political Science program for far less than we pay for a single F-35 fighter jet (about $11m vs. about $200m).

My sense is that many politicians believe that funding Political Science research is frivolous because we are doing the same work that pundits (or politicians themselves) do. But as the examples above illustrate, our research is heavily data-driven and targeted at understanding and predicting political phenomena, not in providing commentary, promoting policy change, or representing a political agenda. To be sure, some political scientists do that, just like biologists and physicists—on their own time, and not with NSF money.

I hope that you will see that investment in Political Science research is as important, and far cheaper, than the investments we make in the National Institutes of Health and physical science divisions of the NSF. Scientific advancement is not partisan and not ideological.

Dr. Justin Esarey
Assistant Professor of Political Science
Rice University (Houston, TX)