Frustrated man at desk, by LaurMG, licensed by Creative Commons
Frustrated man at desk, by LaurMG, licensed by Creative Commons

On Wednesday, the US Senate voted to prohibit — yes, prohibit — funding for political science projects through the National Science Foundation except those that the NSF Director “certifies as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.”

My mind is so boggled by that I have to keep re-reading it to check that it’s true. If you doubt me, check out this from the Huffington Post; and this reaction from Daniel Drezner writing in Foreign Policy.

The arguments that are always made in favour of this kind of action are allegedly-democratic ones: if academics want public money, they should be subject to public scrutiny, public accountability, and even public direction about what the priorities should be. Who pays the piper calls the tune.

But that is to take an extremely narrow and dangerous view of the role of knowledge in a democracy. It is also, ironically, completely at odds with other American conservative assumptions about how democratic societies should work.

Even on a right-wing, individualist understanding of democracy, the purpose of public institutions is to help negotiate the conflicts that arise between individual projects and preferences – to establish a framework of rights that ensures maximum liberty of thought and action for everyone. For that to work, democracies need to allow the full variety of perspectives, arguments, experiences, preferences, even prejudices to inform public decision making.

Totalitarian states try to shrink the “pool of perspectives” — a term from fellow deliberative democrat James Bohman — while democracies try to enlarge it.

But it’s also at odds with the way that free marketeers like the measure’s sponsor, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) think that government should work. They wouldn’t dream of telling businesses what projects to pursue or not to pursue, because they think that people get what they want and need when businesses are free to innovate and compete in a market where the customer, eventually makes the decision. So why do they suddenly think that the market of ideas works differently? Why think that it works best when Senators tell academics what to think, what to research, what to publish?

Of course, one of the reasons for that is to do with the democratic role academics play “speaking truth to power”. The powerful don’t like that; never have; and yet democratic leaders are supposed to know better than to interfere with that. That’s something that only despots do, right?

And this is why the vote this week is so appalling. It is a deliberate effort to limit the pool of perspectives, both by telling academics what they can and can’t study, and by limiting academics’ ability to represent in robust and thought-through ways the voices of those who otherwise have little voice. It sets an astonishing precedent, not just for American political science, and not just for other disciplines in the States, but for publicly-funded research around the world.

How should academics respond?

  • Fight, and fight dirty. Hire some PR and start painting Sen. Tom Coburn as the enemy of democracy. Enrol republican heroes of the fight against communism to lambaste this idiot, starting with people like Vaclav Havel. The response thus far from the American Political Science Association has been too measured, too “responsible”. Enough, already.
  • Another response might be to flee from the NSF and engage more with the large private foundations which fund a great deal of US research; except that foundations support research on a patchwork of issues, some (but not all) of which are determined by the whims of their wealthy donors, and do not necessarily respond to the priorities of the poor, or the knowledge gaps identified by academics themselves.
  • Yet another response might be quite radical – democratise funding by crowd-sourcing it. I’ll have more to say on that subject soon.

But for now, my sincere sympathies to my US colleagues. Lest the rest of us feel smug, remember that many of us work in systems increasingly dominated by this kind of thinking too. We need to challenge it at every opportunity we get.