Hi! How are you?
“Anxious,” says Michael Neblo, a political scientist at Ohio State University.
“Undercut,” says Karen Alter, a political scientist at Northwestern.
“Wonderful,” says Donald Abelson, a political scientist at the University of Western Ontario.
“When am I going to wake up?” says Patrick Jackson, a political scientist at American University.
It’s a weird time to be a scientist, with the funding cuts, political snubs, and colleagues going rogue. But when your scientific province actually is politics? The discombobulation goes up by an order of magnitude.
The crux of the issue is this: When the country’s most pressing and partisan issues fall within your purview, can you advocate for change without seeming to lose objectivity? Sticky. And it just gets gluey-er. The scientific community isn’t too sure the social sciences really “count,” and academia in general enforces rigid and esoteric priorities. But a rising trend among political scientists has them taking their ideas outside the ivory tower, directly to citizens.
For sure, eggheads of any stripe still have a lot of ways to talk, mostly to each other—journals, conferences, the internet. And academia rewards staying in your lane. “Unless you’re post-tenure, the way to career advancement is impressing your peers,” Jackson says. “So you write the same article 12 times with minor modifications so you get cited a lot.”
But that road also leads to decreasing relevance. The ivory tower has less and less audience (and influence). “Think tanks and NGOs have a greater ability to weigh in on policy, be less descriptive, and set out recommendations for what to do,” Abelson says. “That’s had a chilling effect on those in the academy who stay in their silos and do the hard core, abstract science.” And the Trump administration famously rejects experts and data.
On the plus side, the current state of American politics (perhaps best characterized by “Yyaaaggghhh!”) presents a bunch of opportunities for someone to explain what the hell is going on. “It’s a wonderful time to relate theory to practice,” Abelson says. (No wonder he’s the only one we called who’s in a good mood.)
So you get political scientists increasingly wading into active policy debates as talking heads, bloggers, and letter-writing campaigners, or developing tools for the public to speak back to the government. That’s what Neblo did when he created a platform for online town hall meetings between politicians and their constituents.
As usual among academics, some people in the field are skeptical about colleagues going public with prescriptive tools and advice. It’s either an ethical gray area or totally non-kosher. Then again, scientists are about to march on Washington. But political scientists feel the tension perhaps even more keenly than their colleagues over in the laboratory building. “Because a lot of other scientists don’t take us seriously as a science, we want to be very careful,” Neblo says.
That’s right, this is an interdisciplinary scientific beef. And political scientists can’t do much to change that. So increasingly some of them are embracing a new role—and are willing to risk their colleagues’ derision if the other option is leaving the significance of their work unstated. “You can’t experiment your way to understanding politics. In the world, nothing is held constant,” Alter says. “So doing that is mediocre social science.”
It’s a tricky balancing act. Having an entire field of researchers with their noses buried in arcane journals read only by their peers is a missed opportunity. But if those researchers dumb down their work, and tailor (or even skew) it to better suit what’s trending, or what CNN or Fox News will cover, that’s bad science. Then again, no science is even worse. No matter how political scientists are feeling about political science, they all agree on that.