Sampling on the Dependent Variable, Robert Putnam Edition

11 July 2013 at 10:56 am 4 comments

| Peter Klein |

Famed sociologist Robert Putnam makes his case for government funding of social science research:

One of the harshest critics of National Science Foundation funding of political science has even praised my study [on civil society and democracy] as “one of the most influential pieces of practical research in the last half-century.”

Ironically, however, if the recent amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) that restricts NSF funding for political science had been in effect when I began this research, it never would have gotten off the ground since the foundational grant that made this project possible came from the NSF Political Science Program.

Well, yes, if it hadn’t been for NASA, we wouldn’t have put a man on the moon. What this shows about the average or marginal productivity of government science funding is a little unclear to me.

Of course, Putnam’s piece is a short editorial making an emotional, rather than logical, appeal. But this kind of appeal seems to be all the political scientists have offered in response to the hated Coburn Amendment.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Institutions, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science, Public Policy / Political Economy.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Anonymous  |  11 July 2013 at 11:10 am

    It seems like I am completely missing something here. Putnam states: 1) NSF critique wants to change funding practices, 2) A partiular study that this NSF guy likes was funded by a practice the NSF guy wants to change. 3) So NSF guy, is that a problem?

    Fairly straightforward and very logical. At least how it is presented here.

  • 2. Peter Klein  |  11 July 2013 at 11:17 am

    OK, if you prefer, logical but irrelevant. Putnam implies this is some kind of “gotcha” argument — “You want to stop practice X, but one time X led to an outcome you liked!” See my post title.

  • 3. SkepticProf  |  12 July 2013 at 11:10 am

    Perhaps there’s a Bastiat broken-window critique to be made here on both sides of the fence — that decision-makers such as Sens. Coburn and Flake are looking only at the seen (reductions in spending) and not at the unseen (missed benefits from a few exceptional research opportunities). Putnam makes the dual of this mistake; he laments only the loss, but not the gain from foregone projects that could have utilized the money (viz. Eisenhower’s famous lament about wasteful spending stealing from the poor).

    Whether the loss of the unseen benefits outweighs the gain from avoiding the seen costs, is, of course, still an open question — but at least it’s a well-formed one. Putnam’s half is only the antithesis to “NSF spending is wasteful” thesis, but neither is sufficient by itself; a synthesis is necessary. Pointing out that the other side’s argument is incomplete doesn’t complete one’s own.

  • 4. Peter Klein  |  12 July 2013 at 2:44 pm

    SkepticProf, I think you’ve framed the problem very nicely.

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