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Visiting Capitol Hill, Knott presses for social science funding

by Cheryl Arvidson
Dean Jack H. Knott speaks at the "Conversations in D.C." event. (USC Photo/Edward Graham)
Dean Jack H. Knott speaks at the "Conversations in D.C." event. (USC Photo/Edward Graham)

USC Price School of Public Policy Dean Jack H. Knott visited the nation’s capital to advocate for federal funding that will support social science research.

Knott spent the afternoon of Oct. 16 on Capitol Hill, urging lawmakers to reverse the recent elimination of National Science Foundation funding for political science. Among the areas affected by the loss of funding will be research on issues related to redistricting, voting rights and obligations, nomination processes and other governance topics.

Knott met with legislative teams for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Democratic congressional representatives Barbara Lee, Mark Takano and Mike Honda. He also stressed the importance of social science research, citing specific examples of the ways in which research conducted by USC Price faculty have directly informed recent legislation.

Knott continued the discussion later that evening during the “Conversations in D.C.” event hosted by USC Price. He told a group of USC alumni that the elimination of federal funding for social science research will dramatically undermine the nation’s ability to make informed decisions on critical policy issues.

“Without the power of social science and political research in our society, without the funding of it by the federal government and without the deployment of scholars collecting and advancing the spirit of interdisciplinary theory, our nation will lessen its ability to make intelligent, informed decisions on a range of major social and economic policy issues,” Knott told the group that gathered at USC’s office in Washington, D.C.

Knott noted that the amount of money involved is very small, with social science research accounting for less than $1 billion of the total $98 billion in federal research and development spending, and political science research accounting for less than $11 million.

“It’s not a matter of balancing the budget,” he said. “It’s a matter of targeting certain types of research.”

Knott, who also addressed the factors leading to the 16-day government shutdown, which ended later that evening with an 11th-hour deal to avoid a debt default and reopen the government.

He said the nation is now experiencing “the biggest partisan gap that we have ever had” and that polarization in the House and Senate is at the highest level since the end of Reconstruction in the 1900s. That sharp division, which began back in the 1980s, is keeping the government from functioning as it should.

“This is not a tactical choice, not a tactic, but rather a symptom of a larger trend developed over the last 30 years,” he said.

“It is referred to as government by crisis,” Knott added, “but more aptly, each crisis seems to reveal government’s now systematic incapacity to act on major issues.”

The democratic model of government is predicated on a system of checks and balances that requires bargaining and compromise in order to make decisions, he said. The system is “designed to moderate the extremes, delay the speed of activity and thereby prevent upheaval.” However, Knott said, “In the current state of extreme partisanship, it has a paralyzing effect.”

Knott and USC Price Professor David Sloane explained that the sort of research threatened by the federal defunding effort produces results that can be quickly applied to decision-making.

“It is essential for an informed policy debate that data and evidence support the political policy decision,” Knott said.

Sloane also said that some of the basic research in political and social sciences can produce results that can be “translated” into other disciplines, giving it far broader application than initially anticipated.

Noting that the American higher education system is providing significant economic benefit to the country and is “a great industry,” Sloane said he did not understand the reasoning behind the defunding.

Knott identified four areas that would be particularly hit hard by an end in government funding of social, behavioral and political science research: the ability to understand the relationship between the government actions and the economy; information on individual and behavioral responses to major developments; issues involving democracy, citizenship and political participation; and foreign policy.

“Without information, you cannot make informed choices,” he said. “Without understanding how individuals and communities respond and behave under different incentives and different conditions, we will not achieve success. We just will not.”

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