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Flaking Out: Should Public Administration Researchers Worry About Challenges to NSF Funding for Political Science Research?

The “Flake Amendment” (H.AMDT.1094 for H.R.5326), like the failed Coburn Amendment (for H.R. 2847) before it, asks Congress “to prohibit the use of funds to be used to carry out the functions of the Political Science Program in the Division of Social and Economic Sciences of the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences of the National Science Foundation.” The Flake and Coburn Amendments inspired the American Political Science Association (APSA) to encourage its members to petition members of Congress to prevent the amendment’s passage. Public administration organizations, such as the American Society for Public Administration and the Public Management Research Association, were silent on the issue. Anecdotally however, some scholars worried that the prohibition of National Science Foundation (NSF) funding for political science research may affect public administration research funding opportunities.

In the event that the Flake Amendment is enacted (it was narrowly passed in the House on 9 May 2012), it does not appear that public administration research will suffer. From our analysis, it appears that NSF supported research appeared only slightly more frequently in the past three years of published research in these venues (31.25% of NSF supported PA research was published in 2010 or later). However, this does not signal a distinct trend as six (37.5% of the total ten year sample) were published between 2000 and 2003.

Is National Science Foundation support critical for the advancement of public administration research? We believe the answer to this question is “no”; NSF funding is helpful, but not instrumental to the advancement of public administration research. Instead, support from universities, non-governmental organizations, and government council sources appears to be more important to the advancement of public administration research. While public administration scholars might lament the loss of funding opportunities along with their political science colleagues, it appears that these same scholars will continue to do the yeoman’s work of improving government services and public participation without federal support.

From our analysis of articles in five public administration journals (Administration & Society, American Review of Public Administration, Journal of Public Administration Research & Theory, Public Administration, and Public Administration Review) from January 2000 to January 2012 (n=668), we found that 32.6% of articles reporting empirical findings, or 218 articles reported receiving some form of funding. While voluntary reports of external funding are subject to whether authors elect to reveal their funding, although some journals now require it as part of conflict of interest declarations, we surmise that these numbers suggest that external funding is an important, but not critical, aspect of the dissemination of public administration research.

We found considerable diversity in the funding sources for public administration research. Almost one-third of the articles (30.7%) received support through university grants or university-funded/directed institutes. Other sources of support included government agencies (such as the Environmental Protection Agency), private and nonprofit organizations (such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation), and research councils in a variety of countries (including the Netherlands, Norway, and Korea). Slightly more than a tenth (11.5%) of funded articles received assistance from the United Kingdom’s Economic and Social Research Council.

Although the 16 NSF funded pieces were concentrated heavily in only three of the five journals sampled (J-PART, PAR, A&S), there was also notable diversity in topics addressed in funded research pieces. Three articles focused on the role of scientists, universities, and academics in policy making and fulfillment of public program outcomes. For example, in their 2007 article “’Shielding’ the Knowledge Transfer Process in Human Service Research,” Gretchen Gano, Jocelyn Elise Crowley and David Guston interviewed Department of Health and Human Services officials and downstream users to determine the “ecology” of research and development social policies. Others, like Aarond Levine in 2008 and Mary Feeny and Eric Welch in 2012, examine the results of surveys of scientists to determine their level of influence on public policy and university outcomes.

Four articles addressed issues related to the lives of public service professionals. For example, in their 2000 article “State Agent or Citizen Agent: Two Narratives of Discretion,” Steven Maynard-Moody and Michael Musheno used various methods – including observation, interviews, and “story-based” research – to determine the self-perceptions of “street-level” bureaucrats as “state agents” or “citizen agents.” Gene Brewer, in a piece published in 2003, used the National Election Survey (NES 1996) data to examine the relationship between public employment and civic participation, while Manuel Teodoro in “Contingent Professionalism: Bureaucratic Mobility and the Adoption of Water Conservation Rates” (2010), used survey data of water utility executives to study the relationship between professionalism and policy decisions such as water conservation rates. A piece published in 2012 by Shannon Portillo, used interviews to analyze how race and gender affect the role of authority and activity in public organizations.

Three articles focused more specifically on issues of citizen participation with elected and bureaucratic officials using interviews, network-survey methods, or household surveys to assess the type and quality of citizen participation with public officials. For example, Thomas Webler and Seth Tuler, in a piece published in 2000, used network-surveys to analyze the role of networking between neighborhood council boards in Los Angeles as a way to measure governance reform and community power. B. Joon Kim, Andrea Kavanaugh and Karen Hult, in their 2011 piece “Civic Engagement and Internet Use in Local Governance: Heirarchical Linear Models for Understanding the Role of Local Community Groups,” used household surveys from the Blacksburg, Virginia area to measure connections between civic engagement and internet usage.

The remainder of this sample of NSF funded pieces was more diffuse in method and substance. Two articles, a 2009 piece by Richard Feiock, Anette Steinacker and Hyung Jun Park and a 2011 piece by Christopher Hawkins and Richard Feiock, examined the roles of local governments in economic joint ventures. Another piece, “Learning Disabilities for Regulators: The Perils of Organizational Learning in the Air Transportation Industry,” by Michal Tamuz, looked at organizational learning, using the air transportation industry as a case study locale, while another, published by Celeste Watkins-Hayes in 2011, used interviews to examine the role (if any) of race in bureaucratic representation. Dan Devroye, writing in 2003, used survey data to analyze opinions of low-income individuals on social security privatization and to assess why they may be reticent to enroll in privatized options. Additionally, Debra Stewart, Norman Sprinthall, and Jackie Kern, in their 2002 piece “Moral Reasoning in the Context of Reform: A Study of Russian Officials,” provided the sole NSF funded article focused on comparative public administration, in this case using surveys and interviews involving Russian public officials in comparison to Polish and American public officials.

Our analysis above shows that threats of NSF funding cuts for political science and public administration research would affect publication in the top-tier public administration journals. However, as a percent of total research presented in journal articles or a percent of total funded research in public administration, NSF funded research is but a small bit of total PA research and the cumulative effect of a funding cut would be similarly small.



Authors: Sara R. Jordan is an assistant professor in the department of Politics & Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong. She can be reached at [email protected].  Phillip W. Gray is a visiting assistant professor in the department of Liberal Arts at Texas A&M University- Qatar. He can be reached at [email protected].

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