Archaeology as High Priority Research

In a September 30 op-ed in the USA Today, Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith question the use of NSF funds for social, behavioral, and economic sciences when those funds could be used to fund brain research to cure Alzheimers disease or find new cancer therapies.  Amongst the target of their derision: archaeology. Indeed out of the 9 “questionable” NSF grants they call out, a third are archaeological projects.

Rosemary Joyce has a thoughtful rejoinder on her blog that defends the importance of understanding the human past and the integrity of the peer review process.  There is also a critique to be made of the conditions that have created the appearance of Cantor and Smith’s false choice between saving lives and studies of Maya Architecture or Bronze Age Cyprus.

The key phrase in Cantor and Smith’s editorial to my mind is this:

With limited funding, we must prioritize. Congress is right to ask why NSF chooses to fund research on Mayan architecture over projects that could help our wounded warriors or save lives.

How is it, any critical thinker should ask, that such a wealthy nation has come to the point where it cannot support a broad spectrum of scientific research? Just by way of comparison, the Republic of Armenia, a nation beset for two decades by the economic crises that followed the demise of the Soviet Union, somehow finds a way to support a broad array of science, including archaeology.  This is to say nothing of the sizable budgets for social science research of all kinds provided by both European nations and the European Union.  So why, we must ask the Republican Congressmen, is such a broad spectrum approach to scientific research impossible for the USA?

The answer is obvious: they have made it impossible by spending like drunken sailors while in control of government and initiating tax cuts that sent the budget surplus achieved under Clinton straight into the pockets of one small segment of the population.  So the choice is not archaeology vs. saving lives.  It is archaeology vs. sending public resources to the 1%.  While I would never argue that research into the Bronze Age Caucasus is more important than curing cancer, I have no difficulty making the argument that knowledge of the human past, broadly disseminated to archaeology’s eager public (our approval ratings are undoubtedly higher than that of Congress), is of far greater value than giving investment bankers another tax cut. That is the real choice covered up by Cantor and Smith’s disingenuous editorial.  It isn’t just that NSF happens to currently have limited funds, these same congressmen created the conditions for those limits.  And they now seek to use those conditions of scarcity that were their own making as an excuse to cripple research that they don’t like.

Here we come to a final concern.  Why does the Republican Congress dislike social science?  In this respect, I think archaeology is a MacGuffin in Cantor and Smith’s essay.  The real target has always been any research that discredits orthodoxies central to doctrinaire Republicanism, such as the perfection of the market, the tyrannical force of government, or, and here we get close, the inerrancy of scripture.  NSF funded research has been critical to unravelling all of these positions.  Rather than engage in a scientific debate by funding more research, Cantor and Smith adopt the rear-guard strategy of shooting the messenger.  Or in this case, the funder.

Update: James Doyle has also posted a nice response to Cantor and Smith’s editorial that considers the true “broader impacts” of archaeological research.

5 Responses to Archaeology as High Priority Research

  1. Pingback: Why Research on Mayan Architecture Saves Lives | James A. Doyle

  2. Pingback: NSF Funding and Archaeology | Archaeology and our world

  3. David Peterson

    This is a sad impasse for the country and official (and public?) attitudes toward archaeology. (Although I think archaeology is among the sciences the public really loves, together with its sister discipline, forensics.) Beyond the concerns many of us share about the importance of archaeology in general (which is nothing trivial), the points Adam Smith raises about the paucity of funding in the US, compared to countries like Armenia, echo findings published by David Killick and Paul Goldberg on the funding of archaeological science in the US vs Europe. This is something John Dudgeon and I are also writing about in the introduction to an upcoming volume on archaeological science approaches to migration and mobility. Archaeological science does save lives. Since the earliest chemical experiments on gold coins in the 18th century it has provided fertile ground for blind tests of numerous scientific techniques, including the contribution of radiocarbon dating techniques to modern isotopy. Archaeology is of course closely tied to to preservation, and there is a relationship between treatment of modern Native populations in North America and preservation of their historic and prehistoric sites and other patrimony, which includes government-funded protection and mitigation of adverse effects.

  4. Pingback: UPDATE: Archaeology and the NSF | Assemblages

  5. Pingback: Why Archaeology Matters: A Crisis in Federal Funding of Archaeological Research | Trowel Points

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *