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NSF Funding and Archaeology

In an opinion piece (USA Today 30 September) entitled “Rethinking science funding”, Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith (respectively Majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives and Chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee) argue that the US National Science Foundation (NSF) is wasting US tax payer dollars, citing concerns with funding research in the areas of the “social, behavioral and economic sciences” (http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2013/09/30/cantor-gop-budget-science-spending-column/2896333/). Cantor and Smith go on to identify some grants which they state are questionable and not directly of benefit to Americans. They make the emotive statement that “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”. They identify 10 projects they regard as particularly inappropriate for funding, of in total $3,203,154 (and in fact, ruling out one large project, 9 of the 10 account for $1,703,436); several are ‘archaeological’.

Some reaction seems appropriate since the Cantor and Smith argument is not only narrow and emotive, but worryingly sloppy, untrue, and in fact seeks a path which would impoverish the USA in several ways. One of their targets is the Bronze Age in Cyprus – a research interest of this author – thus I declare a personal interest. For some other reactions and similar arguments, see also: http://blogs.berkeley.edu/2013/10/01/why-fund-studies-of-maya-architecture-instead-of-saving-lives/ and http://blogs.cornell.edu/adamtsmith/2013/10/02/archaeology-as-high-priority-research/ and http://jamesdoyle.net/2013/10/02/why-research-on-mayan-architecture-saves-lives/.

(i) Cantor and Smith create a false claim. Applications to the NSF for the funding of, for their example, Mayan architecture, compete only against other applications in the area of archaeology. They are not directly competing against, or taking money away from, medical research (or any other large, high-priority, areas). This archaeology panel represents only a tiny fraction of the total NSF budget. It offers (fairly minimal) support to a range of archaeology and related studies both in the USA, the Americas, and world-wide. This is relevant and important. Archaeology informs us about our heritage – a rich, global one for modern Americans – it also offers many relevant lessons for us now and for our future, ranging from how human societies have adapted to, or failed to adapt to, climate change in the past, to how urban settlements developed in different contexts world-wide over the past several thousand years and how and why some urban forms work and others fail over the long-term, to better understanding the development of economic paradigms and historical trends over the long term which help explain the context of today’s world and its future. For one recent paper arguing the relevance of archaeology as a key social science, see Smith et al. 2012 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109: 7617-7621 (http://www.public.asu.edu/~mesmith9/1-CompleteSet/MES-EtAl-12-PNAS.pdf). We would all be much poorer for the lack of such studies. Cantor and Smith state they are concerned that the US remain globally competitive – something history and archaeology in fact informs us about in terms of origins and future (see the book by Ian Morris, Why the West Rules–for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future, 2011) – and they specifically express concern that, for example, “High-energy physicists look to research conducted in Europe more than America”. And yet, if one does look to Europe, it is notable that the European Research Council (ERC) spends much more on archaeology and related studies than the USA as well, and is not just spending on high-energy physics. If there is a point: it is the decline of US spending over the past generation on many areas of research (in preference to other things, and tax cuts primarily benefiting the wealthy – the top 20% and especially 1% – for example, see section 3. in http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/01/02/the-legacy-of-the-bush-tax-cuts-in-four-charts/). This is something which should worry the US population – and especially voters.

(ii) Let us consider just the money. The NSF budget is around $7 billion (2012 figure – e.g. http://news.sciencemag.org/2012/04/nsf-budget-year-starts-out-well – since NSF pages are currently unavailable). This is a little over half what goes to the three national science agencies ($13.1 billion in 2013, $13.9 billion in 2012): the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) laboratories (data from http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ostp/rdbudgets). The NSF’s $7 billion is then a little over 10% of the total non-defense annual federal Research and development budget ($64 billion in 2013, $66.8 billion in 2012). The awards identified by Cantor and Smith in their article amount to less than 0.0005% of annual NSF spending, or about 0.00005% (1/20,000th) of total federal research spending in a year. The projects identified are therefore so insignificant in the overall scheme of the total US spend on basic research that it is a questionable waste of the highly paid Congressmen’s time to be writing such an article (attacking the 0.00005%). The Congressmen are of course funded by the taxpayer (so they are wasting our money – which they claim to be trying to protect) – and they are being paid even during the current government shutdown, unlike other federal employees.

(iii) Cantor and Smith state they support medical and related research and wish to see it fulfill its goals of helping people in need. This is of course a vital national concern and an area any civilized society should prioritize. But here also is an area for the Congressmen to better concentrate their attention towards. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) receive over $30 billion a year (more than 4x as much as the NSF in total), and, despite much great science occurring as a result, there are regular fraud cases in the multi-million dollar range with, for just one example, Northwestern University this past summer (2013) agreeing to pay back nearly $3 million to resolve allegations of grant fraud by a cancer researcher (see: http://www.justice.gov/usao/iln/pr/chicago/2013/pr0730_01.html).

(iv) In general, Cantor and Smith appear to dislike any research projects not about the USA and any in the areas of the “social, behavioral and economic sciences”. This highly xenophobic view seems to miss several highly relevant issues all of benefit to the USA. First, the USA does not and cannot exist in isolation – indeed Cantor and Smith note with alarm how China and Europe and Russia seem to be ahead in areas of research – and research on areas, peoples, and issues outside the USA invariably provides information, training and useful engagements of benefit to the USA (and hopefully the other partners). Even at the isolationist, right-wing, extreme, Cantor and Smith should remember the advice of Sun Tzu: know your enemy. Further, in the modern world, few topics are purely local; engagement in global research is essential if the USA is to remain at the forefront of research (in any area). The research projects Cantor and Smith critically highlight will almost all involve students from US universities. Two are of a financial level that they are likely in direct support of PhD students at US universities. Thus these projects are providing support towards training the next generation of globally aware and engaged leaders in academia and elsewhere. Whereas Cantor and Smith bemoan that these projects are overseas, look at the list of areas just for the projects they single out: Bolivia, China, Cyprus, Ethiopia, Mexico (and northern central America), Mongolia, New Zealand, Russia. These include a number of highly important, strategic, or problematic loci of considerable relevance to the USA. Research and engagement by students and faculty of US universities can only be valuable.

(v) Cantor and Smith claim it is unclear how these (to them questionable) grants are awarded and claim that there is a lack of information. This is simply untrue and dishonest. Their attack on the NSF is cynically timed such that one cannot even check facts regarding the claims made by Cantor and Smith because the Government shutdown principally forced by their Republican Party (trying to overturn the results of the last election) means that the NSF websites and similar sources of information are not presently available. The overall NSF budget and its main divisions are approved by Congress. There is (when the federal government is not shut down) considerable information on each program on the NSF website and details on how applications are to be made. An application for funding typically requires a 15 page text (some programs require more, and a few, such as those supporting doctoral candidates, less), full references, detailed budgets, CVs for the applicants and key project staff, and information on facilities, mentoring of postdoctoral students, and so on. Writing and assembling each application is a major task – daunting is an under-statement and why many university faculty never apply – and takes many weeks to months of work (usually by a group). The applications are then reviewed anonymously and, such is the small amount of funding available versus the applications received in most categories, most are rejected and receive no funding. A few, top, applications receive funding in each round of the various funding schemes. As required by the NSF, these projects will have articulated both “the intellectual merit of the proposed activity” and “the broader impacts resulting from the proposed activity”. The process is rigorous if not almost masochistic. Cantor and Smith complain that only the summaries of each project are made available (these summaries are required as part of the overall applications and to be written for the general public versus a scientific readership) – as senior members of Congress they know this is not how the applications are reviewed and judged and grants are awarded – and so they mislead. If Cantor and Smith want copies of every 50+ page application sent to them as well as the NSF, then I am sure researchers all over the USA would happily bury them in pdfs/paper.

In all, in 2013, the USA is budgeted to spend over $140 billion on federal Research and Development (R&D), more than half of this on defense. To spend a tiny, tiny, amount of this vast sum on trying better to understand the world and human engagements with it, both inside and outside the USA, past and present, is an important and strategic investment. If Cantor and Smith really want to worry about value for money and priorities, then it would seem likely they should carefully examine some of the other 99.995% of federal R&D spending.

Comments

4 Responses to “ NSF Funding and Archaeology ”

  • James Newhard

    I would also add a point mentioning the ‘soft diplomacy’ that this type of funding supports. Because of the NSF (and NEH), you have a strengthening of international collaborations, students are trained in an international and cross-cultural context, and future collaborations and associations are made. The research is important for a wide variety of reasons, but something has to be said for the international collaborative ties that many of these archaeological projects cultivate, and I’d hazard to guess that the percentage of those collaborations are higher for the behavioral sciences directorate than others.

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