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The Misguided Attack on Science Funding and Why It Damages Americans

On September 30, 2013 Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith (respectively the Majority Leader of the House of Representatives and Chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee) wrote an op-ed piece criticizing the National Science Foundation's use of taxpayer money to fund "questionable" scientific research projects. Three of the nine projects they deem questionable are archaeological in nature. As an archaeology graduate student, I think it's necessary to speak out and inform the community why archaeology is one of many sciences that deserves continued government funding and is valuable to the global community.

Several archaeologists, some of whom I know personally, have written astute critiques of Cantor and Smith's article. Rather than re-hash their arguments, which are written more thoughtfully than my own, I'd like to summarize some of the salient points here and link the articles below.

  • The money. Cantor and Smith criticize the NSF for spending $3 million of their funding on the ten projects they regard unimportant, and one of those projects accounts for nearly 1/3 of that total. That gives an average funding for the nine remaining projects of around $220,000 apiece. The NSF receives $7 billion of funding from taxpayer money per year. For a comparison of the zeros, that is $220,000 vs. $7,000,000,000. So for these nine projects, the monetary awards from the NSF amount to less than 0.02% of their total budget. But that's not all. The NSF actually receives under 10% of the total non-defense annual research budget from the government, which in 2013 was $64 billion. That's $64,000,000,000. If my Google calculator is correct, that's about 0.0003% of the total non-defense science funding budget.
  • More about the money. Cantor and Smith argue that instead of funding these types of research projects, the government should focus on allocating that money to more vital research, in particular in the medical fields. They argue that the archaeological projects, for example, are drawing money away from where it is really needed. However, when competing for grants, archaeologists compete only against other archaeologists, so these research grants are not depleting the funds of any other area of science. Moreover, the National Institutes of Health has a budget of over 4x that of the NSH and regularly has to face multi-mullion dollar cases of research fraud. Perhaps the authors' time would have been better spent improving the specific area of research in which they are most interested.
  • The value of archaeology to Americans. Every single one of the projects that Cantor and Smith critique is based in international research. The authors seem hostile to any research that is not of direct value to Americans, rather than to the scientific and global community at large. This sort of ethnocentrist approach ignores the global implications of both scientific research and political action. To quote Sturt Manning, an archaeology professor whose post is linked below:

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.

  • Furthermore, these research grants provide sources of income for American scientists, graduate students, and lab technicians, and therefore support the American economy.
  • The value of archaeology to the global community. Generally speaking, archaeology investigates the lives of people who have long-since died and societies which perished long ago. Archaeologists feel constant pressure to justify their research to a community which so often is centered in immediate, tangible benefits, and archaeological research is generally undervalued. I think this is partly our own fault, to some extent; the bubble-wrapped towers of academia make it far too easy to isolate our research, prohibiting its accessibility to the public. The mass media success of countless History Channel documentaries, films and literature set in ancient civilizations, tourism to World Heritage sites, and the vast cultural imaginary that centers on the ancient world make it clear that what we do is broadly interesting. However, archaeology provides valuable information about how humans have adapted (and failed to adapt) to their environments, why some urban civilizations were successful and others were not, and how we have negotiated complex political interactions. The past, as investigated through archaeological research, is part of our global heritage, and it deserves our protection.

Cantor and Smith bemoan how America is slipping behind in researching the sciences. They state:

Despite the U.S. government's spending more on research and development than any other country, American pre-eminence in several science and technology fields is slipping. The Chinese now have the fastest supercomputer. High-energy physicists look to research conducted in Europe more than America. And NASA astronauts hitch rides to the Space Station on board Russian spacecraft.


As Manning notes, if you look at the numbers, the European Research Council, for example, is not just spending on high-energy physics. Europe generally provides more funding for—and may be said to value higher—archaeological research. Perhaps of Cantor and Smith set aside their narrow-minded, conservative agenda they would realize that America can and should afford to value all kinds of scientific research.

Responses to Cantor & Smith's original piece:





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