Cantor and Smith: Social science witch hunt

It’s been a week now since US representatives Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith published an article on USA Today about “rethinking science funding.”  Their main point is supposedly that we need to take a closer, critical look at how we fund science through grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF).  On the surface their argument seems reasonable, even “common sense.”  Below the surface, it’s little more than a disingenuous, ideologically-based attack on the social sciences.  And it’s nothing new from Cantor, Smith, and their cronies.  As a graduate student in anthropology–and a recipient of a dissertation grant from the NSF–it’s pretty infuriating to see these two politicians trying to intervene so recklessly into the funding process.1

I understand the need for both accountability and clarity in the whole grant process.  Are there things that need to be changed?  Problems that need to be addressed?  Absolutely.  There are always ways to improve how things work.  Definitely.  But what Cantor and Smith are proposing, despite some of their benign-sounding rhetoric, is not just some altruistic attempt to “help” make things better.  In fact, what they are doing is more like a witch hunt than the “we’re doing this for the people” line they’re trying to sell to the US public.

Cantor and Smith begin their piece with a reminder about the US’s innovative past.  They name Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, and Henry Ford to highlight some of the “most prominent Americans were also our nation’s greatest innovators.”  However, they warn, America’s glory days of innovation could be a thing of the past.  And if we aren’t careful, we’re going to get surpassed by countries like China and India.

America spends a lot on science, they tell us, but we are slipping.  Especially in science and technology:

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.

This is the stuff that’s supposed to shock you, readers.  The Chinese have the fastest supercomputer??  High-energy physicists prefer European research now?  NASA has resorted to intergalactic hitchhiking?  For Pete’s sake what has happened to us?  Are you terrified yet?  Worried about what’s to come next? Well, that’s just what Cantor and Smith are trying to stir up with their article.  It’s called fear mongering–and this whole bit about the US losing its place in the world is the bait.  Keep a close eye out for the switch–it’s coming soon.

The next part of the article is where Cantor and Smith’s argument starts to hone in on its target, which is the NSF:

To remain globally competitive, we need to make sure our priorities are funded and that the money is being used wisely. The National Science Foundation (NSF) spends nearly $7 billion of taxpayers’ money every year. On the whole, the process by which proposals are approved is a good one. Important research funded through the NSF has improved the quality of life for every American. It’s one of the best investments we can make in the future. In fact, all five Americans who won Nobel Prizes last year had received NSF funding.

Ok, that sounds pretty good.  Seven billion goes to NSF, and a lot of the funded research is good.  And it’s a good idea to make sure the money is used wisely, right?  Who could disagree with that?  It’s all so darn reasonable!  But:

While the NSF spends most of its funds well, we have recently seen far too many questionable grants, especially in the social, behavioral and economic sciences. [bold added]

Ah ha!  The culprits!  It’s those pesky social scientists that we need to watch out for.  This is the switch, by the way.  They continue:

Research on subjects such as animal photos in National Geographic may sound interesting, but how does the federal government justify spending over $220,000 on such an endeavor?

So here’s where things start getting interesting.  This is the part of the article where Cantor and Smith start cherry picking NSF-funded projects and lambasting them based upon superficial assessments.  The “animal photos” project is a case in point (and one that has been a target for a while now).  There is no discussion about the project, and I doubt Cantor and Smith took any time to actually look at the work itself.  They simply try to list the title, make it sound as flippant as possible, and then proceed with their argument.

The “animal photos” project in question is the work of Linda Kalof, Professor of Sociology and Director of Animal Studies at MSU.  The actual title of the project is “Picturing Animals in National Geographic, 1888-2008.”  According to her bio page at MSU, she has “published more than 40 articles and ten books.”  She has won multiple awards for her scholarship and teaching.  Additionally, “[s]he was named a Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics in 2008; appointed to the Advisory Board for the Detroit Zoo’s Center for Zoo Animal Welfare in 2010.”  She’s also part of a National Research Council committee that authored the recent publication Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program: A Way Forward.

Clearly, Kalof has some experience behind her.  You may or may not find her work appealing or interesting, or even outright disagree with her efforts, but you can’t deny the fact that she has obviously put time and effort into what she’s doing.  You see, research like this isn’t just supposed to be something that everyone agrees upon, that everyone finds comfortable, or that everyone even likes.  It’s supposed to challenge us, make us think, and push us to reconsider how we think about the world around us.  Disagreement and debate about these sorts of issues are vital aspects of education, learning, and being a citizen.  But Cantor and Smith don’t mention any of that.  They are just trying to dismiss her work, period.

Here’s a selection Kalof’s abstract, which describes what her project is all about:

The evolving visual depiction of animals will be interpreted, taking into account scientific changes, natural history, environmental history, and the new aesthetic sensibilities provided by the history of landscape and environmental photography and by situating the magazine and its photographers, editors and photographic conventions in their broader historical, cultural and political context.

Cantor and Smith ask how the federal government can justify spending $220,000 on this sort of research.  Well, for starters, if we could actually reach the NSF site right now we would be able to read exactly how this project was justified.  But we can’t because the government is now shut down–thanks to some of the very same politicians who now think they should have a say in who gets NSF grants.

To me, investing money in Kalof’s project makes sense.  It makes a lot more sense to me than this “trillion dollar embarrassment“, that’s for sure.  Mostly because her work is all about looking deeper into the kinds of things that we might easily dismiss–like those National Geographic photos that we grew up with and never really thought much about.  Her project is about looking into what those images tell us about ourselves, and our relationship with the natural world.  In short, it’s all about understanding–which is one of the primary reasons for science and education in the first place.  Right?  And understanding, by the way, is the polar opposite of what Cantor and Smith are going for here.  Make no mistake.

Sure, they admit that Kalof’s work sounds “interesting,” but ultimately argue that it does not merit government funding.  They don’t really explain why.  They just assume that readers will agree with them that a project about “animal photos” will not sound worthwhile.  And then they list a few more “questionable” research grants:

  • Rangeland management in Mongolia $1,499,718
  • History of Chiapas, Mexico (350 BC-1350 AD) $280,558
  • Mayan architecture and the salt industry $233,141
  • Metallurgy in Russia (2100-1500 BC) $134,354
  • Bronze Age in Cyprus $197,127
  • Eco consequences of early human-set fires in New Zealand $339,958
  • Study of the Gamo caste system in Ethiopia $258,639
  • Causes of stress in Bolivia $19,684
  • Auto shows in China $19,975

So here’s what’s happening: Cantor and Smith have highlighted these grants–and the associated dollar amounts–because they might sound strange, unfamiliar, or frivolous on first glance.  And that’s all that we get here–a quick, sloppy, cursory glance at this research.  With no explanation, it’s all too easy to dismiss.  But take the grant about rangeland management in Mongolia.  I am sure that could sound like a pretty strange project to many people.  Rangeland?  Mongolia?  What?!?

But once you take a little more time to look into what it’s all about, it might not only make more sense, but also seem a bit more valuable (in that case, there may also be a certain political dimension to why Lamar Smith, in particular, doesn’t want it funded–notice that the project is specifically about rangeland management and global warming).  It’s also important to think about the fact that the US has more than 770 million acres of rangelands, and it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that a study about rangelands in another part of the world could also provide useful insight for our resources here at home.  But, once again, Cantor and Smith aren’t interested in fostering more understanding about these grants–they’re just pushing fear, misinformation, and underhanded ideology.

It’s important to keep in mind the fact that many grant titles–and this includes the “hard sciences” that Cantor and Smith purportedly champion–are going to sound a bit odd, particular, and, well, a little hard to understand.  That’s sort of the name of the game when it comes to research, especially highly specialized, competitive research.  Take, for example, the grant titled “Single Molecule Spectroscopy as a Mechanistic Tool for Studying Catalyst Reaction Dynamics,” which was funded via the NSF division of chemistry.  I don’t really understand what it’s all about, especially based upon the title, but I will tell you one thing: I would much rather have the top US academics in chemistry deciding who does and does not get these grants, rather than politicians like Cantor and Smith.  Or Tom Coburn.  Period.

That seems pretty reasonable to me.  But Cantor and Smith aren’t really going for “reasonable,” even if they put on a shoddy mask of reason.  They write:

We all believe in academic freedom for scientists, but federal research agencies have an obligation to explain to American taxpayers why their money is being used on such research instead of on higher priorities.

See how “reasonable” they are?  They are all for academic freedom after all–they just want some accountability.  Never mind the fact that information about every single NSF grant that gets funded is posted online.  Rosemary Joyce made this point quite well in her piece about this same issue.

And this is the point where Cantor and Smith’s argument take a turn for the stupid.  Read this carefully:

For example, the Science, Space, and Technology Committee held a hearing this summer on brain research where a wounded warrior who lost his arm to an IED explosion in Afghanistan showed members of Congress how his prosthetic arm could be controlled simply by his thoughts. Similar brain research could someday provide a cure to diseases like Alzheimer’s and autism.

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.

Did you see that?  That has to be some of the most disingenuous argumentation possible.  But then, these guys are politicians.  Of course funding has to be prioritized, but here Cantor and Smith make a blatantly false argument that the NSF somehow chooses to fund research on Mayan architecture INSTEAD of research that helps save lives!  (this is another point that Joyce covers quite well in her piece.)  That is such a ridiculous assertion it’s hard to even take these two seriously anymore.  Here’s the long story short: The NSF has separate funding allotted for various types of research.  When an archaeology grant gets funding, this in no way shape or form takes anything away from research for soldiers or “saving lives.”  In order to push their own politics, Cantor and Smith are definitely taking the low road here.

And it continues:

Unfortunately, the only information available to the public about these NSF grants is a brief summary on the agency’s website written by the researcher, without any explanation for why such research is in our national interest and worthy of taxpayer funds.

Now it’s just starting to look like they didn’t really even look at NSF’s site.  Here’s what Joyce has to say about that last assertion:

Those summaries actually each explain what the “intellectual merit” and “broader impacts” are. The grant proposals themselves are dense documents intended to explain to the critical specialist reviewers what the research is, and convince us as reviewers that it is up to the best contemporary standards.  The summaries posted online are limited in length and written to be accessible to the public. Writing these can be the hardest part of a funded grant proposal. But the congress members want you to think that these deliberately clear, short, statements are somehow denying you information you need.

Exactly.  And if anyone ever wanted more information about a particular grant, they could always email either NSF or the specific researcher in question.  There are always ways to find out more information–if that’s what you’re trying to do.  But that’s not really what Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith are trying to do, even if they are playing the “hey we’re just being reasonable here” game.  These two definitely have ulterior motives, no doubt about that.  Joyce nails this as well:

So what do the congress members really want? They want to intrude on the process of peer review. They want to have politicians decide what is worth funding, rather than using the free labor of the best minds in the country as advisors helping NSF develop science in the public interest. They want to limit the research that the US funds to projects politicians think are going to produce some direct economic outcome.

There you have it.  The whole goal of the article, despite what these two representatives are telling us, is to find a way for politicians to interfere with the grant process.  And it’s because of their politics folks–this is why the social sciences are a target here.  Now, let’s have a look at how Cantor and Smith sum up their argument:

Asking questions about these and other grants in order to obtain more information about why they were selected and how they benefit the American people is good policy and good government. If NSF has nothing to hide, why not provide Congress and the American public with a meaningful justification for why these grants were chosen over thousands of others?

Reprioritizing the government’s research spending in favor of improving Americans’ quality of life is not anti-science. It is common sense. We look forward to working with the NSF to address these concerns and to create a better process for evaluating research proposals.

On the surface, all of this sounds pretty reasonable, especially if you don’t really take the time to see what’s happening here.  As already discussed above, there is in fact information about why grants were selected, and what sorts of impacts/benefits they might bring about.  Cantor and Smith are just trying to create drama where none exists when they act as if the NSF might have “something to hide.”  There’s nothing to hide–and if the damn government wasn’t shut down we could all go online and look at summaries of any funded NSF, whether in anthropology, geography, economics, chemistry, biology, or whatever.

My favorite part is where Cantor and Smith try to argue “hey, we’re not being anti-science here, this is just good common sense.”  Right.  As if intervening in the granting process based upon undisclosed ideological and political biases is somehow good for science!  These two are playing themselves up as the reasonable, common sense politicians who are just trying to do good by the people.  But that’s not what’s happening here.  If they were really “looking forward to working with the NSF” to improve grant evaluations, there’s no way they would approach the issue by selectively trashing projects they think are unworthy (again, based upon an incredibly superficial glance on their part).

So let’s talk about the politics of all this.  Cantor and Smith’s pretense is that they’re all about common sense.  They are just trying to do what’s right by the American people.  But this whole article is nothing more than an attack on the social sciences for purely political reasons.  If you wonder why Lamar Smith might want to discredit a project that looks at rangeland management and global warming, well, maybe you should read a bit about his politics when it comes to global warming.  And then check out some of Eric Cantor’s attempts at “working with the NSF” to improve the funding process.  Really, go look at that last link and check out the suggested key words.  Rather than encouraging people to read and find out more about these funded projects, he is encouraging them to cherry pick based upon a superficial key word search and jump in on his personal witch hunt.  Really nice work there, Mr Cantor.

All of this is part of a longstanding effort on the part of some politicians, including Eric Cantor, Lamar Smith, and Tom Coburn, to attack and discredit the social sciences.  It’s part of a larger, sustained effort to “pursue long-term political goals without too many people noticing“:

Which goals? Well, last month the General Social Survey found that, over 40 years, the fraction of American homes containing guns had slipped from 50 percent to 35 percent. That validated one of the Democrats’ gun-safety talking points—that “gun nut” culture was new, and less legitimate than hunting culture. That gun study was funded in part by the NSF. So are studies that send scientists to measure glaciers in Greenland; so was Earth: The Operator’s Manual, a 2012 documentary about climate change, for people who don’t have the time to measure glaciers.

There’s nothing worse, people, than an ideological war framed in the benign terms of public interest.  If this isn’t enough to make more social scientists–across the board–stand up and take notice, I don’t know what will.

Note: Edited for clarity on 10/7/13


  1. Full disclosure: I am the recipient of a grant from the National Science Foundation.  I was given what’s known as a “dissertation improvement grant” for my year of research about the politics of development in Baja California Sur.  The research is about some of the conflicts over development that are taking place in a region that, up until this point, has remained relatively undeveloped.  This place has a diverse range of residents, which translates to some very different ideas about what “development” should mean in the near future.  A large percentage of these residents are from the US, which is a key issue for my research.  It’s a study that examines various points of view in order to understand how the development process works.  In my grant proposal I frame the projects in terms of the “political ecologies of value,” which is a pretty academic/jargony way of saying that I am looking at the moral, political, and aesthetic ideas behind development.  It’s all about people, and how their ideas shape development.  I am currently analyzing my interviews and data and writing up the dissertation.  If you have any questions, or want to know more about what I am doing, please feel free to email me: ryananderson@uky.edu.  You can also look up my proposal on the NSF website…when it’s back online. 

Ryan Anderson is an environmental and economic anthropologist. His current research focuses on the social dynamics of coastal development and conservation in Baja California Sur, Mexico. He is currently a post-doctoral researcher in the department of anthropology at the University of Kentucky. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

11 thoughts on “Cantor and Smith: Social science witch hunt

  1. Ryan, I’d like to underscore the deceptive nature of the limited good argument that Cantor and Smith, and other NSF critics, have offered. It is indeed the case that NSF has to work with a fixed amount of funds allocated to it, and every dollar that is allocated to social sciences is a dollar that cannot be spent on physics (and vice-versa). But if Cantor, Smith, et al were genuinely concerned about maintaining healthy levels of support for science research, they would argue for increased support for NSF as a whole, not simply a reduction in social science support. And since that’s a congressional responsibility, they could do just that. (After all, it was the U.S. congress that cut off funding for the massive Superconducting Super Collider, leaving U.S. physicists to turn to CERN; if Cantor/Smith worry about the European drift of physics, they should look in the mirror for the reason why.)

    You could also turn the Cantor/Smith argument back on itself, and stress the importance of free enterprise. Much of what they regard as important, useful research could be undertaken by private industry, since its usefulness can often be translated into commercialization.The value of NSF is that it can support research on interesting, not merely useful, research: projects that have no commercial potential, but increase knowledge and understanding. Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, and Henry Ford didn’t need federal funding for R&D that would produce profitable inventions.

    Finally, you should highlight the fact that there are numerous Federal agencies that support the kind of ‘useful’ research that Cantor/Smith prefer, some located with DOD (e.g. DARPA, or ONR), others, such as NIH, within HHS or other departments. There are very few agencies that support social science research. The implication that NSF has to fund the ‘useful’ research on its own is bogus, and reinforces the ultimate point, that the Cantor/Smith agenda is to defund research that is politically inconvenient.

    Thanks for this excellent post about an extremely important issue.

  2. Thanks Ryan, for a finely considered analysis of an important political issue that affects us all. I will only take issue with a refrain that you repeat several times throughout the article, namely that “all of this sounds pretty reasonable.” I don’t think any of it sounds reasonable: there is a clear public interest in funding scientific research, and it seems clear, to scientists as well as to the public, that only a small percentage of research projects will have the “big payback” that everyone dreams of. These paybacks sometimes improve people’s lives — whether through new medical interventions or technical wonders like computer chips and the internet — but they can also revolutionize our understandings of human history, behavior, aesthetic and moral values, and so on. But once the government approves a certain amount of funding to the NSF, the decisions about how to allot that money, and how to judge and refine priorities from year to year, must be solely up to scientists and the peer review process. That is the essence of scientific culture. To insert politics any further into prioritizing scientific research is, by definition, anti-scientific.

  3. Thanks Barbara. Good points. I think you’re definitely right that there several aspects of the Cantor/Smith argument that can be easily turned back on itself. You’re right that if they were actually concerned with keeping the NSF funding situation healthy, they would be arguing for more support rather than selectively targeting one particular branch of the problem. And a good look in the mirror would do them good–but I doubt that’s going to happen.

    I find their use of Franklin, Edison, Ford etc to be pretty interesting–they are only interested in research in so far as it results in products. So, right from the start they are heading in a fundamentally different direction than the NSF mission.

    Good point, too, about the fact that there are plenty of agencies that do support just the kind of research Cantor and Smith prefer. They seem to completely ignore this…but again I think it’s pretty clearly because they are just building up a range of facade arguments in order to cover up the fact that this is, at heart, a campaign to discredit and defund research that is, as you say, “politically inconvenient.” That’s something that has to be confronted directly, even if these two are anything but up front about what they are doing.

    Thanks again.

  4. Thanks for your comment Glenn. I actually don’t think any of it is reasonable either and I agree with your points. What they are doing is the exact opposite of reasonable or acceptable. I was sort of trying to play off of Cantor and Smith’s cheap and disingenuous attempts at being “reasonable” etc, and that part of my argument may not have worked out as well as I wanted. Sometimes underlying sarcasm doesn’t quite work as well as planned! I have to watch our for that and adjust accordingly.

    Still, I do think their argument could be read as a “reasoned” attempt to discuss these issues, especially by folks who are not quite as invested in what all of this would mean. And to me that’s one of the primary reasons why it’s time for social scientists to step up and demonstrate just how wrong and unreasonable all of this is.

  5. One more. This is a really important point that Glenn highlights:

    “But once the government approves a certain amount of funding to the NSF, the decisions about how to allot that money, and how to judge and refine priorities from year to year, must be solely up to scientists and the peer review process. That is the essence of scientific culture. To insert politics any further into prioritizing scientific research is, by definition, anti-scientific.”

    Exactly.

  6. Nice post. I came across this on the blogosphere first a few days ago on Professor Paul Mullins’s blog, and I blogged about it with reference to his post. I’m glad to see you bring Professor Joyce’s essay into this as well, as she goes at this in much the same way you have: noting particular examples and facts to reveal the falsehoods in the USA Today article.

    I’m not a political analyst (not even a pretend one online), but I get the sense that fellows like Representatives Cantor and Smith are trying to speak to certain types of people and maybe rope in a few more with this pittance of a cause. I call it a pittance not on account of funding for the sciences being unimportant: I choose that word, because their false complaint happens to be about an infinitesimally small portion of Federal money. These guys should have bigger financial concerns to spend their time on. They also inflate things by transforming it into a patriotic issue. So we get the Founding Fathers and great inventors of the good old days. Or, as in a video in one of your links, Do you think the tax dollars of 75 families should be spent on soccer players? It’s all rather dishonest and stupid.

  7. I’m generally sympathetic to funding for the arts and sciences—I believe that encouragement of the arts and sciences makes for a more robust society. But I also find it difficult to be too enthusiastic about preserving all of the NSFs budget, in order to protect things like Ryan’s fellowship, and the other drips that make it into the social sciences. Let’s face it, support for NSF, NIMH, and others is primarily about the preservation of the privileges of the “hard” sciences and their labs, and the large overhead costs that the large Research I universities tack onto every federal grant.

    What is more, I found during the couple of times I have tried to play the grant game with the “big boys and girls” to be underwhelming. As I recall it involved writing a thirty page grant proposal, with the less-than-helpful observation that most such grant take two or three iterations to get right/funded. Then if you get funded, you still have to do the research, satisfy the auditors, and finally submit something to a journal where you will need to deal with yet another set of reviewers. My university (Chico State) also takes a 40% overhead cut—the big kids I understand do a lot better. In the end, that thirty or forty page paper, which is the result of like ten rewrites of the thirty page grant proposal is the “product.” I’ve found it much more straight-forward to just get a teaching gig somewhere interesting, and then write up the 30-40 page article without the involvement of NSF et al.

    Which is a long way of asking, what is NSF really good for in the social sciences? That it funds a bit of good work here and there I have little doubt. But hey, I teach Marx now and then, which means that I wonder if these appeals to restore NSF funding are really just a form of false consciousness? Would anthropology, sociology, or other fields really suffer that much, except maybe at ten or so Research I universities, if the NSF vanished off the face of the earth?

    (For what it is worth, my sense is that anthropology would suffer more if Savage Minds disappeared than if NSF disappeared!)

    Anyway, that’s my contrarian opinion, at least for this evening. I remain hopeful that one of you can turn me around.

  8. Tony wrote: “But I also find it difficult to be too enthusiastic about preserving all of the NSFs budget, in order to protect things like Ryan’s fellowship, and the other drips that make it into the social sciences.”

    Ha. Well, if you think that was the point of the post then you missed it by a long shot. I did include the disclosure about my DDIG because I figured that was the right thing to do all things considered. Anyway, my point was to highlight the *reasons* why Cantor and Smith are going after certain grants given to social science. It’s pure politics. I would have written the same post if they were going after some other funding source for purely political reasons. I have been following Coburn et al for a while now, and this bit by Cantor and Smith is more of the same crap.

    “Let’s face it, support for NSF, NIMH, and others is primarily about the preservation of the privileges of the “hard” sciences and their labs, and the large overhead costs that the large Research I universities tack onto every federal grant.”

    Ok…so what’s your point? That this is a non-issue since NSF is primarily about funding the hard sciences? That’s a weird argument.

    “In the end, that thirty or forty page paper, which is the result of like ten rewrites of the thirty page grant proposal is the “product.” I’ve found it much more straight-forward to just get a teaching gig somewhere interesting, and then write up the 30-40 page article without the involvement of NSF et al.”

    That’s an interesting point, but I think you’re heading off into a side conversation. A worthwhile conversation, no doubt, but not really what I was going for here. But I do think what you bring up is something to think about for anyone who is looking into the whole grant thing. There are definitely pros and cons to the whole process, that’s for sure.

    “Which is a long way of asking, what is NSF really good for in the social sciences?”

    I guess it depends on who you ask.

    “But hey, I teach Marx now and then, which means that I wonder if these appeals to restore NSF funding are really just a form of false consciousness?”

    It’s grant money, Tony. People try to get it in order to fund their research. It’s one option/source among a not so astonishing range of options. I don’t even think your Marx/false consciousness argument really makes much sense here. Are you saying that people who are arguing in defense of NSF are somehow fetishizing these grants and not really unable to perceive the fact that they are really just agents of their own exploitation/alienation because they have become enslaved by the whole process? Is that your argument? Hmmm. Well, how do you feel about a massive university system that pretends to be about “knowledge,” “learning,” and “humanity” yet manages to successfully produce a heavily indebted crop of graduates year in and year without ever skipping a beat? False consciousness, did you say? Heh. But we digress.

    “Would anthropology, sociology, or other fields really suffer that much, except maybe at ten or so Research I universities, if the NSF vanished off the face of the earth?”

    I still think you’re missing the whole point. To me this is about the fact that two US politicians–and others–are targeting research and ideas that they find politically disagreeable for one reason or another. The NSF just happens to be one convenient–and public–place to try to gain some political ground. That’s the issue. If you don’t think that’s something to get “enthusiastic” about, well, I’m not sure what to tell you.

  9. Well, the NSF budget request is $6.2 billion, and $272 million (4.8%) goes to the Social Science division, and that includes economics, and so forth; I can’t access the actual numbers during the government shutdown, but I would guess anthropology are a fairly small sliver of that. Within that, universities are also tacking on 40-70% on each grant as overhead. Within grants, student stipends are being funded at something like $20,000-$30,000 per year, while faculty buy-outs are, um, considerably more. Are NSF grants for anthropology a fetish commodity? Maybe.

    Having said that, I agree with you that Cantor and Smith are engaged in a bit of specious reasoning—they highlight the Bureau of SBE for political reasons. Their critique is as you put it, besides the point. They also cherry pick their examples, and then generalize to a whole. This is a great rhetorical technique, which is why they use it—but as you point out the logic is quite faulty.

    I am ready to congratulate individual anthropologists for successful NSF grants. But I don’t think improved funding for NSF is going to improve the number of graduate stipends significantly. This indeed is a very worthy goal—but I can think of many more efficient ways of doing this than sending another 10% ($27 million) to the social science division, or to NSF as a whole.

  10. Hey Tony,

    “Are NSF grants for anthropology a fetish commodity? Maybe.”

    Ok, I see where you’re going now. To me this is an interesting conversation, even if it’s not what I was originally going for with this post. This could be a whole series of posts about how we get funding, why we do things the way we do, etc. I’d argue that this discussion could be extended to include a variety of the grants that anthro students apply for (I don’t think NSF is the only grant source that is being fetishized). There’s a lot of emphasis (and sometimes obsession) with getting these grants, but it’s good for people to really think about everything that goes into them and what they actually get out of it. In your first comment you mentioned getting a job in an interesting place and then just writing up articles (etc) without NSF or any other involvement. There’s a lot of merit to thinking along those lines. I think that sort of philosophy could in fact be applied toward graduate research (and research in general) in many cases.

    “They also cherry pick their examples, and then generalize to a whole. This is a great rhetorical technique…”

    It is. And it works. Until you start looking closer. But that doesn’t always happen when these kinds of things go public. Which of course is part of the problem–superficial arguments can actually do a great deal of damage before someone figures out it’s all nonsense.

    “But I don’t think improved funding for NSF is going to improve the number of graduate stipends significantly. This indeed is a very worthy goal—but I can think of many more efficient ways of doing this than sending another 10% ($27 million) to the social science division, or to NSF as a whole.”

    This could be another whole discussion–about how to improve graduate support/funding and so on. I’d be interested to hear about your suggestions. When it comes to funding grad students, I absolutely think there are other options and possibilities that we should look into. Maybe we should do a series about this sometime??? Ideas abound.

  11. Yes, indeed, ideas do indeed abound–and grad students are one of the weakest and most scared links in American (and European) higher education. I’d be happy to help out with any type of discussion you wish to stimulate!

    Tony

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