Realities of NSF Funding

I’ve been reading more about this bill (and the bill itself S. 2802), and it appears that the Bill as it stands does not explicitly exclude funding for social, behavioral or economic sciences. It does however, set priorities for funding in physical sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics. Two things are significant about this: the first is that this list also excludes biological sciences (although a later sentence lists “physical and natural” sciences–but the NSF doesn’t currently organize itself that way). Given that the funding breakdown at NSF is usually that Phyiscal science gets twice as much as Bio and Computer sciences, and usually about 10 times as much as SBE, it would seem that these priorities are already being met. I cannot imagine that such a bill would survive without being amended either to avoid micro-managing priorities, or at the very least, to include the biosciences and (maybe? at least?) economics as priorities as well.

The other significant thing is that the realities of funding at the NSF are never easily restricted by the actions of congress. Anyone who has applied for a large NSF grant in the social sciences in the last 4 years has encountered the “Human and Social Dynamics Program”–which is the NSF’s largest social science initiative ever, and explicitly promotes interdisciplinary work between scientists, engineers and social scientists. What this means to me is that a bill like S. 2802 probably provides the NSF with yet more incentive to create more programs like this, and to fund less “basic” research, especially in SBE, but probably across the board. This is, increasingly, what the NSF is expected to do: encourage scientists and engineers to move their science in the directions indicated by the taxpayers and their representatives. If there is no call, from any quarter of society besides that of the researchers, for continued research on neo-liberalism: THE AWAKENING, or on primate behavior under conditions of extreme scarcity of funding, or on anomalous Igbo fricatives, then the NSF has absolutely no mandate to fund it (I would note, however, that this is not what the NSF was originally designed to do, which was in fact to fund basic science and let corporate america sort it out later in “development”–but times have changed…). So, half empty glass = yes, NSF funding of anthropology is imperiled (has it ever not been?); meanwhile half full glass = those of you anthropologists willing to do interesting research on things that are prioritized by the NSF (like, for instance, “Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems” or “Human and Social Dynamics“) may well still find plenty of funding there.


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

One thought on “Realities of NSF Funding

  1. Even outside of the NSF, quite a few undergraduate anthro students have to do a particular sort of field work regarding a form of “primate behavior under conditions of extreme scarcity of funding” IE, living among other undergraduates.

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