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Why fund studies of Maya architecture instead of saving lives?

Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology | October 1, 2013

That is the question two members of the current US House of Representatives pose in an opinion piece in USA Today, writing:

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.

As an archaeologist specializing in Maya archaeology, who has received National Science Foundation funding, I would have to agree. I had no idea I personally was taking money away from life-saving research. But as these congress members wisely say,

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.

Shockingly, they note, NSF simply refuses to explain why they are supporting these frivolous grants, on such topics as the Bronze Age of Cyprus and metallurgy in Russia from 2100 to 1500 BC.  They conclude with an utterly reasonable summary:

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.

Except this is anything but common sense.

This is an entirely misleading argument that ignores the fact that knowledge about other cultures, in the present and the past, is a contribution to the quality of life in our country: not in the flat-footed utilitarian sense that these congress members are advocating, but in the deeper meaning of the term “quality of life”: a life that is limited not just to making ends meet, but includes exercising curiosity and understanding human artistic and scientific achievements.

Quality of life comes from listening to music, and learning something just because you want to understand more about it. Quality of life includes having information make its way onto the screens of people throughout the country who will never have a chance to travel to Chiapas, Mexico, but who may see a documentary about Palenque, one of the great Maya sites occupied there during the period from 350 BC to 1350 AD covered by another of the grants the congress members decry.

The misleading storyline offered in this opinion piece begins with the suggestion that the tiny amount of the Federal research budget dedicated to the scientific exploration of the past is blocking research on urgently needed medical innovations. The congress members surely know that the budgets for different sections of NSF are established independently, and so grants for any archaeology project come only at the expense of other such projects. The government shutdown these congress members helped engineer has taken down the NSF website, so I cannot give the numerical comparisons here. But the absolute amount of funding for archaeology is a tiny shred of the NSF budget. In fact, two of the grants these members of congress single out were for less than $20,000, which probably means they were proposals funded to let outstanding students carry out dissertation work, a first step for generations of scientists who go on to be leading researchers and university faculty.

Congress approved the division of overall NSF funding, and money from one program isn’t being stolen from other lines of research. Like every other advanced nation, it has been US policy for decades to encourage a wide spectrum of sciences, with different levels of funding directed to each program based on broader national priorities. What national priority does archaeological research fulfill? Because it involves human history, art, and achievements, archaeology can capture the imagination even of people who think they are not interested in math and science. Archaeologists use an incredible range of scientific techniques to figure out everything from how people exploited metals with different techniques (that Russian metallurgy grant) to how people domesticated plants, and what changes our ancestors went through when they did. Using cutting edge science, archaeologists can even tell you what people ate from analysis of their bones and their discarded pots (my own research, in conjunction with a UC Berkeley colleague, on detecting the use of chocolate more than 3000 years ago). By making science interesting and relevant to people’s sense of their own history and life, archaeology can persuade the math and science phobic to give these necessary fields a chance.

More disturbing than the cheap attempt to set up a false choice between healing disease and understanding human nature is the assertion that there is no way to know why the grants that are funded were selected.

These congress members know better. But they hope you don’t.

All grants funded by the NSF have gone through a rigorous– dare I say grueling?– peer review process, in which senior scientists across the country freely and without charge read and evaluate proposals as a service to the NSF. Our reviews of proposals include comparing what the proposal says it will do to well defined criteria developed by NSF. These include attention to the basic contribution to knowledge, the “intellectual merit” of the research (what will we know that we did not previously when the research is done?) and how the research will improve public understanding of science, expand participation in science, and where appropriate, how research might lead to improvements in everyday life. These “broader impacts” are taken seriously by researchers, who have shown their dedication to doing things like presenting classroom lectures for K-12 schools, making findings available on websites, and trying to use their knowledge to help guide public policy, for example, on how to cope with climate change.

The congress members say that

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.

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.

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.

If you take the argument they make at face value, archaeology is preventing research on Alzheimers and new prosthetics. If you listen to these politicians, the US cannot afford to feed the imagination of its people, even with a sliver of its research budget.

But what they aren’t admitting is that this isn’t about the tiny portion of the Federal research budget that goes to what they call “questionable” grants– work by creative and hard working scientists who are coming up with creative ways to reconstruct everyday life in the past, and then translating their findings for the American public.

This is about inserting politicians into decision making about who gets Federal support, breaking a system that has served to make the US the global center for research across multiple disciplines.

There is no particular reason to think that replacing expert opinion, offered for free, with political bias will lead to better science. When was the last time you thought a politician had your best interests in mind?

Comments to “Why fund studies of Maya architecture instead of saving lives?

  1. Excellent idea! Many will support this opinion if it comes out and I will be one of them supporters.

  2. Architects are people whose job is to create, design and draw ideas of a better place to live in.

    One of the best architectural ideas that were conceived is the landscape urbanism design. The theory behind the landscape urbanism design is to create a healthy and environmental friendly city with reference to its terrain or natural landscape.

    There have been several architects and architecture firms that offer these kinds of urban designs to land developers. If you have any architectural ideas with regards to landscape urbanism, then it is just time that you show the world your creativity in this field.

  3. Very nicely put Dr. Joyce! The second half of your response, which focuses on the integrity of the peer review process is particularly important. Have you considered sending this to the USA Today or other media outlets?

  4. It’s important to recognize that these elected representatives are not just against spending money on archaeology. They are also against foreign aid, as are most of their fellow GOP and a large portion of the electorate. We spend a tiny proportion of GNP (0.15%) on non-military foreign assistance – much less than any other G20 nation – but a consistent pattern in public opinion surveys is that we should “help those here in the USA” instead of foreigners. This where the “small government” mentality meets American insularity. And as Tanya Peres notes, this is not new. I’m old enough to remember Senator William Proxmire and his “Golden Fleece” awards (as in fleecing the taxpayer). Most of the examples that he held up to ridicule were Federal grants for social science research, and many of these were for archaeology. And I have been watching this whole charade long enough to realize that it really is a cycle. Every twenty years or so there is an eruption of insularity, in which the American right wants a divorce from the rest of the world. Even universities are not immune to such behavior – Proxmire’s foolishness coincided in time with the wars over the western literary canon in undergraduate education. Many senior scholars arguing that widening the required reading lists to include authors from Africa, Latin America and India would somehow undermine the American character. In their minds the American character was formed by taking required courses in Western Civ. So let’s speak out loudly against such idiocy – but let’s also work to make sure that we teach our undergraduates something about geography and world history. Although Im an archaeologist I had for many years made a point of teaching an introductory course in African studies because Americans know nothing about it. I include some prehistory, a lot of history (especially colonial), geography, politics, economics, and make them listen to African music, read an African novel, and watch a movie by an African director. This course fills every year, and it really has opened a lot of minds.

  5. Yes, thank you for this. The same type of congress(person)-think leads to things like lexile scores (birthed by a for-profit company as a ‘scientific way’ to analyze readability levels of books and ‘match’ them to students) as a good way to promote the love of reading in children (not!)

  6. Thank you for standing up and writing such an informed and eloquent piece on the topic. It would be fantastic to see this appear in, for instance, the NYT Op-Ed. Would you be interested in sending it?

  7. Thank you for this, Dr. Joyce. Pieces like this really help to counter the promotion of a limited view of the human experience that these two senators (as well as others like Tom Coburn and several state governors) have recently promoted.

    Archaeology, in particular, provides a way to look at long term (in terms of centuries and millennia) impacts of human-environment interaction that we simply cannot see with even the longest-term longitudinal study of living humans. We can look at climatic/environmental shifts over vast time periods compared to how humans initiate and responded to them. We can look at how major changes in diet (such as the introduction of a new food type like corn) affected human health and social relationships surrounding food production.

    We can do all of this for very little money. A basic stand-alone research project in Mexico, for example, ranges between 20-250K. These projects can stretch out over 3-5 five years and involve teams of dozens of the smartest people in the country. A similar study in health care would cost several million for a treatment trial that might have no significant positive outcome.

    Furthermore, we establish international collaborations that serve to aid the US image throughout the world. In a small way, international anthropology helps to repair the disruptive social damage that the US periodically (or frequently depending on perspective) causes in other countries. Finally, NSF budgets are already prioritized (which Dr. Joyce has already articulated)!

    What these few congress members want is to eliminate anything that does not fit their VERY narrow view of the world or human life. Even worse, they want to increasingly narrow the minds and lives of the American people. They have waged this battle over decades, but it usually only becomes public knowledge in times when the American public has been scared or worried about their own economic health as well as that of the nation. In other words, they try to push these opinions through, that will fundamentally alter how science is conducted, when people are scared and willing to accept any proposal that promises, often falsely, to make things better.

    Finally, I find it laughable that a few members of congress, who are not the smartest people in the country nor are they experts in anything other than policy making and wasting time, could take over a review process that leading experts in the field are currently doing for free. This is a point made by Dr. Joyce that deserves repeating.

  8. Bravo!

    This is not a new argument from members of Congress. How do we make sure this opinion piece does not become the law of the land?

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