Thursday, May 3, 2007

The potential dark future for anthropology?

Yesterday, I receive a number of forwarded emails from folks about the relatively crazy amendments to the NSF Authorization bill that was being voted upon in Congress. These amendments were being added by Congressmen Garrett (R-NJ) and Campbell (R-CA). They basically were making the specific case that a bunch of what is done in the SBE Division of NSF (this includes Anthropology) is "silly." The email from AAA is shown below.
URGENT ACTION REQUIRED Dear AAA Member: Please consider this request for immediate action -- review the following and make a call. BACKGROUND: The NSF Authorization bill for FY2008 is scheduled to come up for debate today on the House floor. Two proposed amendments – introduced by Reps. John Campbell (R-CA) and Scott Garrett (R-NJ) – would prohibit funding of nine already funded National Science Foundation grants in the Social, Behavioral and Economics Science Division based on their “silly” titles. Five of the nine grants targeted fall under the anthropology or archaeology portfolios. There are also amendments being considered to reduce NSF’s overall authorized funding level. The amendments and links to the abstracts of the nine grants follow below. The anthropology/archaeology grants are noted with an asterisk (*). AMENDMENTS to H.R. 1867 Offered by Mr. Garrett of New Jersey At the end of section 3, add the following new subsection; (h) LIMITATION.-None of the funds authorized under this section may be used for research related to (1) The reproductive aging and symptom experience at midlife among Bangladeshi Immigrants, Sedentees, and White London Neighbors; and (2) The diet and social stratification in ancient Puerto Rico. 1 = * 2= * Offered by Mr. Campbell of California At the end of section 3, add the following new subsection; (h) LIMITATION.-None of the funds authorized under this section may be used for research related to (1) archives of Andean Knotted-String Records (2) the accuracy in the cross-cultural understanding of others’ emotions; (3) bison hunting on the late prehistoric Great Plains; (4) team versus individual play; (5) sexual politics of waste in Dakar, Senegal; (6) social relationships and reproductive strategies of Phayre’s Leaf Monkeys; and (7) cognitive model of superstitious belief. 1 = * 2 = 3 = * 4 = 5 = 6 = * 7 = MESSAGE: Call your Representative NOW, identify yourself as a constituent, tell him/her to vote “NO” on the Campbell and Garrett amendments to the NSF Authorization bill (H.R. 1867), and communicate the following simple messages: · NSF’s merit review is the best system for choosing grants, not Congressional meddling; · Titles are not the best judge of the worthiness of scientific research; · Silly sounding titles often produce important research results. Any questions, please call Paul Nuti at the AAA office – contacts below. THANK YOU!!! Paul J. Nuti Director of External, International & Government Relations American Anthropological Association
Fortunately for the researchers listed as under attack by these Congress members, the amendments were tossed out and the NSF bill was passed. Basically, enough people lobbied and argued that the relatively random meddling by Congress was in appropriate. Enough lobbying occurred and Congress backed off. The incidence, however, has really made me wonder whether or not it is as sign of a much greater troubled future for Anthropology. Sure, we can all express our outrage that judging proposals on the "silliness" of their titles is absurd and thickheaded. But are the critics of SBE and Anthropology really off the track for wondering whether or not these projects are worthy of funding by NSF in an era of increasing competition for resources for these kinds of projects (given shrinking dollar power and increased numbers of individuals working in the field)? Although I am certain an anthropologist and could face the same kinds of arbitrary criticisms about my own work (and titles... is "Mapping a Buried City" worthy of funding?), I have to be concerned that Garrett and Campbell's attack isn't a harbinger of things to come. From the uninformed public's perspective one has to wonder what kind of contribution is "Bison Hunting on the prehistoric Great Plains" going to provide to our economy, functional knowledge of the world, understanding of future outcomes. Now, from an archaeologist's point of view this kind of research seems entirely innocuous -- of course, I want to know more about bison hunting in the past.. that's what I study. But should anyone else care? That, I am not so sure about. Of course, I have to believe that the work we do has the potential for providing products of use and interest to the public at large. And by a product, I don't mean an interesting story that serves largely to entertain or to provide some moral perspective on resource use and downfall (or whatever). And I also don't mean a product that we have to sell to the public as being something they want but don't know they want (e.g., "you really need this Chia pet, though you don't know that yet until you get a Chia pet"). This latter "product" is simply marketing and PR (and all too much of the SAA and AAA group's emphasis). For anyone that knows me, the product I'm talking about is something else. It is a conceptual (dare I say "theory" or the "e word" these days?) model for accounting for historical change in human populations. Boom. Tough to build? Yes. Potentially powerful and productive? Absolutely. Now my point here isn't to flog this particular product as a goal that anthropologists and archaeologists must be working. Rather, I want to point out the implications of Garrett and Campbell's attack on a random sample of NSF projects in the SBE division. Without a product (and with only marketing to provide "substance"), it really isn't very surprising that these folks used the titles to make their judgement (and calling them "silly"). Would the result have been much different had they read the abstracts? Or the proposals themselves? I really doubt it. Yeah, the choices might have been different, but the result would have been the same: much of what we do really is "silly" in the sense of contributing to scientific knowledge about the world (which, I assume, is still the goal of the National Science Foundation). Detractors from this perspective might argue that there really isn't a way that a couple of bumbling Congress members could ever figure out value in anthropological research. They also would probably argue that "peer review" is the the "best" means by which evaluation of research proposals can be done. However, I have to ask: is it really? In the case of physics, I can see how peer-review of proposal works. Individuals who have a solid record of contributing functional products have a good handle on the classes of things that have to be true in order for a research proposal to be successful. In the case of physics, they don't have to agree a priori with the results (i.e., the competitive nature of science). Rather, they simply have to be able to judge whether or not the proposal provides evidence for the potential of producing a product. In the case of social sciences (especially anthropology and it's offspring), I have to wonder whether or not "peer review" serves the same purpose. Lacking a clear product (other than the stories we tell and sell), the process of peer review becomes entirely sociological - rather than ientifying classes of criteria that must be in place for potential to be judged, peer review necessarily focuses on whether or not the story supports the same kinds of things that the "peers" do. Peer review serves largely to reinforce the mean, perpetuating the lineage of researchers who do what they do because they can continue to do what they do (and often for little other reasons). I don't mean to be overly negative here (although I guess this is). Instead, I want to point out the inherent risk that we (as anthropologists) have to face in the future. And this is: as resources become more constrained and competitive (across all disciplines) choices will have to be made. The implications of this are fairly obvious. Given that we can only judge the potential of research to produce a product, those disciplines who have a greater degree of uncertainty of achieving anything are going to be the first to face having funds reduced. This is simply the consequence of switch from a resource-rich environment (where you fund as much as you can in an effort to maximize output and simply eliminate false positives) to a resource-poor environment (where one funds specific directions that reduce false negatives). In the former case, it pays to fund as much as possible with the idea that we need to give everything a chance (even though we might include some bogus stuff, like anthropology). In the latter case, it pays to fund only the activities that you know will be successful. Thus you recognize that you might be cutting funding from research that might have a product - but you narrow your focus to just the "no brainers" (e.g., energy research, genetics, whatever). This is what scares me. The amendments to the NSF Authorization bill are clearly signals that our work is going to be more carefully scrutinized. The public (yes, uninformed as they are) are going to demand more for their buck - and we need to be in a position -sooner than later- to be able to demonstrate this. If it isn't too late already.

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