Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Why fund studies of Maya architecture instead of saving lives?

By Rosemary Joyce

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?