Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The US House of Representatives really hates archaeology

By Rosemary Joyce

Or maybe archaeology is just being used to distract attention from other research disliked even more by the Republican majority, which passed a bill adding burdens to the National Science Foundation while doing nothing to improve public understanding of the science done with federal support.

According to Lamar Smith (a Republican Congress member representing the 21st District of Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, quoted in a Feb. 10 press release about the passage of HR 3293, titled "Scientific Research in the National Interest Act":

America’s future economic growth and national security depend on innovation.  Public and private investments in research and development (R&D) fuel the economy, create jobs and lead to new technologies that benefit Americans’ daily lives. Unfortunately, in recent years, the federal government has awarded too many grants that few Americans would consider to be in the national interest.

Three years ago I had to defend archaeology from charges of killing people during the same budget process. Now, archaeologists are just standing in the way of "the national interest."

I guess that's progress?

Rep. Smith actually has a curiously narrow understanding of the actual mission of the National Science Foundation. It is not, as he says, a "research and development" arm of U.S. industry intended to "fuel economy, create jobs and lead to new technologies."

The NSF has a much more expansive role, according to the law that established it: "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense; and for other purposes."

NSF is a major source of funds for basic research; this is the stage of research prior to industry development of applications. By its nature, basic research may not have immediately obvious application. NSF itself emphasizes that it provides funding for "pioneers" working on research "frontiers".

In the national interest

Congressman Smith and his committee crafted a new requirement that they claim will make NSF more "accountable." The bill asks that NSF provide "a non-technical explanation of how the project serves the national interest" for each funded grant, on top of the already existing proposals, reviews, and published abstracts in non-technical language through which NSF already tells the public what funded projects are about.

To make the case that an added layer of bureaucracy is needed, Representative Smith lists projects that he characterizes as "questionable." Three of the five projects he selected are archaeological; as he described them:

  • $487,000 to study the Icelandic textile industry during the Viking era;
  • $340,000 to study early human-set fires in New Zealand;
  • $233,000 to study ancient Mayan architecture and their salt industry
  • Last time around, I could find no rhyme or reason to the archaeological projects held up for ridicule. I thought they were selected just as things so exotic the politicians thought no one in the public would care about them.

    A curious pattern

    This time, though, I found something interesting. If you track down all three grants, each of them deals (sometimes in passing) with human adaptation to changing climate.

    Professor Heather McKillop and her colleagues propose to study the ancient Maya salt industry. Their public abstract notes that "The research will provide additional data on the timing and rate of actual sea-level rise and subsidence -- a sobering reminder of the impact of sea-level rise on coastal communities worldwide."

    Professor David McWethy and his colleagues (who are geographers working on understanding past landscapes) say their research on "New Zealand offers one of the most dramatic examples of human-caused deforestation through the deliberate use of fire, and its vegetation and fire history provides an important case study for understanding the consequences of wholesale burning of rainforests."

    Even the grant to study "Textiles and Gender in Iceland" turns out to have implications for understanding the long-term effects of human-induced climate change.

    Dr. Michele Hayeur Smith set out to understand the role of women in the economy and political and social life of Iceland over a thousand-year period from 874 AD to 1800. Her project is a pathbreaking study that is an excellent model of pioneering basic research.

    Among its many contributions, Dr. Hayeur Smith mentions the potential of her study to show how people were "creating sustainable solutions to climate change that contributed to the survival of all but one of the Norse settlements through the Little Ice Age."

    All three projects are unprecedented science, and each has passed the most stringent review by other scholars. Yet Rep. Smith "questions" them, and goes on to claim that funding them means "there is less money to support worthwhile scientific research," where "worthwhile" would be defined by him, rather than through scientific review.

    True, the funding these projects received could have been directed to other projects. But that seeming piece of fiscal responsibility is meant to mislead.  Together, these projects are a tiny drop in the very large bucket of NSF spending.

    Dividing the pie

    For some perspective, using the public database showing spending by NSF, I calculated that the research grants made by the entire division at NSF that includes archaeology, the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences, added up to just over 5% of the total 2015 NSF research budget.

    That's not 5% for archaeology; it's 5% for all the social sciences.

    In fact, within its Directorate, archaeology is part of the Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences, which carried off a paltry 1.19% of the overall NSF research budget.

    For comparison, using a different approach, archaeologist Doug Rocks-McQueen calculated that in 2013 the archaeology program disbursed $7 million to archaeological research, and that archaeology was included in $16.5 million of projects funded across the NSF -- out of a total budget for NSF research of $5.5 billion. That means the archaeology program made grants in 2013 involving 0.12% of the total NSF research budget, and archaeologists received at most 0.29% of the overall NSF research budget when related research funded by other programs is included.

    In fact, the numbers are so small that I probably could have added up all the archaeology grants in 2015 by hand. But once we are down to this territory, really, does it matter that much whether archaeology grants made up 0.2 or 0.1 or 0.8% of the NSF research budget?

    The tiny stakes at issue here spark the question: why should archaeology projects be the poster children for this campaign?

    Despite Rep. Smith's characterization of his bill as "bipartisan," 15 of the 17 Democratic party members of the committee did not support it, and only seven Democrats overall voted for it (and four brave Republicans voted against it, in favor of science governed by scientific values).

    Committee ranking Democratic member Eddie Bernice Johnson was one of those opposed to the vote. Following passage of the bill, she released a statement saying:

    At its core, this bill is about second guessing our Nation’s best and brightest scientists, and the grant making decisions they make. Perhaps this is not surprising, when so many of my Republican colleagues openly question the validity of whole fields of established science, from the social sciences to climate science to evolutionary biology.

    Representative Johnson wrote that the bill is:

    a dangerous solution in search of a problem. There is no evidence or allegation that the current NSF review process is flawed or in need of this level of political micromanagement. American discovery and innovation must not be limited by bureaucrats’ and politicians’ failure of imagination.

    In fact, U.S. science is already limited by politicians' failure of imagination. The 2016 appropriation for NSF held funding for social-science research to the same level as it had in 2015, an action specifically taken to ward off greater interference by the House of Representatives, which wanted to set the levels of funding for different programs, slashing some by almost 50%.

    So for the moment, archaeologists can enjoy their generous 0.1% of the NSF research pie. And we can keep on endangering national security and endangering the health of innocent people.

    And we can keep revealing the way that human actions can affect climate at a global scale, and how human ingenuity to adapt to changing environmental conditions reached its limits in past conditions of change much less dramatic than what we are witnessing today.

    That science may be questioned by politicians -- but it is definitely in the national interest.