11/06/2013 03:43 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Why National Science Foundation Funding -- and Archaeology -- Matters

For much of the past year Representatives Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) and Lamar Smith (R-Texas) have led a call for tighter control of National Science Foundation (NSF) funding. Cantor and Smith have singled out NSF social science funding, bemoaning why the taxpayers should want to support programs such as archaeology. Their apparently reasonable claim for fiscal sobriety conceals their skepticism about the value of social science, and it underscores an anti-scholarly agenda that aspires to erode the nation's longstanding commitment to science.

Cantor and Smith's strongest rhetoric is reflected in their September suggestion that "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." The Representatives certainly realize that no NSF reviewers weighed the choice between archaeology and neurological research on wounded soldiers. That suggestion is a contrived appeal to our national commitment to soldiers, staking a deceptive emotional claim on our sense of justice and fiscal sanity.

The Representatives reject the research priorities crafted by scholars and the NSF and propose a more assertive federal overview of the peer-review process to monitor spending and scholarship. In this call for scholarly accountability, Cantor and Smith single out a few research project titles as symptomatic examples of ill-conceived scientific research priorities that fail to provide "demonstrated return on investment."

The National Science Foundation has seen its funding cut severely over the past few years, and archaeological research currently represents only 0.1 percent of NSF's budget. We could note that archaeology and social sciences represent infinitesimal slices of that budget, but scholars certainly should be able to demonstrate why the country should fund such research. Archaeology, for instance, is an essential component of heritage tourism, bringing jobs and economic benefits to states and local communities. Mischaracterizations of NSF-funded projects ignore the genuine economic consequence of historic preservation, the profound benefits of scientifically based archaeological education, and the concrete social impact of archaeological research across the country.

The impact of NSF funding on historical archaeology--that is, archaeology examining the last half-millennium--has been significant. For example, NSF programs such as the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program have provided field research opportunities for many students who might otherwise never be exposed to scientific research with scholarly mentors. In 2004-2006 and 2008-2011, an REU project at New Philadelphia archaeologically examined a racially integrated 19th-century rural Illinois community. In 2011, an REU project in New York City's Central Park examined a 19th-century African-American and Irish community known as Seneca Village. REU programs like these focus on training students from groups that are under-represented in the sciences, such as students of African-American and Native American heritage.

NSF dissertation support has ensured a rich international scholarship that Cantor and Smith ignore when they critique apparently arcane project titles. In 2011, for instance, Diane Wallman's Dissertation Improvement grant "A Zooarchaeological Investigation at Crève Cœur" examined archaeological animal remains consumed at the Caribbean plantation site Habitation Crève Coeur. Her grant supported key elements of her training in France and allowed her to travel to Martinique to share her findings. Lauren Hosek's project "Bioarchaeological Analysis of an Early Medieval Czech Skeletal Population" is likewise quite specialized, but her analysis of a cemetery in what is now the Czech Republic also unites global scholars and promotes scholarly and economic development amongst international allies. Public funding of international archaeological investigations through organizations such as NSF builds social and economic relationships that support the United States' international prominence in diplomatic and scholarly circles alike.

Representative Cantor was among those who voted for a grant program that has provided $8.8 million to preserve more than 2,100 acres of Civil War battlefields in Central Virginia. Those preserved spaces honor those who fought in the Civil War, just as similar preservation funding has protected Revolutionary War battlefields and a wide range of historic landscapes. Honoring the many men and women who have served the nation since the 18th century--and supporting scientific research that ensures the best possible care for contemporary soldiers--are complimentary and not conflicting missions.

Federally funded archaeological projects have had an enormous economic impact on heritage tourism and real estate development in every state in the union; scientific archaeological education provides rigorous methodological and creative training; and archaeological histories can profoundly shape how we see ourselves as Americans in every reach of the country. Cantor and Smith's suggestion that archaeologists skirt public accountability could not be more untrue; every responsible scholar wants to share their work beyond their narrow disciplinary boundaries, and most are energized by non-academic research partners. We are fortunate that the NSF has joined with several generations of historic preservationists, concerned citizens, legislators, and scholars to save so much of our historical fabric for our descendants.

Paul Mullins is President of the Society for Historical Archaeology, the largest international scholarly organization focused on the archaeology of the modern world. He is Chair and Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis.