THE BLOG
01/16/2015 05:41 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2015

Research in the Public Interest

Written by Jeffrey H. Altschul, President, Society for American Archaeology and Monica Heller, President, American Anthropological Association

In a recent editorial published on Politico's website, Senator Rand Paul (R-TN) and Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) argue that public funds should only be used on "the highest priority research that is in the national interest." Paul and Smith cite examples of what they consider to be frivolous research, several of which are anthropological or archaeological in nature. They argue that the first step in rectifying this wasteful spending is transparency and that once the process by which scientific grants are awarded is open for scrutiny then we will be in a better position to redirect public funding to truly important research in biology, computer science, mathematics and engineering.

There are two basic flaws in Paul and Smith's argument. First, although they speak of transparency, their actions are anything but. Smith is Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, which over the last year has requested from the National Science Foundation (NSF) detailed information from about 50 grantees including, "every e-mail, letter, memorandum, record, note, text message, all peer reviews considered for selection and recommendations made to the NSF or document of any kind that pertains to the NSF's consideration and approval of the grants." What do they want with this information? What are they doing with it? We don't know; the committee has never said. We suspect that instead of trying honestly to understand the grant process, the committee is engaged in a fishing expedition to find embarrassing tidbits to use in a public relations campaign against social science.

The second problem with Paul and Smith's argument is that it is contradicted by the facts. One of the basic criteria for NSF selection is a grant's "potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes." What seems to be at issue is not whether NSF funded anthropological and archaeological projects are in the public interest-they are-but whether they meet Paul and Smith's definition of public interest. Anthropology and archaeology hold the keys to so many of today's problems. After more than a trillion dollars and thousands of lives, insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan are as powerful as ever. The US taxpayer has the right to know why the Taliban still exist and why Pashtun culture is and will remain antagonistic toward Western culture. The military cannot answer these questions because they are not military questions. They are anthropological questions, which are central to our national interest. Humans are adapting to a changing environment. As with all past civilizations, we believe technology will save us. But if the past is a guide, and only archaeology can teach us if it is, technology will only play a small role while adjustments in social relations will be critical if we are to survive as a great nation.

We agree with Senator Paul and Representative Smith that all scientists who take public funds should be accountable to the public. Our work must be in the public interest and achieve social good. Anthropologists and archaeologists do just that. We welcome the opportunity to show Senator Paul and Representative Smith why the work of anthropologists and archaeologists is critical to our nation, in an open and transparent discussion.