How to Fight for Federal Support of Cultural Research and Why It Matters

This post was written on Veteran’s Day, 2016, in honor of the many soldiers and civil servants who worked alongside Vannevar Bush, head of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) during World War II and strong advocate for the need for basic research funded by government, but governed by peer review. I am fully responsible for this post, and it reflects only my views and not the views of my employer or organization. I have no formal affiliation with NEH, having separated from federal service in early 2016. No federal employees were involved in the writing, editing, or review of this document.

Until earlier this year, I had the honor of working at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH, www.neh.gov), a small, independent federal agency dedicated to advancing knowledge of subjects like history, literature, philosophy, archaeology, among others. Of my 13 years there, about a decade of it was spent as a senior program officer for the Office of Digital Humanities, where we gave grants to projects exploring digital culture, employing computational techniques to advance our understanding of the human historical record, and efforts toward making sharing and preserving that record across broad public audiences. Throughout my tenure, I worked alongside some extraordinary, and extraordinarily committed, people who worked to advance basic research through fellowships and collaborative research projects; advanced means of enabling access and ensuring long-term preservation of important historical papers and artifacts; and supported broad public education in both formal (school programs) and informal (exhibits, documentaries) ways.

These are people who support the research that helps us understand the papers of George Washington and Eleanor Roosevelt. They enable necessary projects like the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (http://slavevoyages.org/), and support award-winning and ground-breaking documentaries on the history of civil rights in our country (https://createdequal.neh.gov/). With money from NEH, our historical newspapers are digitized and made accessible (http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/), and illuminated manuscripts and Blake prints shine on our screens. With modest grants from NEH, scholars help us better understand our cultural inheritance; they fill in the gaps of our collective histories and educate the public by teaching our teachers and our college students, while other grants support major exhibitions and library forums in small towns. These people do good work to the benefit of our nation, and yet they are frequently targeted for budget cuts despite the fact that the agency budget, for the enormous good it does for research, is a rounding error in the eyes of anyone taking a serious look at federal expenditures.

I’ll be frank — in light of the recent election, I have grave concerns about the prospects not just for NEH, NEA, and other like-minded agencies like the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the National Archives (specifically NHPRC), but for science funding under academic peer review generally. Many of these organizations have been under duress for a while, suffering budget cuts in the 1990s that crippled the agencies. Had the budgets for NEH and NEA tracked with inflation at their 1970s levels, with no increases, they should be in the $400 million range (http://www.humanitiesindicators.org/content/indicatordoc.aspx?i=75); the 2015 fiscal appropriation for NEH was $146 million (https://www.neh.gov/files/2015_neh_budget_approp.pdf). Certain areas of NSF funding, especially in the social sciences, have been under attack, with legislation in recent years attempting to impose Congressional control over what should be funded (a role most appropriate for scholarly and scientific peer review based on merit and evaluated by experts in the field) and even attempting to eliminate funding for certain fields altogether (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/06/10/why-congress-should-not-cut-funding-to-the-social-sciences/).

There are some who think humanities and social science research is unimportant, and to that I will only say at this time: look around, right now. Our failure of politics (not who got elected, but rather why this election was so acrimonious, and why our citizens are so deeply divided) is a failure of empathy, of having a capacity for understanding, of having core research to grapple with the needs of our people in a changing world. I would also ask you: what is one of the key issues you heard about almost more than any other during this election cycle? Email. Emails are just one type of electronic record, known as “born-digital” records, that comprise the traces of tomorrow’s sense of history. And yet organizations like NEH and the National Archives, and the scholars and librarians they support, have been at the forefront of research into preserving born-digital artifacts. This is important, timely, necessary, and extremely challenging work.

There are those who likewise would argue that humanities and social science research should be funded by the private sector, and there is no role for government at all. I find it unlikely to win those who hold such beliefs over (though I’ll likely try, in a different post). On this point now, I’ll simply say that our ability to source both public and private funding is the envy of many of our international peers, and that our public funding, though modest, brings with it such integrity in its process that it often leads to private support. NEH’s Challenge Grant program, led for so many years by the late Faulkner scholar, Steven Ross, generated billions of dollars in matching funds from private organizations. Government investment leverages outside investment. We know this to be true in the physical sciences, in defense, and in business; it is no surprise that it is true in education and scholarly research.

The Trump transition team is likely already talking about the budget for fiscal year (FY) 2018, which starts on October 1. The president typically is expected to send their budget request to Congress in early February, at which point the budget process follows its patterns. With full control of both houses of Congress and the presidency, I see no reason to believe that this administration won’t try to include many of Speaker Ryan’s previous budget proposals, which have included zero-ing out the NEH and NEA, curtailing funding for social sciences at NSF, and cutting budgets that help preserve (among other things) the presidential papers via the National Archives. This isn’t new or unexpected, because it was in previous legislation from the Republican-controlled House during the Obama administration.

I urge you — even if you’ve never received NEH, NEA, IMLS, NSF or other federal funding, or you don’t need it, or you didn’t know you could get it — to work hard to resist any cuts to the budgets of these agencies. In terms of impact, these cuts mean nothing to the national budget or deficit (a rounding error, remember?), but they would undermine the cultural economy of this country. Museums, libraries, universities, archives, and other cultural heritage institutions play a vital role in our economy, not just in big cities, but in rural and suburban areas across the country. As importantly, these institutions are central to the preservation and circulation of the knowledge that helps us understand our place in a changing world.

Some people don’t realize that the people who work at these agencies are extremely restricted in what they can do to ask for your help. They cannot ask you to advocate. They cannot ask you to write to Congress. I heard so many times in my tenure at NEH, “Why doesn’t the agency ask for more money? Why doesn’t it stand up to Congress?” Believe me when I tell you that there is no true means to do so. As civil servants, they are prohibited from doing so. Without your support, and in the face of cuts, they are left gagged, with both hands tied behind their back. The blindfold is left off; they see it coming.

What can you do? Even before cuts are on the table:

1. Contact elected officials and tell them why this work is important. Not just for the sake of basic research (even though it is vital) but also in ways they understand — how many people it helps employ or educate in their state, the programs it provides, the outside money it helps raise. Have letters ready that are varied and detailed. Send them often. Develop a contact with your congressional office.

2. If you work at a university or state institution of some sort, find out how your university engages in lobbying efforts. Make friends with that person. If you have contact with a provost, dean, or president, put this issue on their radar early and talk about how even small amounts of money have paid off huge in terms of reputation gains for your institution. Enlist institutional resources.

3. Talk to your peers. Many of us lack experience with advocacy or lobbying in these contexts and we often feel like we don’t have a voice in these decisions , or we wonder if it matters if we speak up. We need to talk about how this would be the first step in dismantling higher education. Point to the efforts under the Obama administration to limit NSF funding only to topics directly related to economic viability and national security. Talk about how the impact of research isn’t always seen in immediate terms (use examples, like how Slavic studies might have increased relevance now, even though this field saw decreased support in the 1990s after the end of the Cold War). Talk about how NEH and its affiliated state humanities councils are one of the best ways for the university to contact and engage with local communities.

4. Reach out to your state humanities councils and ask how you can help mobilize or support. Here’s a list of all the Councils: https://www.neh.gov/about/state-humanities-councils

5. Reach out to make sure you are connected to advocacy and/or service organizations like the National Humanities Alliance (http://www.nhalliance.org/), the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA, http://www.cossa.org/), the Federation of State Humanities Councils (http://www.statehumanities.org/), your scholarly society (like the Modern Language Association, the American Historical Association, and others), and groups like 4Hum (https://4humanities.org/).

6. Forge alliances with your science colleagues and figure out how to enlist them in your cause and engage in theirs. A healthy society and a prosperous economy depends on deep and broad knowledge across the disciplines. Listen. Engage. Share.

7. Don’t forget your local museums, your local libraries, your local archives. Contribute however you can, because if cuts do come, these institutions will need your help and support.

8. [added on 11/14] Seek out media training from your institution. Learn how to make your argument or describe your research in a short, direct pitch readily accessible to media outlets. This doesn’t mean draining the nuance from your work. Rather, it is creating an accessible invitation for continued engagement. If media training isn’t available, organize colleagues to bring some in. Practice scripts on each other so when you talk to a reporter or call your representative, you stay on task and have clear requests and/or points.

If you have additional ideas, ways to engage, additional links for support, please share them.

I realize this may seem premature, an odd gesture so soon after the election. But having served in and worked alongside many people in all of these organizations, I know how fast cuts can happen and how little the organizations can do to stop them. Please lend your voice to help protect those who play a vital part in preserving and understanding our shared cultural heritage.