Humanities for Policy-And a Policy for the Humanities: Scientists Have Been Asked to Demonstrate Their Value to Policymakers; Now Humanists Must Show What They Have to Offer
Frodeman, Robert, Mitcham, Carl, Pielke, Roger, Jr., Issues in Science and Technology
Since World War II, policymakers have increasingly viewed investments in knowledge as central to achieving societal goals--unless that knowledge is in the humanities. In 2003, less than 1 percent of the $100-billion investment of public resources in knowledge is being devoted to the fields making up the humanities. If the federal budget is an accurate reflection of priorities, then policymakers view the humanities as having at best a marginal role in meeting the challenges facing our nation.
By contrast, many policymakers believe, in President Bush's words, that "science and technology are critically important to keeping our nation's economy competitive and for addressing challenges we face in health care, defense, energy production and use, and the environment." This explains the overall trend in funding: Whereas federal appropriations for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have doubled over the past six years, with a similar doubling now planned for the National Science Foundation (NSF), funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) have in real terms been cut by almost half since 1994. According to James Herbert of the NEH, the ratio of NSF to NEH funding has during the past two decades gone from 5:1 in 1979 to 33:1 in 1997.
This apparent consensus concerning the humanities (a tacit consensus, for few have raised the question of whether the humanities can contribute to policy in areas such as health care, defense, or the environment) is contrary to the fundamental purposes for which Congress created the NEH and NEA in 1965. The founding legislation for these agencies notes that "an advanced civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone, but must give full value and support to the other great branches of scholarly and cultural activity in order to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future." Remarkably, little sustained effort has been given to examining the claim that the humanities can make significant contributions to policy outcomes.
We do find modest countertrends. Several areas of policy, such as the regulation of biotechnology, are notable for the role played by the humanities in identifying alternative courses of action and their consequences. The Human Genome Project has for more than a decade devoted between 3 and 5 percent of its funding to a research program on the ethical, legal, and social implications of its work. And in 2001, President Bush created a Council on Bioethics to "articulate fully the complex and often competing moral positions on any given issue" related to topics such as embryo and stem cell research, assisted reproduction, cloning, and end-of-life issues. Chairman Leon Kass began the council's work by reflecting on a work of literature, Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Birthmark," which explores the unintended consequences of aspirations to physical perfection.
The potential currently seen for the humanities to contribute to policy development in biotechnology is indicative of their broader potential to contribute to the development of useful knowledge in areas such as nanotechnology, homeland security, or any area where science and technology intersect with broader societal interests. We suggest that humanists interested in improving the connection of their fields with the needs of policymakers--in contrast to those who support the humanities for their intrinsic value alone--can learn from the experiences of science in the political process over the past century, as well as from those who have studied the interconnections of science and policy. These lessons indicate a need for change within the humanities, via a systematic focus on "humanities policy." We recommend beginning with a "humanities for policy" that will lead to a new "policy for the humanities."
Science policy trajectory
A hundred years ago science, like the humanities today, was thought to be largely irrelevant to practical affairs, at least in terms of the public resources devoted to science. …