Bringing a Tennis Racket to the Premier League  

In this monthly Director’s Note, Christopher Newfield reflects on the gulf that separates science and engineering funding from that given out to the humanities and social sciences.

Christopher Newfield


Is it okay for the social sciences, humanities and arts to have a fraction of the funding of science and engineering (S&E)? With apologies for the sports metaphor, it seems like those working in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) are playing top-tier professional football while the social scientist shows up with their own tennis racket and hopes that someone has set up the net.  

This may sound a little extreme. But I still remember the email that brought home to me the budget gulf between S&E on the one hand and the qualitative social sciences and humanities on the other. 

Years ago, I was a co-principal investigator on a National Science Foundation project called “Nanotechnology in Society”, and I was sometimes copied into project emails from the then-alien world of electrical engineering laboratories. 

An email arrived one day from Don, the lab’s principal investigator, to the postdoc who was running a complicated device test on a photonics project (using light rather than electric current in computer chips). I don’t remember the piece of kit being tested or what it was supposed to do. But I do remember the message, which ran something like this (I have changed the names):

Juan, Fed Ex promising last chips by 2 pm today. Assemble six boards with Rafa, Jennifer, and Rachid. Sorentino wants us in Austin so Mikail is doing a poster based on results from run on 2/3. He’ll need one board tonight for 6:20 am departure tomorrow. You go with him, back Friday for our 4 pm.

To a literature professor like myself, this was a signal from another planet. At least seven people were working on the project, which I knew was not the only one being conducted by this particular lab. Equipment wasn’t being shipped by road but flown into Santa Barbara by Federal Express. At least one board was going to be assembled in about 12 hours, which sounded like it required high levels of both skill and coordination. Two people were being flown last minute from California to Texas (and back) while the rest assembled the other boards. And all of this was for a conference poster session and to satisfy the interests of the PI’s colleague.

Two days of Don’s lab operations would use a year’s worth of humanities funding, not counting the cost of the lab itself. I had two people to help with my own research on that grant, but only because it was an NSF grant funded by an engineering directorate far from normal social sciences or humanities funding.

How, I wondered, can those working in non-tech fields partner with tech when they have a tiny fraction of tech-field funding? We’re not even the dog running beside technology’s car; we’re more like a mouse chasing at a distance.

It’s true that we don’t have to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on equipment and then fly it around the country. Kit and facilities are the usual explanations for why science costs so much.

That no doubt explains a piece of the funding gap. But what I also saw in Don’s email were funds for skilled personnel, supervisory staff, travel, and research communication. Political economy and cultural research need all these just as much.

Here’s how that car and mouse metaphor looks in terms of US National Science Foundation statistics. 

Source: National Science Foundation, Higher Education Research and Development Survey

US federal funding for the social sciences was 4.3 percent of science funding (FY 2019). Humanities funding was just 0.83 percent. I do not know how the NSF calculates national humanities funding to be $540,000,000, since in that year the National Endowment for the Humanities spent only about $30,000,000 on research—or 3,000 times less than the National Science Foundation’s research budget. They must be counting all the money NSF sends to states for public programming and other things besides.

People might think that universities would make up for this imbalance. They could use their internal research funds to support non-science and engineering research. This money comes from student fees and public budgets, for the most part. Universities must subsidize research anyway, because outside sponsors do not pay full cost in the US or the UK. Anywhere from 10 cents to 25 cents on the dollar comes from internal funds in the US, depending on the university. UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) provides 80 percent of full economic costs, requiring universities to cover the remaining 20 pence on the pound.

But this internal money follows the external money. The fields with large grants get large university subsidies. The fields with small or nonexistent grants get the same from their institutions.

I gave a lecture in May at the Oregon Humanities Center, where I had to tell them that the University of Oregon spends just 1/55th of its research funds on the humanities, and another 1/55th on the visual arts. Universities do not compensate the national pattern, but echo it.

Does this really matter? Yes, it does. Because the intrinsic value of social and cultural understanding of human life is being shorted. 

Missing cultural, social and economic knowledge also makes it harder to solve the world’s major problems. The planet proliferates challenges that kill, maim, starve and degrade a high proportion of the world’s population while depriving them of basic human rights. No chronic national or global problem can be addressed without social, cultural, political and economic knowledge working in concert with technology—and indeed leading and directing technology. Insufficient non-S&E knowledge prevents solutions from getting off the ground.

Here’s an example. Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel, The Ministry of the Future, begins with a heatwave, which kills millions of people. The available technology has to be deployed at the right speed and in the right way, often between rival countries, and distributed to people without the means to pay. The UN sets up a Ministry for the Future to try to accomplish this. But politics as usual prevails and change returns to 1/5th the necessary speed

Robinson summarizes the massive socio-cultural problem: “They were really doing things to ameliorate the situation they were falling into after it was too late for those things to succeed.”

Robinson is literature’s biggest research fanatic, so his novel explains a whole range of solutions: a carbon coin currency, new institutional forms, “a whole new economics”. Technology is being marshalled at an entirely new scale, yielding a COP fantasia. The book is not really so pessimistic.

But the novel also asks tough questions about the psychology of change. How do we stop doing too little too late? What will induce the elites who rule the current system to change? What will get them to accept a revolution?

One of the book’s candidates for this transformative force is terror. The book asks whether transnational corporate CEOs will act only when some of their colleagues have been killed by targeted assassinations, and if the heads of global agencies need to have their homes invaded by people who force them to answer the question, “Why do you pretend not to know?”

Maybe. But in this case we’re not pretending not to know: we really don’t. Knowing about the psychology of change requires the kind of social and cultural research that wealthy societies hardly fund. That’s why a novelist’s portrait on these sociocultural mechanisms is as good as or better than the ones we’re getting from organized research. 

The cultural knowledge crisis is a funding crisis. Solving the problem of climate action depends in part on solving the funding problems in the cultural, social, political and economic fields. 

The social sciences must have enough people and enough resources and support to play with the other teams. 

Christopher Newfield

Christopher Newfield is the Director of Research at the Independent Social Research Foundation in London. He is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Newfield has recently published two books on the metrics of higher education: Metrics That Matter: Counting What’s Really Important to College Students (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2023) and The Limits of the Numerical: The Abuses and Uses of Quantification (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022). He is currently conducting research on the nature and effects of literary knowledge.