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Federal Cuts Could Impact Humanities, Science Research, Faculty Say

As President Donald Trump prepares to present his first budget next month, The New York Times has reported that the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, long targets of conservatives, could be among the programs cut. Some science funding could also be squeezed. The Heritage Foundation, The Washington Post reports, has suggested cutting the Department of Energy and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and the future of some programs at the Environmental Protection Agency and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is uncertain. Still more programs, especially those that fund paleoclimate studies, could be reallocated to discourage climate change research.

Cuts to federal funding for key programs could have a significant impact at Boston College, several faculty members said this week, with particular concern in the humanities and in the earth and environmental sciences department.

Ethan Baxter, chair of the earth and environmental sciences department, said that most of the department’s research funding comes from the federal government, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy, NASA, NOAA, and the United States Geologic Survey. Last year, the department got over $1 million in funding from the NSF, for example. Earth and environmental sciences uses the money to run its labs and give its students the opportunity to get involved in research, and then potentially present it at national and international conferences.

The week Trump was elected in November, Baxter, his colleagues, and some of their students held a roundtable in which many expressed at that point nascent concerns about what Trump’s election could mean for research funding. Baxter said that at this year’s conference of the American Geophysical Union, held last December in San Francisco, the potential funding cuts were a major watercooler topic that “permeated the entire meeting.”

“I don’t know what’s going to happen, I don’t think anybody knows,” Baxter said. “At the same time, almost everybody shares some concern and certainly uncertainty.”

Baxter said he thinks overall funding will likely not be cut, but he thinks the emphasis on certain types of research could shift. One concern is that climate research could receive less focus because of the Trump administration’s pro-fossil fuel stance and stated skepticism of man-made climate change.

“If those funding sources at the federal level dry up or shift, then we’re going to have to do something about that,” he said.

Baxter said his department has been thinking about trying to get grants from other sources, including private institutions. His department has not done much of that funding historically, and the geosciences have not often been funded privately, but Baxter said there is a heightened interest in learning more about private sources of money. Another possibility is local and state funding, which would have a different scale in terms of dollar amounts but would present interesting opportunities in local projects like the water quality of the Charles River.

Sharon Comvalius-Goddard, director of BC’s Office of Sponsored Programs, said the field of research administration has been concerned in recent years about declines in federal funding. That concern is now heightened because of the perception that the Trump administration does not support science.

She confirmed that more scientists are now looking for funding from private sources, but said that, in her opinion, they could never supplant federal funding as the primary source of research dollars, only because of the government’s much deeper pockets.

There are also concerns among humanities faculty. Suzanne Berne, a professor in the English department, said in an email that she was awarded an National Endowment for the Arts fellowship when she was teaching full-time and working on her first novel, right after she had had a baby. It allowed her to afford to take a semester off from teaching to finish the novel.

“An NEA fellowship also meant that agents and editors looked at me and my work differently than they might have otherwise,” she said. “I looked at myself differently. And I want my students to have a chance at the same kind of support I once received.”

Suzanne Matson, also an English professor, had a similar experience with the NEA fellowship, which also allowed her to work on a novel.

“In the BC English department, we think that creative writing is best taught by working, published writers who stay engaged with their craft and participate in the current literary scene,” she said in an email.

The public programs that face cuts, the NEA and the NEH included, total about $2.5 billion of the $4 trillion federal budget, according to the Times.

Elizabeth Graver, a colleague of Berne and Matson’s, said in an email that cuts could have a wider negative impact beyond just faculty—they could affect the artists BC brings in as speakers and guest lecturers, alumni who work in the arts, and programs that foster the arts in underserved communities.

“A healthy university, like a healthy democracy, needs the arts,” she said.

Featured Image by Amelie Trieu / Heights Editor

February 23, 2017