AAA President Monica Heller

AAA President Monica Heller

Right now I have a front-row seat at the current round of the national vs research priorities boxing match for the northern two-thirds of North America. In Canada, I sit on the Royal Society’s committee on public intervention, which is grappling with some concerns about our government’s relationship to its public service scientists. First, it became clear that the government wishes all such scientists to consult with their hierarchical superiors before discussing any research in public. Now, in the name of cost-cutting, it seems to be, at minimum, drastically reducing government scientist access to original documents dating back several decades which form part of the holdings of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. It had already many years ago moved some basic research funding in the social sciences into envelopes targeted to government priority areas. As president of this association, I am kept abreast of developments in the US federal government as well as, on occasion, state-level issues, regarding efforts to curtail and control social sciences and humanities research funding and university and college program funding, which are seen to be irrelevant to national goals. I am sure Canada and the United States are not the only political entities to be once again the scene of debates reflecting a long-standing tension between researchers’ understanding of the importance of being able to set our own agenda, and elected government’s concern that we be accountable to the taxpayers whose contributions support many, if not most, of us.

In many ways, that could be a healthy tension if it allowed for open public discussion of how priorities are defined by different groups in our societies, and for a real effort to understand where and why we differ. At the moment, unfortunately, such discussions seem hard to arrange, increasing the importance for us of understanding which groups of actors have what kinds of interests, and are pursuing what kinds of re-arrangements of the structures we depend on to do our work, whether that is research, teaching and other forms of training, community organizing, institutional practice or anything else—and wherever we might be undertaking that work (the position of scientists employed by the Canadian government is instructive in that regard). It is important for us to understand how current conversations and actions affect our ability to work as anthropologists, not only from within the confines of our own discipline and our own political entities, but also from our position in the broader world of the social and other sciences, arts and humanities, around the world.

That’s hard to do when the association is run by volunteers with day jobs, and whose terms of office come and go. I happen to think the AAA has established a pretty impressive track-record in this regard, and I am continually impressed by our members’ ability to be on top of local, regional, national and international developments as they unfold, to communicate them to the rest of us, and to respond rapidly and persuasively. For example, the This is Anthropology site began as a grassroots response by University of South Florida anthropology graduate students to an attack on the social sciences and humanities on the part of their state governor. Thanks to great coordination by AAA Professional Fellow Courtney Dowdall, This is Anthropology has since become a permanent AAA project and as a result is available worldwide.

But neither that project nor the many other forms of circulating information, coordinated responses and durable strategies aimed at better educating our governments and the general public would have much of an effect if we didn’t have the AAA office to rely on. Many of us have no clue what happens at the AAA office at 2300 Clarendon Blvd in Arlington, VA, US. Of course, many things happen there, but I think it is important to recognize that the continued ear-to-the ground, eyes open, making of conversations critical to the infrastructure of the discipline are possible because we have staff members who do this work on a daily basis. AAA Director of Public Affairs Damon Dozier and Executive Director Ed Liebow spend a lot of time making sure we volunteers understand what the US government is doing, developing alliances with sister organizations, helping us get out the message to US lawmakers, and in many other ways helping make sure that funding to research, teaching and training programs is not eliminated or reduced, and that the terms of funding allow us to do our work in ways we agree are legitimate. Most recently, we feel we can point to 2014 provisions for research funding in the US as a result of the efforts they coordinated with sister organizations, pushing back attempts to severely cut and constrain social science research budgets. They warn us to not be too complacent, however, since there are provisions in the same legislation we need to keep an eye on.

I am sure there are many ways in which we can continue to develop strategies which help us define and communicate our shared interests as anthropologists, both in regard to governments and beyond. To do so requires thinking that is simultaneously short term, attending to the local vagaries of how consequential decisions get made, and long-term, across the spectrum of conditions for doing anthropology in the world. In the meantime, I am grateful for Damon’s frequent shuttling back and forth between Capitol Hill and Arlington.

Monica Heller is president of the American Anthropological Association. 


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