A Defense of NSF Funding from the Field

Every day since arriving in Tokyo this past April to do anthropological fieldwork, I have been thinking about earthquakes. That is to say, I catch myself imagining the very real possibility that the earth might suddenly start shaking back and forth, up and down. This line of thinking typically prompts me to take a quick look around for any imminent threats (heavy books on high shelves, brimming mugs of hot coffee, open flames on the stovetop). As anyone who has lived here even a short time knows, the Japanese archipelago stretches across four major tectonic plates, making it one of the most seismically active areas of the world. Earthquakes infuse daily life in countless ways, from shaping how people are taught to be aware of their surroundings, to rearranging how neighborhoods, cities, and the entire nation has been built and managed.

At Katori Shrine in Chiba Prefecture, visitors can purchase amulets (omamori) to protect against earthquakes. Photo courtesy Emily Sekine
At Katori Shrine in Chiba Prefecture, visitors can purchase amulets (omamori) to protect against earthquakes. Photo courtesy Emily Sekine

But even in a place where tremors are an everyday occurrence, the threat of a large earthquake remains terrifying—and inevitable. The massive quake that struck the Tōhoku region in March 2011—stirring a tsunami and unleashing a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant—came as a stark reminder of the tremendous capabilities of earthquakes to surprise, to undo previous assumptions of what’s possible, and to destroy and remake worlds. My dissertation research focuses on how people work out various ways of living with a volatile and unpredictable earth, through a broad range of practices and knowledge traditions, including seismology, folklore, history, spirituality, public education, popular culture, and observations of strange weather and animal behavior. In particular, I am interested in how the uncertainty surrounding earthquakes has made seismology into a field that is remarkably—if at times begrudgingly—open to unconventional explanations, methods, and types of evidence. At the most fundamental level, my research is concerned with how the physical instability of the earth might compel and reconfigure practices of observing, sensing, and knowing nature itself.

Social Science Funding Under Attack

On the very day that I came to Japan to start conducting this fieldwork, I received an email circulated by a fellow PhD student from my anthropology department at The New School. In the email, the president of the American Anthropological Association, Monica Heller, informed AAA members about a worrying piece of legislation known as the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology, or the FIRST Act. The legislation, written by Representatives Larry Buschon (R-IN) and Lamar Smith (R-TX), proposes a major overhaul of how and what kind of science gets funded in the US. The legislation would prioritize National Science Foundation funding for those directorates whose research is thought to directly benefit US interests, such as STEM education, while drastically cutting the funding for other divisions, including for the social sciences. For the first time ever, this legislation would allow lawmakers a say in how the NSF internally allocates funds, which, as some AAA staff have suggested, would be tantamount to trumping the NSF’s own extensive peer review system and putting the integrity of the scientific process into jeopardy. This legislation has already been approved by the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, in amended form, and it will go on to a floor vote in the coming weeks.

I was asked to write this piece for Anthropology News because I am a student who has had the fortune of receiving funding from the NSF. An NSF Graduate Research Fellowship made it possible for me to complete my first three years of coursework and qualifying exams at The New School, without the burden of taking on extra student loans or stretching myself impossibly thin with heavy teaching loads and other part-time work. Thanks to the fellowship, I was able to focus my time and energy on coming up with a dissertation research project that energized and challenged me. Once these three years of funding were up, I was grateful to receive additional NSF funding for my fieldwork through an NSF GROW award, in collaboration with the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, along with an NSF Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant (DDRIG), co-funded by the programs in Cultural Anthropology and Science, Technology, and Society. I cannot overstate what a rare and precious gift this kind of support has been; I would never have been able to conduct my research without it.

Value of the Grant Writing Process

As current PhD students in anthropology are well aware, securing the necessary funding for fieldwork, not to mention for the years before and after fieldwork, is an incredibly difficult task. Going off to the field is often discussed as a rite of passage for aspiring anthropologists, but applying for grants can be seen as its own rite—an exhausting few months spent writing and rewriting, working closely with advisors and other faculty to clarify methodologies and concepts, haranguing our fellow students for their comments. And many of us fail, and fail again, going through several grant cycles before finally obtaining the funding we need. Draining as it can be, the process is also productive and eye-opening. As it stands, the NSF funding process, for example, requires applicants to speak directly to the intellectual merits and broader impacts of their research in a way that is accessible to the general public. This process forces students to consider the value of what they are doing and how to communicate that value to others who may have no investment or training in anthropology. Being evaluated by peers also encourages students to see themselves as part of a broader intellectual community, which helps to guarantee more rigorous standards of research and to encourage a wider circulation of ideas.

I think that striving for this kind of grant pushed me to work harder and to be attentive to more interesting questions and problems than I would have otherwise. When it came time to write my literature review, I found myself exploring fields that were not often in conversation with one another, including multidisciplinary studies of nature, environment, and science in Japan; the history of seismology and its formative relations with physics, geology, and biology; and the anthropology of disaster, risk, and preparedness, including the significant body of work that is emerging specifically in response to 3.11 (to use the common shorthand for Japan’s ongoing earthquake-tsunami-nuclear disaster). Being made to articulate how my research would contribute to science compelled me to expand the scope of my project and to recognize the broader relevance of the questions I was asking. On a conceptual level, this process led me to consider, for instance, how earth scientists and anthropologists might be drawing upon quite different understandings of scale, matter, and complexity to make sense of the globe. On a practical level, this meant understanding that the effects of 3.11 reach far beyond the shores of Japan, as tsunami debris washes up on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, international markets fluctuate in relation to Japan’s economic woes, and radiation from Fukushima travels through vital ecosystems. I came to see that my project could make a unique contribution to anthropological understandings of complex global connections, by focusing on “the globe” as an object of empirical study as well as an active force that infuses daily life and knowledge in Japan and elsewhere.

The FIRST Act would make it even more daunting to obtain crucial funding for the kind of long-term ethnographic fieldwork that remains central to anthropology. Under this legislation, I am not sure if my current research on earthquakes in Japan would have been funded. But even more alarming, this kind of legislation, which sets narrow limits on what kind of research is considered legitimate, might well discourage students from coming up with bold and innovative projects in the first place. In that sense, this act signals a troubling and ongoing process that is happening in universities and research centers across the US, as educational institutions prioritize business acumen, technological innovation and statistical data, while devaluing forms of knowledge that are not as easily instrumentalized for economic or political interests. At stake, then, is substantial support, on a national level, for the kind of research that seeks knowledge about other places and other ways of being in the world, research that generates surprises and expands our ways of thinking and acting. I do not want to think about all of the critical work that will be pushed aside, unrecognized and unfunded, if we do not stem this tide.

Emily Sekine (elsekine@gmail.com) is a PhD candidate in anthropology at The New School. Her dissertation research focuses on earthquakes, nature and science in Japan. She is currently conducting fieldwork with the generous support of the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.

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