- Last Updated on 17 February 2014
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By Aili Tripp University of Wisconsin-Madison
At present, we scholars in the US who research and write about Africa find ourselves in a situation where traditional sources of private and federal funding for international humanities and social science research and programming are drying up, particularly for basic research. At the same time, new research and training opportunities are emerging that create both dilemmas and challenges. Some of these opportunities are opening up new possibilities for researchers, including new partnerships and ways of thinking about international research. Other opportunities are increasingly drawing scholars into a national security enterprise that is not always compatible with academic freedom and pursuits.
Cuts in Federal and Foundation Support for International Studies
Foundations like MacArthur, Ford and Rockefeller long ago stopped funding US based international research in the social sciences and humanities, except for a few occasional programs. According to the Foundation Center, of the total foundation support pie in 2011, humanities research received .1%, while social science research received 1%. The bulk of foundation support comes from independent (56%) and family foundations (31%). The MacArthur Foundation, for example, at one time made major institutional investments in university training of scholars in the area of peace and security as well as to scholars through its Research and Writing program in this area. Such programs are few and far between today.
Compounding changes in foundation support, federal funding is now evaporating as well in key areas. We have seen dramatic cuts in federal funding for international studies through the Title VI programs and Fulbright Hays, which are changing the face of area studies. There has been a drop in Title VI funding from $110.3 million in 2010 to $63.1 million in 2013, and Fulbright Hays funding has dropped from $15.6 million in 2010 to $7.1 million in 2013, according to the US Department of Education. These are supposed to be the government’s most comprehensive investments in the development of high quality national capacity in international, foreign language and global business education and research. There have also been reductions in the US Institute for Peace budget. Even at their height, these federal programs represented a small fraction of the Department of Education’s discretionary budget. Now there are discussions about a proposed 49% cut to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
Some programs are being cut for explicitly political, not financial, reasons. Congress cut the funding of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Political Science Program so that it can only fund research promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States. The move was championed by Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla), who has been trying for years to block NSF funding of political science research. Many political scientists found this especially offensive, since Congress went after one discipline, the main discipline that looks critically at the ways government and politics works in the US and abroad. Many political scientists rightly saw that the action was dangerous not just to political science, but to the principles that govern academic support for research across disciplines. These cuts resulted in the elimination of an NSF funded Ralph Bunche Institute, which was established to encourage minority students to consider advanced study and careers in political science.
There was a slight increase in international study programs after 9/11 as Arabic language training, for example, experienced three-fold increases in enrollments across the country. But now we are back to pre-9/11 levels and we are seeing the unraveling of the top language, area studies and global business programs. According to the Coalition for International Education Memo to Congress (May 14, 2012), as a result of the FY2011 cuts there has been a reduction or cancellation of over 400 less commonly-taught language and area studies classes, affecting over 6,300 students; reductions in international business programs with 10,000 fewer business professionals trained; and reductions in language resources and research, which has resulted in over 5,900 fewer language teachers trained, involving 29 languages. It is not clear that the universities are stepping in to fill the gaps.
There have been cuts in study abroad programs funding, yet according to the most recent Open Doors study, there was an 8% increase of study abroad to Africa and 3.4% overall increase of students studying abroad over last year. This surge in student interest suggests that universities are now doing more with less in this area.
Public research institutions are taking further hits, as states cut funding streams. The hemorrhaging of such resources reduces the quality of international research and exchanges that take place.
Changes in Funding Priorities
At the same time as these cuts are taking place, there are increases in international funding in key areas, which have important implications for the way research is done.
National Security Agencies
There has been a clear shift in federal funding of international studies away from the Department of Education funding of National Resource Centers (Title VI programs) to the Defense Department and State Department, which operate along very different academic principles. The National Resource Centers that have been funded by the Department of Education are well integrated into the academic research and training cultures of American universities, supporting a broad array of activities, with high regard for academic independence. The new orientation has been established to ensure a steady stream of linguists and others for government careers in diplomacy, intelligence, and the military. Programs that reflect this orientation include the Critical Language Scholarship Program, the National Security Education Program, and the Boren Awards for International Study. Promoting national security is their paramount objective, which is a much narrower goal than what academic training and scholarship generally entails.
The Department of Defense also has a program supporting social science research through its Minerva Grants program. The Defense Department is dispersing $23 million over three years. Researchers from nearly 35 academic institutions are involved in these projects. There are large Africa-related projects at the University of Texas Austin, University of Florida, and Duke University. Despite fears by some ASA members that these programs might succumb to Defense Department imperatives, leaders of these programs at these institutions have told me that they feel the work they do is independent of such pressures and the Minerva administrators have taken pains to ensure academic freedom.
Nevertheless, many are rightly concerned that all these aforementioned programs are not sponsored by the Department of Education and tie research too closely to the interests of the military, intelligence and broader security community. Many feel this jeopardizes the integrity of scholarship done by US citizens in Africa, it hurts ties to the African universities and scholars, and unduly skews the objectives of research. We need a frank discussion in the African Studies Association about this type of research, because we have long had resolutions against such support, yet given the funding trends, the options for alternate sources of support are increasingly limited. We also need to find out how such support is perceived in Africa and whether people distinguish between Department of Defense funded projects and other federally funded projects.
US Agency for International Development
The other shift we have witnessed is towards funding of research through the Department of State, specifically through the US Agency for International Development. USAID is putting more money into social science research through basic research around various themes, partnerships with African universities, and contractual arrangements. Its Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER) Science program has a new program for developing country researchers together with US NSF counterparts in food security, climate change and other development topics. USAID’s Democracy Fellows and Grants (DFG) program, which is managed by the Institute of International Education (IIE), supports research in democracy, human rights, and governance.
USAID funding of research has its pluses and minuses from the point of view of researchers. On the plus side, it links research more closely to applied, real world concerns and policy interventions. However, the programs are targeted around issues of USAID concern. The collaborations are very helpful for the African universities involved and are an important means of transferring knowledge. Whether they have research benefits for US researchers involved is less clear. The research programs like PEER and DFG are less restrictive and benefit researchers, even though they still need to have implications for USAID. In the case of contracted work, USAID often determines the methodology, the topic, and frameworks for results, which means that the work departs considerably from independent basic research. Whatever positive aspects one identifies, one must still weigh them against the imperatives of the entire business of foreign assistance and its related paternalistic and unequal dimensions not to mention the ways in which aid may be used to serve other problematic foreign policy objectives.
National Science Foundation
There are additional new sources of research funding. The National Science Foundation has a new funding stream in interdisciplinary research, Integrated NSF Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education (INSPIRE). The National Institutes for Health are also moving in this direction. Although interdisciplinarity is not new, many major research universities appear to be increasingly restructuring themselves to promote interdisciplinary hiring, seed grants and other funding; the formation of new centers; and rethinking tenure requirements.
There is actually more money going into international research by foundations like the Gates Foundation, but mainly in health, international development, and environment. Other foundations have shifted their priorities to Africa, where the needs in higher education are the greatest.
Since 2007, the Carnegie Corporation has spent more than $90 million on initiatives to tackle Africa's critical shortage of university researchers and teachers. They have made major investments in the social sciences through two programs administered by the Social Science Research Council. One is called the African Peacebuilding Network (APN), which supports African research on peace and conflict issues. It offers field research grants and 3-month residential fellowships for post-docs. The other program is the Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa, which offers PhD fellowships for academics in Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda with a focus on peace, security and development.
Carnegie also funds a similar program administered by the American Council of Learned Societies in the same countries called the African Humanities Program (AHP). The AHP supports postdoctoral and dissertation research, provides residential opportunities to fellows within Africa, along with writing workshops and publication support for book manuscripts. These initiatives build on Carnegie’s involvement in the decade long Partnership for Higher Education in Africa involving seven US foundations. The $440 million partnership began in 2000 and involved 65 universities across nine African countries.
The ASA has been involved in supporting these and other Carnegie-funded programs run by SSRC and ACLS. I strongly believe that Africanists need to support all efforts to strengthen scholarship capacity in Africa, not only because the needs are great but also because our capacity for research depends on the successes of African higher education. We see our colleagues in Africa laboring under severe circumstances. According to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Francisco Marmolejo, there has been a decrease in public spending per university student — a 30% decline over the last 15 years — at the same time that enrolments increased from 3 million in 1991 to 9 million in 2006 and are expected to be 20 million in 2015. The expansion of teaching has come at the cost of research. Our African colleagues contend with a pervasive consultancy culture, low salaries, large classes, and little time to do much else. The consultancy culture undermines the production of knowledge in the disciplines because the products are policy-oriented studies, often outside the actual expertise of the people hired to conduct the studies. Moreover, the talented are frequently fast-tracked into administrative positions before they have had a chance to fully develop their research and publishing skills. In the end, all of this dilutes the production of new knowledge. Scholars in the humanities and social sciences face particular challenges because of the pressures on university administrators to build up the sciences and professional schools. Thus, efforts to strengthen scholarship in Africa will increase our capacity to engage in even more productive collaborations.
Consequences of Funding Changes
These trends of funding away from the Department of Education to the security agencies are going to have long-term implications for the ability of Americans to engage internationally in business, government, educational institutions and many other areas. We will have significantly reduced the global competencies of our next generation of international experts and globally savvy workforce. Cuts in Title VI will make it harder to train a new generation of PhDs with adequate area studies and language expertise. These are the very PhDs we rely on to educate our future citizens.
The quality of our scholarship is also being compromised. I have served on a variety of panels for Fulbright, NSF and other agencies, and I am increasingly concerned that we see many applications from students working on Africa who aren’t trained by Africanists, who aren’t learning African languages, and whose research questions are not informed by in-depth knowledge of the country, history, and language. I should point out that not all of these trends are tied to changes in funding streams, but nevertheless, the availability of funding for language study affects the capacity of the next generation to do in-depth research with a well-rounded background.
We are already seeing less research that involves long term soaking and poking and we are seeing more research that involves flying in and out and doing fairly superficial studies. Students are relying more on methods that do not allow them to engage fully with Africans, e.g., buying survey results from companies that work on the continent. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with such research, not having a broader perspective and in-depth knowledge makes it much harder to interpret the findings.
We are going to see more research that is applied, and this is not in itself a problem. It is a good thing. However, we still need basic research. We are going to see more use of consultancies as a basis for research. We will also be increasingly forced to take funds from the Defense Department, which does not sit well with many ASA members, who feel that this compromises academic freedom.
It is somewhat ironic that in spite of all the advances in travel, email, Skype and videoconferencing, international academic exchanges and collaborative research in the humanities and social sciences, still remain surprisingly sparse, difficult, and lacking in mutual engagement, especially for those outside of the US-European nexus. This has become even more evident with the shifts in international studies funding. The bifurcation between private and public institutions is expanding. The gap between R1 research institutions and the rest is expanding.
Rethinking International Collaboration, Research and Exchange
In spite of these challenges that stand in the way of international research and collaboration, we should recognize that there are also many opportunities. The current situation is making us think creatively about how we do international collaboration, research, and exchange. It is forcing us to think big and to think outside of the box.
We need to rethink our engagements with Africa and rethink how to make collaborations more mutual and equal. Rather than initiating and framing exchanges and research collaborations to suit primarily our purposes, we need to initiate them collaboratively. We need to see Africa as more than an object of inquiry and source of data. We should be designing research projects in mutually beneficial ways where partners bring their strengths to the table as do we.
We need to get donors on board, but not simply to fund our projects. We should encourage them to support collaborative interdisciplinary work that enhances all of our research capabilities. We need to learn more about the research that is going on in Africa, especially given the new funding initiatives such as those of The SSRC and ACLS. Thandika Mkandawire, Fantu Cheru and other scholars have pointed out that Africa is the only part of world where Western scholars feel it is legitimate to write about and publish without reference to local authors. This is shameful, but it is also something that we need to actively address if we are going to gain new support from funders.
We should be pursuing a wider variety of forms of collaboration. We may need to think more about how to better use some of the new technologies at our disposal. I don’t think we use Skype, videoconferencing, and the internet enough. In addition to bringing speakers from Africa, we can bring them in via videoconferencing or Skype to our classrooms, conferences and debates. In setting up such an arrangement, we should reciprocate. I have brought in international scholars and practitioners into my classroom via Skype for short half hour discussions and students love it. It really livens up the classroom and makes the issues more real to the students. I have also participated in Africa-based conferences and seminars through videoconferencing (usually for a limited amounts of time). Others like Pearl Robinson have used the internet creatively to teach simultaneous courses and share institutional resources on two continents. I have students who are taking Acholi classes in Uganda via Skype. There are many other creative uses to which we can adapt technologies.
We need to put the issue of funding on the table in a big way and draw more attention to the situation we face. If you look at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, and other such publications, there is almost no mention of the cuts in funding. Similarly, our Congressional representatives do not seem fully aware of how much these cuts have hurt us.
The ASA is already engaged in the Coalition for International Education and we need to continue to support its efforts by providing them with more examples of how current funding cuts are affecting us. We need to be more aggressive about making our case to Congressional representatives, to the Consortium of Social Science Associations, American Association of Advancement of Science, Association of African Studies Programs, National Council for Area Studies Associations, National Association of international Educators (NAFSA), American Council on Education and others. We need to get public affairs representatives on campus engaged. We need to make the case for international education and make more of a fuss about it. The ASA has an important role to play in this regard. We need to be more aggressive in this area.
The same points above apply to our own universities. We need to be more forceful about lobbying for internal university funds to makeup for the shortfall and growing demand on the part of students for study abroad and for international education.
We will need to lobby older foundations to reconsider their funding strategies: Mellon has already been stepping up to the plate in the humanities in important ways. But we should also go back to MacArthur, Rockefeller, and Ford and make the case for why international expertise in the US is urgently necessary. However, we need to make the case differently to them. I don’t think we should rehash the tired debates about area studies vs. global studies. We need both. We have to frame our appeals for research funding much more in terms of thinking globally about the problems we face in the environment, in health epidemics, migration, conflict and so on. We aren’t going to solve our problems within our little national silos. We need to think within countries, but also comparatively, crossnationally, and globally to solve the problems we face today. We also need to think in interdisciplinary terms. African countries are not going to solve climate change problems on their own any more than the US will. We need to think more collectively about these global problems across borders. We also need to explain that the defunding of Title VI has already profoundly impacted our capacity to teach PhDs in major research institutions, and these PhDs will be training the future generation of students about the world. Moreover, these cuts impact the ability of the State Department, Congressional Committees and other government bodies to hire properly trained experts. The cuts diminish academic capacity to advise lawmakers, diplomats and other government administrators.
There is actually more money overall going into international research, but we need to creatively reframe our proposals to fit these initiatives. There are several ways to do this:
- One possibility is to work with new funders in this area. There are about 200 new foundations that are supporting about 10% of international programs. These include the Master Card Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Google Foundation, State Street Foundation, Howard Buffett Foundation, and Horowitz Foundation for Social Policy. We need to pay attention to new competitions (e.g., Institute for New Economic Thinking has a grant program for social sciences).
- There are still older sources of funding that support work in targeted areas such as Harry Frank Guggenheim (human rights), Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (health), David and Lucile Packard (Conservation, Population and Reproductive Health), and Spencer Foundation (education). There are others that support work more widely such as Russell Sage in the social sciences and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in the humanities.
- We need to think about building collaborations between the humanities and social sciences with the natural, physical sciences and medical sciences. Much of the funding for research in Africa is in the area of environmental studies, health, agriculture, and development. At the major research institutions there are many researchers working in Africa in the sciences, engineering schools and medical schools who for whatever reason have nothing to do with the African studies programs on campus. Those of us in the humanities and social sciences need to get out of our comfort zones and let those in these other fields know that our expertise is critical to the success of their research. We need to partner with them and collaborate with them in ways that enhance their work as well as our own.
- Although corporations only account for 2% of all funding, we need to get corporate sponsors on board, especially local ones. They need an internationally savvy workforce with global literacy competencies more than ever. We simply need to be more aggressive in going after their funds and making the case for our needs.
- We need to think more about working with foundations to create opportunities for new African diasporas within US institutions. We should focus on how we might benefit from the diasporic presence and how they can provide an important link between the US and Africa. Foundations are eager to work with the African diasporas as they are an important and talented connection with the continent. ASA is now involved in the African Diaspora Fellowship Program, which is a new program which former ASA President Paul Zeleza is heading up. This is a joint program between the Institute for International Education, Carnegie Corporation, and Quinnipiac University.
Finally, I don't think we can afford any more to think only about advancing our own research agendas. We have to consider how we can benefit from scholarship by Africans about Africa and how our collaborations with Africans can benefit them as well as ourselves. The success of our research here will depend increasingly on our ability to collaborate with colleagues in Africa as will the success of African research agendas. Our future in research is going to depend on our ability to build mutually beneficial research collaborations and exchanges with African scholars.
Aili Tripp is a Professor of Political Science and Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is a past president of the African Studies Association. Many thanks to Sandra Barnes, Ron Kassimir, Charles Ambler, James Delehanty, Miriam Kazanjian and James Pritchett for input that went into the report.