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Posted at 1:22 PM ET, 02/10/2011

Cornell's Skorton: Don't cut humanities

By David J. Skorton

Here is a guest post from David J. Skorton, president of Cornell University.

Last month, the Republican Study Committee released its hard-hitting recommendations for reductions in the federal budget. Regardless of our individual politics, and whether we agree with any of the targets for budget reduction, expenditures must go down and a sustainable federal budget must be achieved. This cannot happen without pain and prioritization, and the RSC listing is one approach.

skorton.jpg But while we debate the RSC proposal and others now on the table, let's prevent a train wreck in the making: the proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities. This is the federal agency that funds research on our national history, our cultural heritage, and our civic values. NEH also funds our state humanities organizations that support local history and culture museums, military monuments, and poetry readings crucial to a vibrant regional culture and tourist economy.

Whatever your priority for the future of our country, the elimination--or even further deterioration--of the NEH will adversely impact those priorities. We cannot permit our federal investment in the humanities to disappear.

Concerned about national competitiveness?

Three ingredients critical to innovation and competitiveness in the 21st century, I would submit, are investments in education--to fill the talent pipeline--as well as research and development to develop new products, processes, and industries. Of course, these investments are almost entirely in the realm of science and technology, from biomedical research to the physical sciences and engineering.

As a physician and scientist, I applaud such investments. But make no mistake: our most pressing and complex problems--worldwide--will not be solved by science alone. As just one example, local cultures and values hugely impact the willingness of people to embrace scientific discoveries, from genetically modified foods to vaccines--and the understanding of these cultures and values is the domain of the humanities and the social sciences.

It's often forgotten, moreover, that the NEH is a research agency, funding highly competitive proposals in areas critical to our national life. Unlike other major federal research agencies, some of whose budgets have doubled in real dollars in the last decade and a half, the resources of the NEH have been reduced by over a third.

Do you want our children to have a sound ethical foundation that complements the strong moral compass that most parents endeavor to instill?

This is the domain of the humanities and, whether we're discussing the headlines relevant to regulation of financial institutions, cloning, or the appropriate use of new social media, a thoroughgoing understanding of ethics is critical.

Anxious about national security?

When we hear our generals or diplomats speak of "winning the hearts and minds of the people," they are talking about understanding the language, culture, religion, and values of people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and elsewhere, endeavors supported by the NEH. That's why our analysts in the major national intelligence and security agencies are to a great extent humanists and social scientists. In fact, the previous administration established a National Security Language Initiative (with programs in the Departments of Education, State, and Defense and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence) to increase the number of Americans learning such "critical needs languages" as Arabic, Farsi, Hindi, Russian, Chinese, and others.

What's the way forward? One simple suggestion:

Since this agency has already been subject to dramatic cuts, and, at $167 million, is relatively small compared, for example, to the nearly $148 billion in federal research and development funding requested by President Obama for FY 2011, let's halt the erosion and support a level NEH budget. At least for this year.

The funding we allocate to the humanities through our government has never come close to its value in individual lives and the life of our nation. But it should be unacceptable, to Democrats and Republicans alike, to "zero out" that support, even in a time of austerity and a need to reduce federal expenditures. The NEH should not be a pawn in a partisan conflict. We cannot afford to sacrifice its essential contributions. We must tell our elected representatives how we feel--and what we think. Now.

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By David J. Skorton  | February 10, 2011; 1:22 PM ET
Categories:  Finance, Public policy, Research  | Tags:  David Skorton Cornell, NEH cuts, RSC, RSC budget cuts, Republican Study Committee, humanities cuts  
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