Ogmius Newsletter

Ogmius Exchange: Part I

Humanities for Policy—and a Policy for the Humanities
Robert Frodeman and Carl Mitcham

In the midst of proposed tax cuts and in an economy showing signs of a double-dip recession, elected officials continue to support increases in science funding.  National Institutes of Health funding has nearly doubled since 1996 (from $11.9 billion in 1996 to $23.3 billion in 2002), and a similar doubling is planned for the National Science Foundation (currently at $5 billion).  In 2002 Congress appropriated just over $100 billion to science.

At the same time, funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts has in real dollars dropped 40% since 1994.  Together, the two agencies garnered $239 million of support in 2002—certainly a great deal of money, but in round numbers, 1/21 of the NSF’s budget, 1/97 of the NIH’s, and 1/417 of the total science budget.  Socrates’ claim that the philosopher is the physician of the soul has little support on Capitol Hill.

How should we explain this difference in public support between the humanities and the sciences?  The remarkable degree of funding for science depends upon the widely held belief that scientific research is the engine of our economy, and the guiding light for public policy, on issues ranging from health care to environmental regulation.  In contrast, the humanities and the arts are viewed as luxuries, lacking a serious role in policy debates on AIDS, climate change, or national security.

But are the humanities really as irrelevant as all that?  Or could the humanities play a central role in public debates on policy issues?  We believe that the humanities hold a largely untapped potential for contributing to public policy.  But realizing this potential requires that we develop some new approaches to the humanities.

It is easy to demonstrate the central role of science in many societal advances.  Moreover, science also contributes to decision making by helping to map out future challenges.  For example, global climate change would not be perceived as a problem without science.  Humans experience weather, i.e., the vagaries of day-to-day meteorological phenomena; we need the synoptic scope and methodological regularity of science to make sense of long term climate cycles.  While we are right to credit science with the discovery of global climate change, does it follow that we should expect it to come up with a solution as well?

But that is exactly what has occurred with the reliance on computer models to guide policy.  The majority of the data inputs into climate models are social in nature rather than scientific facts.  What will be the future state of the economy—within the US and worldwide?  Will countries stick with fossil fuels or embrace renewables?  Will increases in production continue to be the norm, or will societies choose to emphasize conservation and moderate changes in lifestyle?  Will a technological solution like carbon sequestration save the day?  More generally, how will our values change in the next 100 years?  

Our reliance on computer predictions for public policy rests upon a fundamental misreading of the political implications of scientific facts.  The future is not something that simply happens to us; we determine our future through the choices we make.  Rather than trying to predict the future, as if it is something beyond our control, we must engage in a debate about the kind of future we want.  Such debates about the future good of society lie squarely within the precincts of the humanities.

Claims for the importance of the humanities are not new.  Two centuries ago it was the liberal arts and humanities that were thought necessary for informed policy debate.  The most brilliant political document of modernity, the US Constitution, was composed by thinkers thoroughly steeped in history, philosophy, religion, and literature.  The eclipse of a public role for the humanities since the mid 20th century has been prompted by a continuing current of positivism within culture, which devalued traditional notions of the public relevance of a liberal education. 

One can find within the humanities signs of a revival to more traditional relevance.  One notable example is the applied ethics movement.  During the late 20th century scientists and philosophers brought ethics down from the clouds of meta-ethical abstraction to scientific clinics, research laboratories, industrial applications, and technological communications networks. 

But the humanities are more than ethics.  In the teaching of biomedical ethics, for instance, works of literature are used to help future physicians appreciate the human experiences of sickness and pain.  In engineering ethics, narrative case studies and the autobiographical testimonies of moral heroes have become a staple of the classroom.  Recent work within environmental philosophy increasingly relies on literature, poetry, history, art, and theology as a complement to ethical analysis.  The question for us today is, what type of structures within the humanities would promote the most significant contributions of the humanities to our public life? 

One step in the right direction would be the creation of Ph.D. programs that build on the few existing programs in applied ethics, developing an applied literature, history, epistemology, metaphysics, and religious studies.  (One such program was recently begun at Florida Atlantic University.)  A second possibility would be changing the standards for tenure and review to equally count work done in the public domain.  In fact, this raises the possibility of creating a second career track for graduate students in the humanities.  A third possibility would be the creation of internship programs for graduate students in the humanities with agencies such as the National Park Service, the US Geological Survey, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

George Bugliarello, Chancellor of Polytechnic University in New York, has argued that “The crucial questions for our culture are, what is it, indeed, to be human, and how can we maintain and enhance our humanity as we develop ever more revolutionary scientific advances?”  Such questions cannot be answered with more science.  Along with science policy, economic policy, health care policy, and more, it is crucial to develop a humanities policy.  We should begin with a vision of an interdisciplinary humanities deeply involved with public life and especially questions associated with science and technology.

Robert Frodeman
Center for Science and Technology
Policy Research
University of Colorado/CIRES

Carl Mitcham
Liberal Arts & International Studies
Colorado School of Mines