Threats to the funding of research on Central Eurasia

It’s a difficult time for Central Eurasian studies, especially from the perspective of funding for research in the field. Blows to the material support for the field are coming from many sides. The United States government has been cutting programs that support U.S. citizens wanting to do research and language training.

As I described in an article earlier this year, the economic crisis and subsequent sequestrations of the federal budget have disproportionately affected international higher education programs. National Resource Centers (NRCs) supporting the study of our part of the world are faring worse than international programs overall, with less than 60% of their 2007 funding in current dollars.

Department of Education funding for Title VI National Resource Centers has fallen sharply since the budget crisis of 2011.
Department of Education funding for Title VI National Resource Centers has fallen sharply since the budget crisis of 2011. In 2012 budgets were cut by an additional 4.6% and these cuts have been sustained so far in 2013.

Then in October, one of those programs that directly targets the countries of the post-Soviet world, Title VIII, has not been funded for 2013. Title VIII funded advanced research and language training through NGOs such as IREX and NCEEER and advocates are requesting that it be re-funded at its pre-2011 levels of about $5 million per year, and perhaps expanded to include other world regions, as well. All of this comes in a broader political climate in the U.S., where funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) are threatened with congressional oversight of their awards because five of the 11,000 grants the Foundation administers are seen as “questionable” by a congressman, or the entire field of political science is thrown into chaos when Congress passes a bill requiring that political research funded by the NSF benefit national economic and security interests.  (See the CESS Blog piece, “Coburn, Congress and Austerity.”)

While our colleagues in Central Eurasia may find this political interference in science par for the course, it should be seen in the context of a trend in the U.S. and Western Europe of the framing of humanities and the social sciences in the context of either its market value or its mitigation of threats to national interests. In-depth language study, broad historical and cultural knowledge, long-term ethnographic research, the ability to situate quantitative data in its sociological context — these are all devalued by both the “market” and the “threat” frame. Of course, invoking a “discourse of danger” to justify the study of our region is a tactic with a well-established track record, but we also know that the consequences of such framings detract from what the old frame of academic inquiry would call “knowledge production” or “the betterment of humanity.” Adding salt to our wounds, one of the most important organizations for scholars from Central Eurasia, the Open Society Foundation’s International Higher Education Support Program is revamping its programs that have served scholars from the region. These changes are likely to eliminate programs with a special focus on Central Eurasia, such as CARTI, the Central Asian (and Caucasus) Research and Training Initiative, which is not calling for new applications in 2013. Unfortunately, there are few immediate actions that CESS members can pursue, other than staying informed on these issues and looking for opportunities to make the case for the importance of in-depth research and area studies training, especially on our region. A small ray of hope for scholarly exchange with Central Eurasia can be seen in programs funded by governments from the region. For example, the Kazakh government’s Bolashak program now supports scholars wanting to do advanced research abroad. Perhaps commenters can share information about similar initiatives.