AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXVIII, No. 1, Spring 1996


Shutdowns, Cutbacks, and Uncertainty Impede Federal Support for History of Science

The unprecedented shutdown of the United States government, the lack of an agreed budget for many agencies, and cuts in some budgets, have imposed inconveniences and shortages but not crippling problems on historians of science.

During the shutdown, scholars with proposals pending or questions about current projects found program staff mostly unavailable for consultation during the shutdown, and were hard-pressed during the subsequent months of catching up with overdue work. For example, scholars who were notified in December that they were successful in the Fellowships competition at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and had hoped to begin work January 1, 1996, were not able to receive their awards until the Endowment opened following the furlough plus snow emergency days. The mail from the previous four weeks dribbled in for several weeks more. In contract-funded programs, budgets of researchers at universities nationwide were disrupted and there were many uncertainties, for example concerning the funding of graduate students; fortunately universities generally filled in during the hiatus.

The National Endowment for the Humanities budget at time of writing was set, as a percentage of last year's appropriation prorated over a period of time, by a continuing resolution of Congress; the level has been sharply cut, and most observers do not expect any improvement this year. Daniel Jones, Program Officer in the Divsion of Research and Education Programs, informs us that two programs of special importance to the field of history of science were terminated. The first of these is the Humanities Studies of Science and Technology program, which began in 1984 and over eleven years provided 128 grants for original research projects for a total of over nine million dollars. Although this program will not continue, grants for large research projects in all areas of the humanities will be available in a new, consolidated program entitled Collaborative Research. Editorial projects, such as the publication of the Edison papers, are eligible in this program, as well as regular research projects, translations, and conferences. (The deadline for proposals is September 2, 1996.) "The level of funding will be determined by the Endowment's FY 1997 budget," Jones says, "but we hope it will be on the order of six to eight million dollars."

Also terminated in FY 1996 was the Science and Humanities Education program, which for several years was jointly funded by NEH, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the the Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education. Only grants for much smaller curricular development projects are available now; these are the Humanities Focus Grants. A new program entitled Education Development and Demonstration will be started in FY 1997 (the deadline for proposals is October 1, 1996).

The Endowment continues to offer Fellowships for individual projects in the history of science. The budgeted total amount for fellowships has been reduced by about 15% for 1996 and will probably remain at that level for 1997. This means about 85 fellowships are available in the two areas of competition, Fellowships for University Teachers and Fellowships for College Teachers and Independent Scholars.

There was a drastic reduction in NEH's program of providing dollar-for-dollar Federal matching of money institutions raise from private sources: the FY 1995 level was $12 million and the annual level from the continuing resolution is only $8 million. Jones reports that the "reduction has caused delays in meeting the already existing offers of these funds, despite the certification of gifts by grantees. This has caused difficulties in many research projects that are dependent on the NEH's matching funds."

At the National Science Foundation, finances are "less certain but more hopeful than at NEH," according to Ed Hackett. A professor in the Science and Technology Studies Department at RPI, Hackett recently took over direction of the Science and Technology Studies progam, which includes the areas covered by the former History and Philosophy of Science program as well as other studies of science and technology. The agency's budget remains undetermined, and once a Federal budget is finally determined (which normally would have been last October), it typically takes another half year for the higher-level decisions to work their way through the agency to establish a firm budget for each individual program. If the process takes that long this year, program officers would not know how much they have to spend until this fall at the earliest. Since the paperwork for processing proposals takes another month, it may be difficult to spend the money within the current fiscal year. "People at NSF are fully aware of this logjam," says Hackett, "and are working on ways around the problem."

The good news is that there is considerable support in Congress for NSF and basic science in general, at least in comparison with the humanities, so that it is reasonable to assume that funding will be stable. The situation is fluid, however, and it remains to be seen how Congress will finally treat science over the next year or so. But for the time being, NSF program officers assume they can spend about as much as last year. Unlike at NEH, there seems little immediate risk of severe cutbacks or other major program changes.

Hackett asks science and technology studies researchers to continue to send in their proposals and reviews, and "not to let the Federal budget confusion distract them from their work. To do otherwise would be a version of the self-fulfilling prophecy: acting as if the program is in trouble--holding back with proposals, reviews, and other research plans--would in fact place it in jeopardy." Hackett advises science studies researchers to seek opportunities especially by becoming more involved in initiatives "that cross programs, disciplines, and even directorates at NSF," such as studies regarding global change, human capital, and educational efforts. In the spirit of business as usual, note that the next target date for proposals is August 1.

The staff will be glad to talk with historians of science and advise them on the status of programs. Jones may be reached at 202-606-6200, e-mail: Hackett may be reached at 703-306-1743, e-mail:

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