Librarians Are Awesome

So I managed to survive NaNoWriMo 2015, despite losing about ~10 days of the month. I made my donation and now I am mentally exhausted and a little frazzled and pretty darn giddy. I also have an overdue blog post or three churning around in my head, several RPG sessions to plot out, a trip to plan, GRE to re-prep for, and a novel to procrastinate on.

everything is okay
Priorities, y’all.

Way, way back in the halcyon days of early October, I did a little post on something called the Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR). For those who don’t know: SDR is a federally funded survey that tracks the careers of PhDs in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Up until the mid-1990s, SDR also included the Humanities, although in actuality it included the Social Sciences, which may or may not fall under the Humanities umbrella depending on everything from your university to what time of day it is. Nowadays the only real, federally-funded resource for trying to figure out job placement rates for Humanities PhDs is the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED), but this only tracks postgraduate plans and doesn’t actually follow people throughout their careers. It’s also about ~two years behind whatever the current trends are, with the most recent year available as of my last post being 2013.

In my last post, I was trying to figure out why in the heck the SDR stopped tracking Humanities folks. I dug through the Library of Congress, I plowed through historical records at both the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) – respectively the guys who publish the federal budget and the guys who actually administer the SDR – and couldn’t find anything. In a last ditch effort, I reached out to the folks at the Library of Congress. Turnaround was supposed to be five days, but I didn’t hear back until the middle of this month and, well, NaNo was happening.

Insert Witty Caption Here. No, really.

I originally suspected the decision to cut Humanities out of the SDR came from the shortsighted souls of the 104th Congress, and I still think that, but it turns out that things were more complicated than I expected.

Whether you’re for it or against it, the federal government is really freaking complicated. An uncharitable person could make a really good case for the feds laundering money between different programs, agencies, and departments, usually in order to sustain somebody’s favorite program. Intelligence agencies in particular launder money – seriously, for real launder money – as part of their various espionage operations. A lot of the time, money flows in ways that are either confusing or easy to overlook, and what happened with SDR falls into that latter camp. Turns out the funding to monitor Humanities didn’t come from the NSF at all; it came from something called the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

For those who don’t know, the NEH is a holdout from the Johnson Era. Founded in 1965 as part of the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities, it’s an independent agency that provides grants to institutes of higher learning, public television and radio, and individual scholars. Per the NEH’s own website, the results of these grants include about 7,000 books, a major documentary on the Civil War, special editions of certain novels, essays, and poems, and an archiving project that’s captured about 63 million pages of historic newspapers, among other things.

NEH is, incidentally, not super well-loved by Congress.

Guess where this is going.

This isn’t to say that NEH is actively hated by it either. Like most non-military departments and agencies, the NEH only gets the money it needs so long as it jumps through all the appropriate hoops. Congress is generally apathetic to it, but it can’t rock the boat or the agency is pretty well screwed. This is also why the NSF’s funding for social sciences has stagnated for years – Congressional Republicans really don’t want them doing research on that sort of thing, for whatever reason.

NEH cut funding to the SDR back in 1996. It’s a bit of a chore to find them, but public records are available for this courtesy of the Government Printing Office (GPO), which tells the whole story in the dispassionate, detached way that only numbers can.

Long story short: NEH’s spending dropped by about $20 million back in 1995-1996, and their actual budget authority (re: how much they actually could spend if needed) was cut by almost $50 million, courtesy of the  104th Congress, a.k.a. the folks who gouged out their own eyes on tech policy so that they could save some spare change. For what it’s worth, NEH also employs about 120 fewer people now than it did back in 1995-1996. Part of that probably comes from advances in technology, but I’d wager a good chunk of it is because their funding situation never truly recovered. Not accounting for inflation, their budget today is still $20-30 million shy of what it was twenty years ago.

I might not like it, and I definitely think the decision to pull out of SDR needs to be reversed or offset by another agency so that it covers the Humanities, but I can at least understand why they did it.

Big kudos to the folks at the Library of Congress, by the way. I probably never would’ve made the NEH connection on my own and they really worked some magic to find that for me.


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