Six Million Bucks From Carnegie Says That Science Doesn't Have All the Answers

When it comes to higher education philanthropy, it can often seem as if it is “all STEM, all the time.” But maybe you can have too much of a good thing—especially if it comes at the expense of something just as valuable, if often underappreciated.

With all of the money being directed from funders into STEM-oriented projects in K-12 and higher education, some voices of concern have been raised that other fields, such as the humanities and social sciences, have been given the short end of the philanthropy stick.

Lately, we've seen that concern start to translate into new funding initiatives, the latest of which is a fellows program just launched by the Carnegie Corporation of New York to support scholars in the social sciences and humanities. An inaugural group of 32 "Andrew Carnegie Fellows" received grants of up to $200,000 to support their research and writing, with a total outlay of $6 million. The theme of this year's funding round is addressing "Current and Future Challenges to U.S. Democracy and International Order." 

I'll say more about the fellowship program in a moment, but first a few words on the growing STEM backlash.

Policymakers, pundits, and the public are virtually unanimous that America needs more scientists and engineers. Degrees in STEM fields such as computer science, mechanical engineering, and physics are seen as all but a guarantee of career success.

But this elevation of STEM has come with an unfortunate consequence: a dismissive attitude toward the humanities and the social sciences. In contrast to STEM, humanities and social science majors are often the butt of jokes about living in their parents’ basements and working low-level service jobs. State and national policymakers have even begun to question the value of studying such fields as literature, history, and philosophy. Such attitudes fuel the notion of colleges and universities as glorified trade schools, in which only those courses of study that align to a specific career field are deemed to be of any value. It is no accident that business and health care-related majors are the most popular fields of study at many colleges.

Nobody disputes the need for greater scientific knowledge, the importance of technology, and the need for more scientists and engineers (we certainly don’t!). Thanks to advances in science and technology, we have explored the cosmos, transformed the workplace, put a computer in every home, and enjoy access to a seemingly infinite amount of information.

But science and technology do not provide the answers to everything. Technology cannot resolve issues surrounding socioeconomic inequality, illegal immigration, law enforcement and racial tensions, and political polarization. Whether American society has a shortage of sociologists and political scientists is open to debate, but there is no debate that these fields help drive our understanding of many major issues and questions of the day.

The Carnegie Corporation is one funder that knows well the power of these disciplines. After all, over the past century the foundation has funded ideas and research that have had a big impact. Most famously, Carnegie underwrote Gunnar Myrdal's landmark study on race, An American Dilemma, which helped lay the groundwork of Brown v. Board of Education.

At the same time, Carnegie is certainly no slouch in the STEM field. It is one of the primary forces behind the the 100Kin10 initiative, which has the ambitious goal of creating 100,000 quality STEM teachers by 2020. But with its new fellowship initiative, the foundation is forcefully making the pointand in a timely waythat the liberal arts are also crucial. While support for the liberal arts, as well as the sciences, has always been the distinguishing characteristic of American higher education, it's been easy to forget that lately. Carnegie's new initiative is a small step toward rebalancing things.

Who got in on the first round of Carnegie's fellows funding? Mainly scholars at top research universities, and this group was selected through a rigorous process for nominating and judging candidates. Jurors were asked to "consider the merits of each proposal based on its originality, promise, and potential impact on a particular field of scholarship." The anticipated result of each fellowship is a book or major study." You see the list of winners and read about the selection process here

The first crop of fellows includes two journalists, suggesting that academics aren't the only people who can get in this new pot of funding. Hopefully next year's crop will include more people from outside the heavily professionalized world of academia, which is not a particularly vibrant habitat for new ideas these days. 

The Andrew Carnegie Fellows program is one of a number of recent efforts by funders to shore up support for humanities and social science programs at colleges and universities. We recently wrote about a $20 million gift from former U.S. diplomat Steven J. Green and his family to the public affairs program at Florida International University. There also was the $10 million gift by Chicago financier Steven Stevanovich to his alma mater, the University of Chicago, for a new institute dedicated to epistemology.

If these and other recent gifts are signs of an emerging trend, they show that higher education philanthropy has not given up on the interdisciplinary approach to postsecondary schooling that distinguishes the American system. There is room for both STEM and the liberal arts.

Come to think of it, this is useful guidance for today’s college students, as well. Physics and computer science majors can benefit from studying the great works of philosophy and literature, and English and sociology majors should learn how to write code in Python and SQL.