The American Anthropological Association’s Anthropology News has just published a short piece of mine under the title “If Not Us, Then Who?” It addresses a strange blindness shared by many academics about how their research activities get funded now and how they are likely to be funded in the future. In the United States, at least, the state is steadily backing away from its former role as a major funder of social science research. Worst still, demands by influential politicians that government-funded studies be consistent with “American values” or produce immediate economic returns are making it increasingly difficult for some branches of sociocultural anthropology to find financial support. A few private foundations have moved into the breach, but there is little doubt that philanthropy by individuals—some quite wealthy, others less so—remains the single largest source of charitable giving in the United States.
I never thought about this much when I was a working professor, although my home institution for more than three decades was a college famously successful at soliciting donations from its loyal alumni. Now that I head a research institution supported almost entirely by charitable donations, I have little time to think about anything else. (Any reader who has worked for a not-for-profit organization will know what I’m talking about.) Without ongoing support from individual donors, my institution would be forced to close its doors within a few years, thus ending a century-old record of supporting innovative research in anthropology, archaeology, history, and Native American Studies.
So my AN essay asks: Now that many Baby Boomers are benefiting from the largest intergenerational transfer of wealth in history, shouldn’t we be thinking about giving back so that the scholars who follow us will have the same opportunities for professional growth that enriched our careers? And shouldn’t those research opportunities be as free as possible from the influence of the national politics of the moment?