Jay Crisostomo, assistant professor of assyriology, studies the languages and history of Mesopotamia with a focus on the information old texts reveal about communication and social structure in the ancient Middle East. Though several University of Michigan grants and one external organization sufficiently fund his research, Crisostomo said finding funding for humanities research is generally difficult, especially from sources not associated with the University. Noting a funding disparity between humanities and natural science research, Crisostomo said he’s found the most success receiving grants for humanities projects with computational aspects, like his contributions to an online database of translated texts.

“The digital humanities almost is a way of making the humanities seem more scientific,” Crisostomo said. “Funding bodies are looking more at these projects rather than what have been the traditional humanities projects, such as translations of texts or analyses of texts or people groups, things like that.”

According to the University’s 2017 Annual Report on Research, the majority of research expenditures go toward projects in the natural sciences and technology. The School of Medicine topped research expenditures last year, taking up 41 percent of all research costs, followed by the College of Engineering at 17 percent. Only 13 percent of research expenditures were attributed to LSA, the largest college by population at the University.

Several key sources of income fund research at the University. Of the $1.48 billion spent on research in 2017, 56 percent was funded by the federal government, mostly in the form of grants provided by agencies such as National Institute of Health and NASA. Funds from non-federal sources, such as industry sponsors, comprised 11 percent of research expenditures. Internal funds, generated by tuition, gifts and state support, made up 33 percent.

Sara Blair, vice provost for Academic and Faculty Affairs, said though University faculty have been successful in earning humanities research awards relative to other universities, external funding for the humanities is generally limited.

“One really important fact about funding for research in the humanities and humanistic social sciences, more broadly, is that the amount of funding available externally is regrettably minimal,” Blair said. “Especially compared with other disciplinary areas, there just are not robust opportunities for faculty to apply, particularly for longer-term, larger-scale research projects.”

Heather Offhaus, director of Grant Review and Analysis for the Medical School Office of Research, noted there is some practical basis for the funding disparity. She said one reason medical research dominates total expenditures at the University is the school’s large faculty size, leading to a higher volume of research.

“The schools and colleges are arranged by where faculty are employed and tenured, and we have a very large engine,” Offhaus said. “The three largest schools on campus are the Medical School, Engineering and LSA.”

Offhaus added scientific research is often more costly than research in the humanities or arts, thus requiring larger grants.

“Compared to LSA, medical research is far more expensive, and so we’re applying to sponsors that are prepared to cover the cost of the research or part of the cost of the research and so those tend to be larger awards than, say, in LSA,” Offhaus said. “Engineering is a little more like we are in terms of size and scope of awards.”

Though Crisostomo acknowledged science and technology research can be costlier in terms of personnel and equipment, he also attributed the funding gap to a lack of appreciation for the humanities. According to Crisostomo, the humanities are often seen as purely academic, luxury fields of study, whereas the natural sciences are considered to have more realistic applicability.

“There is a tendency for the natural sciences to be more easily understandable as somewhat practical research,” Crisostomo said. “You think about the projects at U of M such as automated driving that led to a lot of attention, and you see how that’s practical outside of academia.”

Crisostomo said he strongly believes in the value of humanities research, because it builds empathy and promotes the careful consumption of media. He added humanities scholars, especially those who study the past, are able to piece together fragmentary information to better understand historical events, a skill that translates to modern politics and global issues. In applying for grants from funding agencies, Crisostomo said, humanities researchers must make a strong case for the validity and value of their work.

“We have to make the case, whereas for some natural sciences it’s more assumed, it’s a default thing that they’re really applicable,” Crisostomo said. “It’s not as obvious a case for the humanities.”

In spite of his difficulty finding external funding, Crisostomo said he has noticed the University’s efforts to direct more internal funds toward the humanities.

“One of the good things that I’ve seen here at the U of M is recently there has been more of a push for getting some humanities funding,” Crisostomo said. “For example, I know that the college of LSA has increased the amount for the startup package, that is the amount of money given to incoming professors to get their projects going, and that includes the humanities, that includes social sciences.”

Amy Dittmar, vice provost for Academic and Budgetary Affairs, said the University tries to compensate for the lack of external funding by supporting humanities research with internal funds, such as initiatives like the Institute for the Humanities and Humanities Collaboratory. In 2017, the humanities, arts and social sciences received a combined 56 percent of grants and awards distributed by the Office of Research.

“We really are mindful in making sure that there are available resources for all of our faculty to do research, and some of those areas naturally have external funding and some of them don’t, even within the same discipline,” Dittmar said.

Explaining the internal budget process, Dittmar explained the University does not designate a fixed percentage of internal funds for research. Instead, the Provost’s Office meets with representatives from each University college to discuss budgetary needs and requests, then allocates funds for the academic year. Faculty members and departments can apply for research funding to college-specific grants and research programs, or receive funding at the discretion of their school or department.

There are also campus-wide research funding opportunities, offered by the Office of Research, which operate with fixed annual budgets. UMOR provides individual faculty grants as well as awards linked to larger-scale organizations and collaboratives. Blair noted the types of available funding opportunities differ between schools and departments.

“Really, we’re all working together to create the best opportunities for faculty to do the most robust research and scholarship and practice they can do, and sometimes that means offering opportunities that are really embedded in that department or unit, and sometimes it means looking much more widely or broadly,” Blair said.

Overall, Crisostomo said, funding agencies and administrators who distribute research dollars need to keep the relevance of humanities research in mind.

“It is difficult for the humanities to get funding, especially compared to the natural sciences, but at the same time I think that the humanities is every bit as essential,” Crisostomo said. “They’re still just as essential for the future of the University, for the future of citizenship, for thinking about the world and being part of this world.” 

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