Testimony of Mary Margaret Overbey, Ph.D.
on Behalf of the
American Anthropological Association
Submitted to the
Appropriations Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs, Housing and
Urban Development And Independent Agencies
U.S. House of Representatives
Fiscal Year 2005
in Support of the
National Science Foundation

March 25, 2004

Mr. Chairman, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) appreciates the opportunity to submit testimony to the Subcommittee in support of the National Science Foundation (NSF). We recommend an appropriation of $6.39 billion for NSF in FY 2005. We recognize the President's request of $5.7 billion for NSF in FY 2005 and appreciate the intent of the Administration to increase NSF funding. Yet we believe that NSF is a priority federal program that warrants additional support. The AAA supports the goal of doubling NSF's budget over the next few years and, given the budget constraints, bases its recommendation on the level of funding authorized for NSF in FY 2004 legislation (P.L. 107-368).

We thank you, Mr. Chairman, and members of the Subcommittee for the strong support you have provided to NSF over the years. Like you, we believe that NSF is a good investment for our federal dollars. We believe that a strong federal investment in NSF provides future benefits to the Nation that far outweighs the federal dollars expended.

NSF plays a unique and critical role in advancing basic scientific research, nurturing the Nation's future scientists, cultivating collaboration among scientists around the world, and enhancing scientific knowledge and skills for K-12 students and the public. NSF provides a model for fostering scientific creativity and discovery. And the products of that creativity and discovery have contributed to the international leadership of the United States in scientific and engineering research and education. Other countries are working to do the same, increasing their investment in basic science and technology research and innovation to assume an international leadership role. More than ever, the US needs to invest strongly in science and technology to maintain our competitive edge internationally.

We support the strengthening of basic research at NSF and continued support for NSF's priority areas. Support for basic research at NSF results in scientific discoveries that are the hallmark of science, and these discoveries re-shape our understanding of how the world works and, in many instances, lead to other applications and economic benefits. Priority areas focus interdisciplinary research on complex phenomena like nanotechnology, information technology, and the environment. Anthropologists are among those scientists conducting basic research and participating in priority research areas of Biocomplexity in the Environment, Information Technology Research, among others.

We wish to call attention to four projects, recently and currently funded by NSF that illustrate the benefits gained from a federal investment in NSF. Three of these projects represent a broad-range of basic research in cultural anthropology, archaeology, and biological or physical anthropology and one project represents an upcoming public education program developed from anthropological knowledge.

1. Research on the rise of civilization in Mesoamerica has led Mary Pohl at Florida State University and colleagues to Mexico where they have found the earliest form of writing, the earliest corn, and sunflower seeds and hull that pre-date those in the US.

Archaeological excavations in Mexico by Pohl and her colleagues have resulted in discovering the earliest writings in the New World. The Mayans had been thought to be the first Mesoamerican societies to use writing, but the discovery in La Venta in Tabasco, Mexico have challenged that assumption. The writings were produced during the Olmec era, a pre-Mayan civilization. They are estimated to date from 650 B.C. The writing may have be been a way to communicate power and influence, as the Olmecs were the first known people to have a state level political structure. This form of writing appears to have influenced the forms of writing in several other cultures.

In addition, the research has yielded important agricultural discoveries as well. The excavations revealed the oldest maize found in Mexico, and sunflower seeds and achene older than any that have been found in the US. The lowland area in which these were found challenges the idea that domestication of new world food plants occurred in the highlands.

Additional funding from NSF supported the DNA analysis to determine the age of the sunflower seeds and completion of the study was made possible by a grants from private funders, including the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. and Brigham Young University's New World Archaeological Foundation.

2. From where do human characteristics of fairness and altruism spring? Is humankind by nature greedy? Are those in market-oriented and developed countries more selfish than those in undeveloped subsistence-based societies? Jean Ensminger and Joseph Henrich at California Institute of Technology are investigating the roots of human sociality across the globe.

The research focuses on the economic behavior of people in 16 societies, including the US, Africa, Latin America, and New Guinea, at varying economic levels. Through the use of economic experiments, Ensminger and Henrich are uncovering the motivations behind everyday decisionmaking.

The research builds on a study in 1998 by the MacArthur Foundation that brought together anthropologists with field experience to pioneer the use of experimental economic methods in small-scale societies. The study resulted in the application of games to investigate human sociality and some surprising and counterintuitive findings. For instance, they found that altruistic behavior and a sense of fairness increases with the level of a society's integration into a market economy. Previous thinking was that those who live in subsistence-based societies with rules in place for sharing food would be more generous and fair, but the researchers found the opposite to be true. The more market-oriented a society is, the more likely its members are to be trusting and fair.

The NSF research expands on this research by applying these games to more societies to test the validity of these findings, and adding new games and dimensions of sociality to include trust and the prediction and replication of game behavior. Although the research is far from completed, a significant finding has been reported. In using network analysis in combination with the economic games, Ensminger and Henrich have found that those people who are more centrally located in a social network are more frequently sought for advice and tend to be more trusting, trustworthy and generous.

3. Many of the discoveries from NSF-funded research make the front pages of the news. This is particularly true of the fossil finds that reconfigure the history of human origins. The discovery and analysis of the remains of a million-year-old fossilized skull in the Afar desert of Ethiopia by Tim White at the University of California, Berkeley and an international team of colleagues provides new clues to the origins and lineage of Homo erectus.

Dr. White and his team discovered and reconstructed the crushed Homo erectus skull. Their analysis of the skull supports the theory that Homo erectus was a single species living in Asia, Europe, and Africa, and was not divided into separate ancestral species, as some believe. The first appearance of Homo erectus is in Africa 1.7 million years ago. Homo sapiens, modern humans, appeared about 950,000 years ago.

The on-going research constitutes a multidisciplinary, international effort to illuminate human origin and evolution. To date, scholars from 14 countries have participated. The fossil remains were found in the Bouri Formation of the Middle Awash project in Ethiopia at a site that has resulted in other important finds. For example, recent research at the study area has yielded the fossil hominid remains that date back five million years. The knowledge gained from this work is not limited to the researchers and scientific community. Dr. White and his colleagues have translated their work for the public in publications such as Nature and Science. In addition, their work has been publicized in national newspapers, such as the New York Times, and media such as CBS News.

4. Translating scientific knowledge to the public is an important task for scientists to undertake and NSF support enables scientists to develop ways to convey their knowledge that are engaging and easily understandable by the general public. The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has received a grant to develop a traveling museum exhibit on process and consequences of human evolution and its implications for daily life.

The exhibit, "Survivor: The Place of Humans in the Natural World", will provide museum visitors an interactive and hands-on experience to learn about human evolution. The exhibition will explain, among other things, "Why do you have a persistent backache even though you live an active lifestyle?", "Why do mothers have such a difficult time in the birth process and produce such helpless offspring?", and "Are you really a 'finished' product?". The 3,000 square foot exhibit will include a "morphing studio" and other sensory and multimedia techniques and interactive devices to involve the visitor in an exciting and unique learning experience.

The exhibit builds on the wealth of knowledge from physical anthropology and the large collection at the Museum. Alan Mann at the University of Pennsylvania Museum and Princeton University curates the exhibition with Janet Monge at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

It is important to note that each of these projects benefited from multiple-year support from NSF. Yet, despite this, additional sources of support were often needed to complete and realize the fruits of labor. For example, Pohl and her colleagues' excavations yielded findings whose significance, a series of "earliest" writing, corn, and sunflower, was not known until analysis, and additional DNA analysis, was completed. White and his international team of colleagues have continued to discover new hominid fossils and to interpret the significance of these finds through long-term support from NSF. These studies illustrate that science is building process and that good science takes time. Accordingly, we urge the Committee to consider the need for long-term investments in science at NSF in order to yield results that benefit the Nation.

As you can see, Mr. Chairman, these projects represent a diverse range of research...each unique, yet each important in understanding our human history, our human condition and our human relations. They are but a few of the many examples of outstanding research supported by NSF. NSF supports the best science, encouraging strong disciplinary and interdisciplinary research efforts. We believe a solid federal investment in NSF results in a more robust US economy and ensures a leadership role for the US in basic scientific research, science education, and scientific breakthroughs.

By way of background, the AAA is the world's largest professional association of anthropologists. Founded in 1902, the purposes of the AAA are to advance anthropology as the discipline that studies humankind in all its aspects, to further the professional interests of anthropologists, and to disseminate anthropological knowledge to address human problems. The AAA represents more than 11,000 archaeologists, social and cultural anthropologists, physical and biological anthropologists, and linguistic anthropologists.

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