Why We Should Spend More on Humanities Research in a High-Tech World

Thomas Burish::

In a world increasingly driven by science and technology, it came as no surprise to read in The Chronicle recently that only a small fraction of the research funding at the nation’s top universities is directed toward the humanities. After all, the vast majority of breakthroughs that benefit society come from the scientific, medical, and engineering disciplines; these also are the areas with the most expensive space, infrastructure, equipment, and program costs. No one argues that the humanities require as much funding as these other disciplines. Even so, I found the numbers disappointing.

According to The Chronicle’s summary of its survey:

“Only two of the top 50 public institutions for research-and-development spending in the humanities in the 2016 fiscal year devoted more than 5 percent of their overall R&D spending to the humanities, while 19 of the top 50 private nonprofit institutions did. Median R&D spending on the humanities among the 388 academic research institutions that reported such spending that year was $224,000.”

This is simply not enough as we look to a future that will be heavily influenced, if not largely determined, by technology, including autonomous systems, big-data analytics, and artificial intelligence. The need to understand the human dimensions and impacts of those advances, as well as the basis for making many of the ethical decisions that should guide their use, has never been greater. We are beginning to face basic questions about what it means to be human and may soon face questions of whether some of the technologies of the future will have human rights.