NEH and NSF: Who’s Who?

This is the second post in a series called “Who’s Who?” in which Humanities Insights will compare the NEH to other federal agencies and independent humanities organizations. In these posts we hope to explain how the NEH is similar to, different from, and collaborates with a number of different organizations.

The Big Question

Scientific research and technological advancement are essential to society’s progress. But how do these subjects relate to the humanities? One answer to this question can be found by looking at the similarities and differences between the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). While each focuses on different disciplines both are independent federal agencies with parallel interests in advancing the study and the impact of the humanities and the sciences.

The Differences

 The NSF is the only federal agency that supports fields of science and engineering by funding research and “high risk, high pay-off” ideas. Tasked with keeping the U.S. at the forefront of discovery, the NSF supports a wide range of scientific disciplines. For example, the NSF might support scientific study of the tomato, so as to decipher its genome: the genetic history of Solanum lycopersicum.

The NEH, on the other hand, might support a humanistic approach to the tomato, examining its cultural history. How and why did Italian immigrants bolster tomato production in the West? As one of the largest funders of humanities programs and research in the U.S., the NEH supports research and programming carried out by museums, archives, libraries, colleges, universities, radio stations, and individuals across the country.

The Similarities

As the tomato example demonstrates, the NSF and the NEH often fund projects that approach the same subject from different perspectives. Similarly, both strive to improve American education. NSF recently funded a study that tracked student attention spans in classrooms, information that can be used to make teaching more effective. For its part, the NEH offers a free and award-winning website to bolster humanities education: EDSITEment.

The NEH and the NSF share another similarity. Rather than conducting most projects in-house, each agency primarily exports its support to external initiatives. The two agencies may not be involved with the same project, but they may both support the same institution.

A Future of Overlap?

On some occasions, however, the NEH and the NSF fund the same project. For example, both agencies have come together to support Documenting Endangered Languages (DEL), a program that hopes to document our knowledge of languages that are expected to disappear. This program has both a technological and a historical mission; it involves data management and archiving, training the next generation of researchers, and making use of advances in information technology to increase our understanding of the history and structure of languages.

Science, technology, engineering, and math are often packaged together at educational institutions under the acronym STEM. Currently, there is a movement dedicated to incorporating the arts into the STEM fields, which would create the interdisciplinary STEAM. Could the humanities as well as the arts eventually be incorporated? The trend between organizations, like the NEH and the NSF, suggests that this pattern is not only mutually beneficially but, also, sustainable in the future.


 neh logo nsf logo