Geography researchers receive National Science Foundation grant, government prioritizes scientific endeavors

Researchers in the Department of Geography at Geneseo received a grant from the National Science Foundation. The grant for faculty researchers represents a governmental tendency to invest in scientific research projects. 

Associate professor of geography David Robertson and assistant professor of geography Stephen Tulowiecki collaborated with University of Buffalo associate professor of geography and Director of Graduate Studies Chris Larsen on a research proposal concerning the cultural and environmental implications of local oak tree populations. Robertson, Tulowiecki and Larsen were notified that they received the prestigious grant in January, according to Tulowiecki.

The federal grant of $232,000 will cover three years of geographical research, according to Robertson. The funds are used to cover the costs of hiring undergraduate research assistants to help conduct research over the course of the summer. 

“We’re getting students interested in this research,” Tulowiecki said. “At smaller institutions that are more focused on undergraduate teaching, it sometimes is a little harder to get students interested in performing research. So part of the strength of our grant was that it was a Research at Undergraduate Institutions Grant, [which is] meant to expose students to research and get them performing research.” 

The funds are used to cover travel expenses to get to local research locations and conferences to present data findings, as well as to purchase equipment such as cameras and a harness system. The main purpose is to engage students and to foster interest in geographical studies, according to Robertson.

The geographers’ NSF grant went through the Office of Sponsored Research, which helps researchers find funding either from the administration or from other funders. Of the 19 unique awards and grants Geneseo faculty researchers received from non-Geneseo sources in the 2016-17 academic year, nine went to science, technology, engineering and math related fields, according to the Sponsored Research Annual Report 2016-17. Education faculty researchers received six awards, while anthropology, art history, Health & Counseling and Milne Library researchers each received one award. 

Director of Sponsored Research Anne Baldwin attributed the disparity of research funding between STEM fields and other fields to the lack of opportunity in non-STEM fields. 

“The federal government has much more funding available for science and health-related sciences, especially than it does for arts and humanities,” Baldwin said. “So if you look at the website of the National Endowment for the Humanities, or the Arts, and look how much money is allocated for them and then compare it to the NSF and the National Institution for Health, you will see how much our government supports different fields and what discrepancy there is.”

The NEH distributed approximately $121 million in grants and awards 2015. The National Endowment for the Arts received a total of approximately $149 million for this fiscal year. By comparison, the NSF received $1.07 trillion from the federal government for 2017. The NIH similarly invests $32.3 billion every year in medical research.          

Tulowiecki felt that the skewed funding allocation is a result from the government’s interest in science that relates to broader economic success.

“We felt a little bit of pressure in writing our grant [as we saw] the need to frame or contextualize our project in an economic sense,” he said. “We had to say we’re not studying oak forests for only the cultural aspect, but also for the economic aspect, because oak is a valuable species for timber.”

Robertson saw the disparity as natural, but did lament the lack of opportunities to research topics for the sake of research. 

“As professors at a liberal arts institution, we definitely wish there was more money available for all types of scholarly pursuits, including in the arts and sciences,” he said. “Unfortunately, for better or worse, there is more money available in the sciences and it’s always been that way.”

 Associate professor of geography David Robertson (right) and assistant professor of geography Stephen Tulowiecki (left) received a selective federal research grant from the National Science Foundation to study the cultural value of local oak trees. Faculty researchers often find that federal funding emphasizes the utility of science, technology, engineering and mathematics research. (Ash Dean/Staff Photographer)

Associate professor of geography David Robertson (right) and assistant professor of geography Stephen Tulowiecki (left) received a selective federal research grant from the National Science Foundation to study the cultural value of local oak trees. Faculty researchers often find that federal funding emphasizes the utility of science, technology, engineering and mathematics research. (Ash Dean/Staff Photographer)

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