Acknowledging the Value of Fulbright-Hays Research Grants

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

The first thing I do when I begin an academic book is read the acknowledgements. I follow this habit for a number of reasons: I like to know who the author’s teachers and influences have been; I want to see which archives and libraries he or she has visited; and I often enjoy the glimpse I get into someone else’s life and work, whether or not we’ve ever met. A book’s bibliography tells me which sources the author has drawn on, but the acknowledgements are where I truly get a sense of the personal and material factors that helped shape that scholar’s research.

Those material factors come across most clearly in a paragraph of the acknowledgements that I usually just skim through, where the author provides a laundry list of different types of funding that have supported the scholar’s research over the years. Despite my often hasty read of this section, however, I have noticed that some grant programs appear more frequently than others, and their recurrence signals to me that those might be good places to look when I need money to finance my own research. After all, they’ve awarded money to generations of scholars whose work falls into the same geographic region or field of study as mine, so there’s a better-than-even chance that they’ll like my project too, right?

The Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad (DDRA) grants have long been one of those important funding programs, providing resources to more people than I can count and enabling them to travel to locations around the world for extended periods of fieldwork. The program’s mission is explicitly outward-looking: its description on the U.S. Department of Education’s website explains that projects funded by the Fulbright-Hays “deepen research knowledge on and help the nation develop capability in areas of the world not generally included in U.S. curricula” (excluding, for example, Western Europe). A product of the Cold War, the DDRA program was founded by the U.S. government in the early 1960s as part of a push to increase Americans’ understanding of the world around them by supporting educators who would conduct research abroad and then return home to share their work with students and colleagues. Ever since I entered graduate school three years ago, the Fulbright-Hays (and separate but related Fulbright-IIE) has loomed large in my mind; while I certainly didn’t assume that I was sure to receive one of these prestigious grants, I knew that the program had a significant history of funding dissertation projects involving research in China (including that of China Beat consulting editor Jeff Wasserstrom, a DDRA recipient in 1986-87).

That history took a big hit last week, when the Department of Education announced that due to budgetary shortfalls, the 2011-2012 Fulbright-Hays competition had been cancelled. No word about the program’s future, but in my eyes suspending the grants even once is dire enough.

I heard this news on Friday, less than 24 hours after passing the qualifying examinations that transformed me from a graduate student into a PhD candidate whose primary concern is now how to fund and execute a dissertation project. I wasn’t in this year’s Fulbright-Hays competition; I already knew that my research would be conducted stateside for the 2011-2012 academic year, so I didn’t apply. Putting together my application for next year’s competition, however, was going to be a big part of my summer, and that now looks like it might not be on my to-do list after all.

Are there other funding sources out there? Yes, absolutely; the Fulbright-Hays was by no means the only fish in the sea. It was, however, quite a big fish, one that provided awardees with a certain peace of mind and ability to carry out their work without having to negotiate multiple funding agencies and their bureaucracies. Applying for grants takes time—both the applicant’s and his or her advisor’s, who often have to write letters of recommendation—and even after a grant is awarded, the recipient must be vigilant about filing paperwork, ensuring that funds enter one’s bank account in a timely manner, and sending in reports at the end of the project explaining how the money was used. It is entirely possible to find multiple small grants that are collectively sufficient to support overseas dissertation research, but graduate students must squeeze the time-consuming application process into their ordinary teaching and research schedules, to say nothing of time they normally spend with friends and family.

It’s also worth mentioning that some of those alternative funding streams have been similarly reduced or eliminated in recent years, particularly for students at public institutions. In the University of California system, for example, the Pacific Rim Research Program—which has funded dissertation research for many students in East Asian studies, including another China Beat consulting editor, Kate Merkel-Hess—has been steadily eroded over the past few years. Everywhere graduate students turn, it seems, we find another door marked “Not accepting applications at this time.”

What concerns me most about the cancellation of the Fulbright-Hays isn’t necessarily its immediate effects on my colleagues and myself, though those aren’t insignificant. Rather, it worries me—even frightens me—that with this action the U.S. government is signaling its lack of commitment to education and forging bonds with communities abroad. Programs like the Fulbright-Hays grants aren’t just about supporting individual scholars; they have a larger mission of promoting work that collectively helps all of us contextualize the world we live in and recognize how it has come to look the way it does. By not providing the funding necessary to support this year’s crop of applicants, the government is implying that such work isn’t important, that we can exist in a global community but don’t need to understand it.

I have a shelf full of books whose acknowledgements indicate that American leaders grasped the significance of this mission in the past. I am now concerned, however, that few are willing to continue it into the future, and this loss, surely, will be to the detriment of all—not just graduate students.

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