TAMPA — Justin Shiver came away from a year in Iraq with one overriding thought: We need more anthropologists.
They are the ones really making a difference over there, said Shiver, who worked as a combat medic. They help soldiers and locals work together. They are the reason Americans haven't been rejected as enemies. More than anyone with a gun, Shiver says, anthropologists save lives.
That's why the 26-year-old University of South Florida student, who's studying to become an anthropologist himself, was so confused by Gov. Rick Scott's comments this week.
While promoting his jobs plan, Scott said the state doesn't need a whole lot more anthropologists. Rather, Florida should prioritize degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (known as STEM fields), the governor said.
"It just shows a lack of understanding," Shiver said. Anthropology is a science. The study of people and the way they interact among cultures is important to a number of professions, he said.
That sentiment was loudly echoed throughout the anthropology community in the days after Scott's comments, with national organizations sending letters in defense and online forums lighting up in protest.
And it was the talk of the hallways at the University of South Florida's anthropology department Thursday. One professor read Scott's quote aloud at the start of her class. It prompted eye rolls and chuckles and hands raised to give examples of why Scott is wrong.
What about the anthropologists who work in health care? the students offered. Or in engineering? Or as consultants for businesses? Or for the government? Does Scott know that anthropologists help law enforcement solve crimes by identifying human remains? Does he know they help doctors understand epidemics?
"I know," professor Roberta Baer told her students. "It seems like a no-brainer."
Nobody knows why Scott said what he did, Baer said, but she pointed out that Scott's daughter got a degree in anthropology and is now pursuing a master's in business.
As Brent Weisman, chairman of the USF anthropology department put it, "It was mystifying to us in the academic discipline of anthropology, in terms of why the governor targeted us."
Anthropology students do get productive jobs, he said. According to an American Anthropological Association study in 2009, 64 percent of master's graduates had jobs within a year of graduation. Salaries range from $30,000 to $60,000, depending on the degree earned, Weisman said.
"(Scott) assumed that anthropology is an easy target, low-hanging fruit, that the public would immediately recognize as a frivolous pursuit," Weisman said. "Clearly, that is not the case."
The same 2009 anthropology survey does note that only one percent of graduates got jobs in the private sector, with more working for the government or as teachers. And Scott's job plan hangs on the notion that Florida will need approximately 120,000 new workers in STEM fields through 2018.
However, the anthropology folks say people in their field work closely with other sciences and industries. One advantage to Scott's anthropology diss, students and teachers said, is that it gives people an opportunity to learn about the many jobs anthropologists actually do.
Take Shiver, the veteran, who hopes to work for the U.S. Department of State after graduation. He, too, wants to help educate government and military folks about how to interact with other cultures.
Or Maryann Cairns, a USF graduate assistant who works with local refugees. She studies ways to make them feel more connected to the community, which leads to them getting jobs.
Dozens of other USF students put together an interactive presentation with similar examples of how their work helps the state. There's a project aimed at increasing visitation and revenues in state parks; another on increasing hurricane preparedness for at-risk communities.
Then there's this: a National Science Foundation-funded study at USF to examine why more kids don't enroll in STEM courses. They've been working on it for nearly a decade.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813-226-3337.