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Art, Science, and Budget Politics

April 11, 2010

Every once in a while I see hard evidence that my wife pays attention (perhaps even with interest!) to my blathering about science policy. Eliza writes eloquently about photography for a foundation called PhotoPhilanthropy.org. This week she has written about the role of art in building community and contributing to economic and social progress:

Somehow, in contemporary American society, it has become fashionable to fund “science” and unfashionable to fund “art.” Science is associated with progress while art is associated with entertainment, escapism, and frippery. To toss out a fact, the National Institute of Health (NIH) “invests over $30.5 billion annually in medical research” (with an additional $10 billion at the moment, from the stimulus package), and the National Science Foundation (NSF), had a budget of $6.49 billion in FY 2009. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), by contrast, had a comparatively minuscule 2009 budget of $155 million.

I bet that doesn’t seem strange to you. I bet you think, as I have in the past, “Oh, well, science and health—those things really matter. They really help people. Art is just for fun.”

But I no longer agree. I think we over-invest in science, and we under-invest in art.

Eliza’s article highlights a parallel between art and science: we often oversimplify, and willfully misunderstand their roles in society. But as she points out, we do so in very different ways. It looks as if the NEA has begun to move in a new direction, with Director Rocco Landesman making a strong argument for the economic power of art.

If you’ve read all of her post, you might be interested in looking more closely at the comparison of NIH and NEA and trends in the funding of those two bodies. I don’t know anything about the NEA’s political history, but financially they have had a rocky time in recent decades (see here). Their budget was slashed immensely between 1994 and 1996, and they still have not fully recovered.

The huge cuts came just as the government began a rapid doubling of NIH’s budget over the course of five years, from about $11 billion to over $20 billion. Those amounts make the NEA’s budget seem like nothing at all. It’s an amazing disparity that says a lot about the political utility of medical science vs. art.

To understand budget politics in a particular area, it is often useful to examine Congressional Appropriations Subcommittees, which hold most of the power in determining final budgets for the entirety of the federal government. For example, the NEA is located on the Interior Subcommittee (Senate here, House here). If you go to those sites, check out the subcommittee jurisdiction, and you will see what the NEA is competing against for its share of the pie. In some cases, it makes sense. For example, there are many different art-related programs on that list. On the other hand, you might wonder what the NEA has to do with the Indian Gaming Commission and the Forest Service.

Grouping the art-related programs together might make sense from a purely pragmatic point of view. The ability to choose between related activities allows policy makers to balance priorities effectively. On the other hand, it gives them much more sweeping political power. Science is spread throughout the government structure, and thus, throughout the Appropriations Subcommittees. This means that no politician can deal a severe blow to science as a whole. If science programs were concentrated in a single subcommittee, the opposite would be true. This political reality creates a tension between sensible policy making and security from political capriciousness.

And that security may be just what NEA Director Landesman has in mind. According to the NY Times:

[Landesman] is also quietly cultivating powerful allies in Mr. Obama’s cabinet, hoping to make an end run around his budget constraints by joining with agencies that have more money than his.

If the Transportation Department is paying for pedestrian walkways and light rail, Mr. Landesman reasons, why not bring in artists to paint murals? If the Housing and Urban Development Department is revitalizing blighted neighborhoods, why not include gallery space?

It’s nice to see that Landesman is arguing for the central role of art in building community. But it’s also nice to see his apparently savvy approach to budget politics. He’ll be testifying in front of his Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday morning. Best of luck!

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