Monday, 12 March 2007

State Funding in Art and Science

In this Sunday's Observer John Tusa writes that:
New Labour has never signed up, even theoretically, to the idea that 'art for art's sake' (to use a shorthand phrase) might be a - even if not necessarily the - justification for the arts.

What they have insisted is that the arts must fulfil a social, political, environmental, educational or economic purpose - in other words they must be an 'instrument' for 'delivering' other government policies. The impact on some museums and galleries, according to one observer, is that 'scholarship, collection and curating are out of the window - the new breed of manager/directors is interested only in cramming into their building as many schoolchildren as possible'.
This strikes me as the plaintive cry of a vested interest. While art for art's sake may be a perfectly worthy attitude for the artist you can hardly expect a government to continue to dole out funding for art without any regard as to where it goes and what that funding achieves. The final line about cramming in schoolchildren is appalling - it is certainly not the role of the state to fund the production and curation of art for a tiny minority of artists, critics, collectors and aficionados. What is wrong with wanting kids to experience art, to widen exposure to art? What does Tusa want, for schoolchildren to be discouraged from museums and galleries so that he and his mates can carry on their highminded activities in peace? Certainly scholarship and collecting should continue to funded but these museums and galleries were not founded to be ends in themselves, they were founded to share art with the people.

This kind of vested interest talk reminded me of another debate, that of state funding in science. It is something of a truism in scientific circles that the funding for scientific research should be ring fenced but not targeted. That is there should be X amount of money for, say, medical research, but that scientists should then compete with one another for funding of their projects based on the merits of their proposal - and these merits are not to be considered in terms of public benefit necessarily, but rather the likely scientific knowledge as decided by a panel of their peers.

And it concerns more than just money, in terms of animal research there is a balance to be struck (at least as far as I'm concerned) between the potential good of the research (largely for humankind) and the harm of the research (largely for the animals involved). The argument is usually made that pure scientific research can bring currently unforseen benefits (and, in grant proposals who hasn't talked about all the revolutionary future applications their research will bring?) and there is certainly an argument to be made against the trend towards University research being used as cheap labour for industry (which in the UK manages to avoid investing in R&D rather happily), but there is plenty of blue-skies research that is frankly utterly unconnected with any potential future benefit, interesting perhaps, but some dull and routine science on something important (say mental health, or infectious diseases) goes unfunded. Now this is fine if you think that research should just be an interesting academic exercise, but science isn't funded like the arts and humanities precisely because it makes claims for additional benefits and relevance from the fruits of its study.

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