If only the artsy-museum crowd would shed its naive illusions about federal money, it might share the fruitful experience that its scientific cousins have long enjoyed at the public trough.
All that's required, the scientists have found, is the realistic acceptance of the fact that federal money comes with strings and the paymaster holds the right to set the rules. But no, aesthetic sensibilities gag on such political acquiescence. And that has led to a nasty though needless squall on the issue of whether the National Endowment for the Arts may finance "obscene" works.
The political right has responded with predictable tirades against subsidized filth. Many moderates have prudently ducked, figuring this is one they can sit out. Meanwhile, leading figures in the art world have indignantly challenged the obscenity restrictions as intrusions on artistic integrity. And some artists and institutions have declared that the rules taint the money and they won't take any more of it.
How principled but foolish, as can be seen from an examination of the sciences, which are senior to the arts in beneficial dealings with Washington, as well as wiser and far, far richer. For all the turmoil about the Endowment for the Arts, it runs on an annual budget of merely $170 million, whereas the sciences receive more than $10 billion from a flock of supportive government agencies.
Science, too, encounters disagreeable political dictates about the use of government money, but it doesn't go kamikaze in response. For example, one of the most promising lines of research for treating Parkinson's disease and other neurological disorders involves the transplantation of fetal tissue into the brains of patients. The outgoing Reagan administration banned federal funds for the procedure on the implausible grounds that the prospect of beneficial use of the tissue might tilt a wavering woman to undergo an abortion. The Bush administration has affirmed the ban, thus impeding progress toward the development of treatments. Research on birth control has also dropped off the federal agenda, for purely ideological reasons.
Some researchers have publicly expressed dismay at these political intrusions into their professional jurisdiction. But there's been no storm of protest or repudiation of federal support. Long pragmatic in its dealings with Washington, the science establishment devotes its skills to getting on with its federal patrons, not fighting them. The medical research community is currently directing a great protest at the federal government, but it concerns one subject: more money for medical research.
During the cold war, the Pentagon's desire for close research ties with universities collided with academe's self-righteous insistence on the tradition of openness in research. No problem, however. Desiring both the money and the appearance of rectitude, universities simply adopted the fiction of off-campus laboratories working on classified projects for the Defense Department. The charade dismayed many academics, but it endures as a feature of academic science -- alongside the proud tradition of openness.
Where the artists might also emulate the scientists is in the tactic of depicting the federal government as destructively neglectful, no matter how bountiful the support may be. For example, under a New York Times opinion piece headlined "Medical Research in Ruins," the dean of Yale University School of Medicine recently wrote, "Today our nation's health research program is burning, and the conflagration is spreading." He did not mention that the budget of the National Institutes of Health nearly doubled during the past decade and that the number of NIH grants is at an all-time high.
If the artists are going to make the big time in Washington, they'll have to jettison some pride and those obstreperous colleagues who persist in offending the patrons. There's gold in the capital for those who bend with the rules. For particulars, check with the scientists.
The writer is editor and publisher of Science & Government Report, a Washington-based newsletter.