Since literature and art are relatively new arrivals in federal grantland, forgiveness is due the 27 writers who last week naively accused the National Endowment for the Arts of "favoritism" in dispending money.
If those aggrieved literati had consulted the senior supplicants at the Treasury trough -- i.e., the science crowd -- they would have been promptly informed of an essential principle in the political economy of government philanthropy: applicants should fight for a bigger pie, not for equitable measly slices.
That's been the prevailing tactic of American science throughout the post-war period, and it has paid off in billions. Every now and then, of course, there's a regional row over who's to get a big new research center. But apart from that, though the scientific community privately reverberates with heart-felt grievances about winners and losers in the grants sweepstakes, its public pronouncements are concentrated on claims of an urgent need for more money, rather than on intramural squabbles over who got what's available.
For persuading political patrons of that need, science possesses some advantages that are not available to the humanists. For example, there's no literary counterpart to bringing a child in a wheelchair to an appropriations hearing on medical research; nor can the Soviet menace be invoked in behalf of funds for poetry. But in moving down the trail that the scientists blazed, the tag-along artists and writers ought to take note of some adaptable devices that have proved useful for generating money.
Among them is what's known in the grant business as "proposal pressure," the term for the volume of applications for any particular line of work. Since any self-respecting grant system must claim to be sensitive and responsive to important opportunities to advance the field that it supports, proposal pressure is regarded as an important yardstick. The reason is that if credible applications pour in, that's seen as good evidence that people are straining to go to work. A direct effect of this esteem for what the postman delivers is that research administrators often beat the bushes for applications so they can tell their bosses, who then tell Congress, that the available money falls short of what's needed.
Another useful technique is to draw a distinction between applications that are merely approved and those that are approved and funded -- the purpose being to emphasize that worthy research is going undone for lack of money.
The writers who complained about the granting practices of the arts endowment deplored the agency's selection of outside examiners -- peer reviewers, as they're known -- and charged cliquishness, conflict of interest and so forth. What they should realize is that the peer-review system is an inherently bland, responsibility-diluting method that generally tends to caution and conservatism in giving away money. It's doubtful that Darwin or Einstein would have got anything more than a curt rejection note out of such a system. The less money that's available for giving, the less the spirit of adventure -- which again points to science's long-ago realization that it's more fruitful to enlarge the bankroll than it is to win debating points against the techniques of an obscure bureauracy.
What's often and tritely said about the peer-review system is that it's the worst possible money-giving technique, except for all others. Nonetheless, it prevails and is firmly defended by the mandarins of the system, even in the face of evidence that it often fails to perform effectively.
Three years ago, following a survey of reviewers and applicants, the National Science Foundation reported that "nearly every applicant whose last proposal was funded thought the review procedures used for the proposal were appropriate, whereas nearly half of the applicants whose last proposal was declined thought the review procedures were inappropriate."
That deadpan nonsense is science talking -- from a position of super-confidence and strength. Favoritism there is in chemistry, biology and physics -- as many scientists will tell you. It's just not useful to clamor about it in public, which is a lesson yet to be learned by those petitioners to the National Endowment for the Arts.