If you want to know what a society values, look at how it spends its money -- it is hard to imagine a clearer statement of the devaluing of the power and importance of knowledge than the budget proposed last week by President Trump. Many people whose lives are devoted to discovering and applying knowledge of all kinds are no doubt reeling from this extraordinary budget.
As the former principal deputy director and acting director of the National Institutes of Health, I am stunned by the proposed cuts. The NIH serves as the primary funder of biomedical and behavioral research dedicated to improving the lives of all Americans (and, indeed, all humans), and this reduction of support would have an unprecedented negative impact on the health and welfare of this country for decades to come.
I know that many scientists will be motivated by the proposed budget to engage with the political process and wholly fight those devastating proposed cuts. But as a physician and scientist turned president finishing my seventh year at Grinnell College, a liberal arts college in Iowa, I want to add my voice to those who are equally appalled by the proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
When I was completing my postgraduate medical training at the University of Pennsylvania, I met with one of my mentors, Dr. Samuel Martin, a renowned leader in 20th-century medicine, to tell him that I had decided to obtain a Ph.D. in the social sciences and to start a career in academic medicine largely motivated by a desire to study and ultimately improve the health status of poor people. I will never forget his immediate response. He told me, “If you really want to get people to care about that, you would be better off writing a great novel on the topic.”
He was not challenging the importance of science in addressing any health problem; rather, he was simply nudging me to consider that a big part of the challenge of addressing the problem was in helping those who are far removed from the lives of poor people to understand the actual lived experience of bad health and to acknowledge the distinct ability of fiction to enable us to encounter experiences other than our own. Perhaps a novel would do for this topic what Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with all its flaws, did for the abolition movement. The proposed Trumpcare replacement of Obamacare suggests that there exists a continued need for such a novel.
Over the past decade, there have been ongoing discussions and concerns about the importance of educating more young people in the STEM fields. Only recently have leaders begun to talk more about supporting and encouraging education in the humanities and social studies -- both as important contributors to our society on their own and also as vital elements in the education of students in the STEM fields. The sciences tell us what we are and how we are as individual humans and as a society; the arts and humanities tell us who we are.
Our students majoring in the sciences see the humanities and social studies as essential parts of their education. They will benefit as scientists from knowing how to write persuasively and think clearly about complex issues and to understand the humanistic implications of their work. It is precisely because of the importance of the humanities to the liberal arts education that we are embarking on one of the largest building projects in the history of Grinnell: a complex that will house and connect the teaching and scholarship of the humanities and social studies to complement our existing center for the sciences.
The humanities also play perhaps the lead role among scholarly disciplines in fostering the imagination. Before any scientist can dive into an important problem or question, she must first be able to imagine a world in which the problem is addressed or the question is answered.
Sometimes great art and literature can help us all to better understand a complicated social problem, like health inequities, and even motivate us to find solutions. I serve on the advisory committee for a wonderful program, Culture of Health: Toward Health Equity, at the National Academy of Medicine. The program, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is grounded in the recognition that health is determined by complex and deeply rooted causal factors that span the full range of dimensions of our society -- biologic, economic, social, educational, cultural. It aims to accelerate the elimination of inequities in health by fostering, expanding and synthesizing the evidence base and promoting its application toward a comprehensive approach to attacking the root causes of health inequities.
A recent planning meeting of the program began with a performance by the accomplished Appalachian storyteller Adam Booth, whose career has been supported by organizations funded by the NEA and NEH. To be honest, I was not sure what to expect, but I ended up deeply moved -- and even fired up -- by a spoken performance that focused on the challenges of a single working mother in simply caring for her family and getting to work one night. During the performance, the audience of mostly health-care professionals and academic researchers was mentally and probably unconsciously checking the boxes for all the ways the character’s choices and decisions would directly affect her health and the health of her family.
As a scientist whose research focused on health inequalities, I doubt that any other presentation could have driven home so effectively the complex web of factors that need to be addressed if we truly want to eliminate health disparities. It framed and motivated the entire rest of the day of more traditional medical- and science-based presentations.
The National Endowments for the Humanities and for the Arts play essential roles in the creative life of this country. The NEA and NEH make especially vital contributions in supporting arts and humanities work in underserved populations, including the poor and veterans. The agencies have funded countless projects that have deeply and permanently enriched our country.
Yet the proposed budget suggests that collective society as represented by the federal government has no need to support the arts and humanities -- that we place no value on a federal role in supporting the exploration of our humanity through these disciplines. To eliminate the modest budgets of those agencies is shameful and reflects a failure to understand the importance of supporting such fields in advancing knowledge and understanding of the human condition.
The federal government must support the entire knowledge enterprise of our country in all its manifestations. The NEA and NEH are necessary and important complements to the funding of the biomedical, social, behavioral and natural sciences and scientists. America needs, perhaps most importantly, them to continue helping all of us imagine that a better world is possible.