Yesterday, I tweeted:

Did you know that in 2012, the NSF budget was $7,000,000,000 while the NEA budget was $146,000,000? Yay, arts.

One of the responses I received was:

"And... one cures cancer & powers future, the other cures aesthetic doldrums. Both important, but matters of degree...

I thought I would respond why that rubs me the wrong way, in more than 140 characters. I'm going on the general assumption that government funding of research is a good idea; if you disagree, this probably isn't going to be very relevant to you.

First, the discussion is confused, because there is no outlay of money for design; we have no National Endowment for Design, and so design activities are grouped within both the NEA and the NSF (and, broadly speaking, other agencies, too.) The NSF used to fund a program called CreativeIT, which has offered multi-million dollar grants to some compelling programs like "Co-evolution of Designers and Critics for Fast Exploratory Form-Finding"and "Personalized Tools to Enhance Musical Creativity". The funding has been archived, and there's no similar replacement. They had a single grant awarded through their archived and ironically named "Science of Design" program,and they continue to fund designerly research through the Engineering Design and Innovation program which is quite purposefully not called the Engineering, Design, and Innovation program. The NEA offers a variety of grants to the fine arts, the applied arts, craft-based design, and so on; while they fund programs focused on innovation, there is no explicit grant or section for grantees.

So, simply comparing the budgets of the two organizations is probably not a completely fair assessment, because it leaves out these cross-overs; however, suffice it to say that the arts are poorly funded, and design is poorly funded, and the two are conflated.

Returning to the idea that science plays a "more important role" than either art, design, or innovation, I'll argue that popular culture is demanding a more and more fundamental understanding of creativity and the managing of complexity, yet we still have only a rudimentary understanding of how creativity works (and I don't mean on a neurological level, only: I mean on a comprehensive level). In May of 2010, IBM conducted a survey with 1500 CEOs in 60 countries: "'Coming out of the worst economic downturn in our professional lifetimes - and facing a new normal that is distinctly different - it is remarkable that CEOs identify creativity as the number one leadership competency of the successful enterprise of the future,' said Frank Kern, senior vice president, IBM Global Business Services 'But step back and think about it, and this is entirely consistent with the other top finding in our Study - that the biggest challenge facing enterprises from here on will be the accelerating complexity and the velocity of a world that is operating as a massively interconnected system.'"

Over the last ten years—as the problems of society and culture grow increasingly complex and multifaceted—there has been an increased popular, professional, and academic shift towards including creativity and design theory and method in traditionally engineering or technology-led solution areas. In popular media, Authors Dan Pink and Sir Ken Robinson have called for the entire re-arrangement of education focused not only on STEM, but also in design and art. Dan Pink has called the master of fine arts—the MFA—the "new M.B.A", while Sir Ken Robinson describes that "creativity now is as important in education as literacy." Academic research has identified powerful relationships between creativity and knowledge production through sensemaking, and there is increasing evidence that inference-based design synthesis is the foundation of innovation.

We've claimed that creativity is a fundamental and critical skill for the next generation, but we largely don't understand how it works, why it works, how to foster it, how to teach it, and how to leverage it. That type of knowledge is pure knowledge: it's knowledge that's suitable for funding from the government. And I'll argue that if your goal is a cure for cancer, it's more important to fund knowledge of design and creativity than science, because it's going to be an "out of the box", "innovative", "creative", "alternative", "unexpected", "unpredictable", "surprising" solution that ultimately provides that cure. I'm not arguing that designers will solve cancer. I'm arguing that the knowledge designers use—knowledge about process, making, flexibility, inference, systems, and empathy—should be the same knowledge everyone else uses, too. A STEM focus for research drives a STEM focus for education, and it leads to the overly rationalized western world we now experience. This is the reason we end up with the "worst teacher in New York" having some of the best students in the city, why airplanes are uncomfortable, why—ironically—the NSF has so much more funding than the NEA. We perpetuate the idea that we can "science" our way out of problems that are of our own making. Science is a study of natural phenomenon. Airplanes, funding, teaching, and—arguably—cancer—are of our own making. They aren't natural; they are artificial. It's going to take a different approach to fix them, and that approach has to include the ingredients of design. And it's going to take a concerted level of support from the government, through funding, where the history and precedent of public outcry for this type of support has already been clear.

In retrospect, this is all a strawman. I don't want less funding for Science. I want more funding for Science, Art, and Design. These things are too important to keep missing on.

Originally posted on Wed, 23 May 2012 14:00:13