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Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein
Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein

Artsmarts: Why Cutting Arts Funding Is Not a Good Idea

Funding the arts funds scientific innovation and economic development.

Congress is once again making plans to gut the National Endowment for the Arts, so it is time for us to post more data supporting the arts. In previous posts, we've argued that the arts are essential for the development of scientific imagination. (See A Missing Piece in the Economic Stimulus; Arts and Crafts: Keys to Scientific Creativity; Arts at the Center of Creative Education). Here we argue that the arts stimulate economic development by fostering scientific and technological innovation.

Painting by Albert Michelson, the first US Nobel laureate.

Let's start with a few inspiring quotes about the value of arts from CEOs of major technological companies:
"At Boeing, innovation is our lifeblood. The arts inspire innovation by leading us to open our minds and think in new ways about our lives - including the work we do, the way we work, and the customers we serve," writes W. James McNerney, Jr., Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, The Boeing Company. (1)

"We are a company founded on innovation and believe the arts, like science and engineering, both inspire us and challenge our notions of impossibility," says George David, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, United Technologies Corporation (1)

"The arts foster creativity, and creativity is central to our business strategy," comments Randall L. Tobias, Chairman of the Board and CEO, Eli Lilly and Company. "Indeed, we believe there is a strong link between the creativity nurtured by the arts and scientific creativity. If our scientists are stimulated through their involvement with the arts, then it's ultimately good for our business -- and our community." (2)

Helge W. Wehmeier, President and Chief Executive Officer, Bayer Corporation agrees: "A good well-rounded education must include the study of both the arts and the sciences. As a company we explore the synergies between arts and science. Of all subjects, the arts and sciences are the closest and most interrelated. They offer complementary ways of understanding the same object or event... They also teach critical thinking, creativity and curiosity - skills that make for an educated and innovative work force." (3)

Music composed by Nobel Prize winner Albert Michelson

Unfortunately, these observations by our industrial leaders, and many similar statements that can be found in the references at the end of this post, seem to be insufficient to convince Congress to support the arts. So a group of us at Michigan State University (*) have undertaken a study of the relationship of arts and crafts experience to scientific and technological innovation.

In our initial research, we contacted scientists and engineers who graduated from MSU's Honors College between 1990 and 1995. We asked them to take a survey about their childhood, young adult, and mature adult participation in various arts and crafts and we enquired about various measures of their innovativeness, including the number of patents they had obtained and the number of companies they had helped to found.

Our findings amply validate the observations of the CEOs quoted above.
The data our scientists and engineers provided to us demonstrate that the more arts and crafts a person masters, the greater their probability of becoming an inventor or innovator. In the first place, Honors College graduates in the sciences, technology, engineering and math were three to eight times as likely to have had lessons in any particular art or craft as the average American. Those Honors College graduates who have founded companies or produced licensed patents have even higher exposures to arts and crafts than the average Honors College scientist or engineer.

Take home message? The more arts and crafts experience our scientists and inventors have, the more likely they will be to generate creative capital of clear economic value. Invest in arts and crafts and it comes back to you many-fold.

Virginia Apgar, whose “Apgar score” provide critical health information about every newborn baby, making one of her violins.

Which arts should we invest in? All of them! While almost all arts correlated with increased success as a scientist or inventor in our study, lifelong involvement in dance, composing music, photography, woodwork, metal work, mechanics, electronics and recreational computer programming were particularly associated with development of creative capital.

And invest early! A particularly striking finding was that early hands-on experience with arts and crafts was critical to continuing participation in these arts and crafts. And continuing participation in arts and crafts across a lifetime was one of the strongest correlates to generating patents and new companies.

The policy implications of our results point to government support of the arts as an economic stimulus. Yet President Obama has just recommended cutting the Department of Education arts education to ZERO in 2012. ZERO!!!! Adult innovators are able to invent because they have extensive experience making things starting as young children. Arts and crafts skills are the source of that inventiveness. The arts may not be rocket science; but they make rocket science possible.

In fact, our Honors College scientists and engineers reached this conclusion themselves. Eighty-one percent of the respondents to our survey recommend arts and crafts education as a useful or even essential background for a scientific or engineering innovator. Many provided commentaries just like those of the CEOs quoted above:

One wrote: Arts and crafts encourage experimentation - there's no one right way to do art. It encourages one to break out of a "follow the steps to get some result" mold. I feel like I am adept at getting my bearings in unfamiliar situations and determining a direction to follow. This is very helpful when troubleshooting, where the unexpected happens all the time.

Another agreed: After these many years in the classroom, I see those that have music and arts background seem to do very well in physics and often times head to engineering careers.

A third argued that experience with arts and crafts, allows you to explore materials in a different way, figure out how to put things together, try to do things differently.

While causality cannot be determined by these preliminary findings, the combination of data and personal testimony strongly indicate that arts and crafts education and ongoing participation are correlated with economic development of creative capital. Eliminating arts and crafts programs will certainly harm education in these areas, and will almost certainly have serious negative economic consequences as well.

Hobble the arts and crafts and you hobble innovation. Hobble innovation and our economy will suffer. Conversely, invest in arts and crafts and every dollar will stimulate the economy not only today, but through innovation a host of tomorrows.

© Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein 2011

(Nobel prize winning chemist Linus Pauling playing his guitar, left. And check out

the UTUBE video of Michelson (above) painting:



(2) David Finn and Judith A. Jedlicka, The Art of Leadership: Building Business-Arts Alliances. New York: Abbeville Press, 1998, p. 88.

(3) David Finn and Judith A. Jedlicka, The Art of Leadership: Building Business-Arts Alliances. New York: Abbeville Press, 1998, p. 44.

(*) ARTSMARTS Study Participants: Rex LaMore, Ph.D., Director Center for Community and Economic Development; Robert Root-Bernstein, Ph.D., Professor of Physiology; James Lawton, MFA, Professor and Studio Artist, College of Arts & Letters; John Schweitzer, Ph.D., Professor, Center for Community and Economic Development; Michele Root-Bernstein, Ph.D., Adjunct Faculty, College of Arts and Letters; Eileen Roraback, Ph.D., College of Arts and Letters; Amber Peruski, MSU Honors College; Megan VanDyke , MSU Honors College; Laleah Fernandez, Doctoral student, College of Communication

About the Author
Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein

Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein are co-authors of Sparks of Genius, The 13 Thinking Tools of the World's Most Creative People.

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