The NEA, Staffing Decisions, Incompetence, and Complete Disdain for Science

This post is going to meander… apologies, but sometimes my thought process works this way.

I was reading a commentary on the NEA and the first two paragraphs jumped out at me:

For a brief and amusing interval in 2002 I was a candidate for the position of chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Amusing, for there was never the slightest chance of my being chosen. This was inadvertently made clear by the first question during my interview in the East Wing of the White House. After the preliminary niceties, I was asked to sketch my life and accomplishments. “Of course,” my interviewer prompted helpfully, “we all know about your music.”

Ah yes, my music. Either she was referring to a certain defunct college band, suggesting background checks of shocking omniscience, or more likely she had taken me for the distinguished Welsh composer of film music. At that instant I knew that we were only going through the motions, and that a presumptive nominee was already waiting in the wings. And so he was. That September, Dana Gioia, a translator and poet of considerable distinction, was appointed chairman of the NEA.

I’ll be honest… I’m something of a philistine. I can recognize a Rodin or a Matisse or a Henry Moore on sight by style alone, even if its a piece I’ve never seen before…. but none of them do anything for (or to) me. I don’t listen to much music, and one of my goals in life is to avoid the ballet at all costs. I also haven’t been to theater voluntarily except once (I was required to attend a number of times in college), and much of what critics consider literature seems to be just so much dreck to me. I recognize that a lot of people get a lot out of these activities, but I can’t comment on art, and I want to stay away from that issue.

I do find the description of the interview fascinating…

1. If the White House had its mind set on a specific candidate, why did they waste the time of other people and the resources that belong to the American public interviewing other candidates? (Its one thing when companies do this nonsense – but its not my money they’re wasting.)
2. The description of an administration official tasked with staffing not having any idea who she was talking with rings very true. As I’ve noted before, if the folks making the hiring decisions have no idea what they’re doing, you end up with an organization staffed with people who have no idea what they’re doing. And as I’ve also noted before, this administration is qualitatively different than the other administrations I remember from my adult life (Reagan, GHW and Clinton).
3. Another thing I’ve noted before… in most fields, we want to see specialists running the show for the government. They can be hacks, but we want them to at least be folks who can mumble the right set of words in roughly the correct order. Nominees to the Supreme Court, or in the Attorney General’s or Solicitor General’s office have to be attorneys. The Joint Chiefs have to be military people. The Surgeon General has to be a doctor. To Economic jobs, they can be attorneys, but we at least want them to have taken an econ course or two.

But collectively we don’t give a damn if this is true for science related jobs. Here is a list of people who have held the post of Secretary of Energy. Clicking on their bios, its clear at least half of them couldn’t produce a high-school physics definition of the word “energy” to save their lives. And remember the mad cow scare? The guy who discovered prions essentially said that either the Secretary of Agriculture, who made the decisions about what to do to combat the disease (i.e., pretty much nothing – the can could be kicked down the road a long way and if problems surface, they’ll be on someone else’s watch), knew something about the topic or he did, but both could not simultaneously be the case. Why is science such an irrelevant thing that we can treat it with a level of disdain we would never use toward other fields? And what is this going to do us in the long run?