Art Works Blog

Taking Note: Finding Parallels Between the NIH and NEA

Eldery Gentleman by flickr user Lucia..

In my early to mid-20s, I was a reporter and then managing editor for a news service that covered biomedical research and health policy. Based in the Washington, DC area, I had two main beats. One was Capitol Hill and its vast network of scientific societies and academic research institutions. The other was the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. The first beat led me to loud convention centers and occasionally fractious hearing rooms. The second was far more tranquil, sometimes idyllic. NIH is like a small college campus---at least to outsiders---and even its research conferences and board meetings have an academic feel.

Not that those discussions are in any way starved of reality. Far from it: NIH committee meetings hinge on what kinds of grant applications to fund---who gets how much backing to explore novel ideas that may benefit the American public. Sound familiar? It should, if you’re familiar with the daily work of the Arts Endowment. When I joined the NEA, I saw a similar sifting mechanism. This agency, too, had a peer review system. Through a process no less exacting than the one I had grown to admire, experts and lay people scrutinized grant applications for excellence and merit.

For many years, there the analogy has rested. How else, after all, can the values of medical research possibly align with those of arts and cultural policy?

Well, in more ways than one. This past Wednesday, the NEA Office of Research & Analysis announced creation of a U.S. government task force to catalyze research about the arts and human development. Of 13 federal agencies represented by the group, six are components of the National Institutes of Health. They are: the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development; the National Institute of Mental Health; the NIH Office of Science Education; the NIH Office of Behavioral & Social Sciences Research; the National Institute on Aging; and the National Center for Complementary & Alternative Medicine.

The latter three NIH components (OBBSR, NIA, and NCCAM) will join the NEA in pursuing an independent review of research literature that has reported health-related impacts of arts interventions. The review would identify gaps and opportunities for new research, which might be supported through a federal partnership. The entire task force, meanwhile, will work together to cull examples of programs using the arts to enhance cognitive development, lifelong learning, and emotional well-being, so they can be profiled in a series of webinars for the public. Task force members will discuss how to build capacity for more rigorous studies of how the arts can improve health and educational outcomes for Americans at different stages of life.

The task force was convened in response to a recommendation in The Arts and Human Development: Framing a National Research Agenda for the Arts, Lifelong Learning, and Individual Well-Being, a white paper that the NEA Office of Research & Analysis produced with the National Center for Creative Aging. After reading it and tuning into the November 30 webinar that launched the task force, you may, like me, begin to entertain thoughts of a new kind of “peer review” structure---one that involves artists and medical researchers working side by side to determine which kinds of arts programs would provide the most efficacious therapies. Maybe that day is not far off.

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