Why scientists should care about art

Last week, I attended an environmental science conference with an evening reception that featured a short talk on art/science collaborations in the context of environmental science. The talk was followed by a musical performance – inspired by the fragility of peatbog environments – after which I overheard a scientist mutter “What was that? That better not have had research council funding.” He was not the only one; I heard similar sentiments expressed by several others as I walked to dinner.

On some level, I was disappointed by this response, but I wasn’t really surprised. Despite great progress amongst those who are ensconced in the world of science communication to the idea of collaborations between scientists and artists, this is something that many scientists still don’t “get”. Other researchers are openly hostile, and certainly think that scientific research organisations have no business funding this type of work.

To be fair, these are not necessarily the attitudes of people who are disinterested in art — I’d be willing to bet that a fair few of those who walked away from the performance muttering about scientific research council funding being wasted on the arts also have memberships at cultural institutions. That said, whilst being consumers of culture, few scientists really see themselves as having much of a role in its creation. In an increasingly competitive funding landscape, does it really make sense to spend research money on an art project? Does engaging with the arts mean that they are less serious as scientists?

Here, I’d like to make an argument that art is good for scientists, and that there are many reasons they shouldn’t be quite so afraid of letting artists loose in their laboratories.

Data monologue or dialogue? Data Soliloquies is an interesting book, produced by a former artist in residence at UCL, looking at environmental data in a cultural context.

Understanding the Cultural Context of your Research

Hot issues, such as climate change may not be subjects of contention within the scientific community, but it seems clear that the science is not being communicated in a way that has the necessary impact. Although art cannot directly communicate science or change minds, it can create a space for dialogue around difficult issues. Few scientists are likely to deeply consider the role of narrative in their work or the visual impact of their images, but for reaching society as a whole these are vitally important.

Artists are also likely to ask questions that scientists might never think to ask (because they are, well, thinking like scientists). A recent AHRC funding call (see, scientists there is some money in this!) posits that a sophisticated understanding of cultural values, rights, religions, and systems of belief is essential for understanding some of the complex legal, ethical and regulatory policy issues raised in several emerging areas of science and technology. Scientists aren’t trained in this (and that’s ok) — but it is important to engage with people who think about these issues in a different way.

Becoming a better communicator

In my view, art inspired by science isn’t necessarily about the communication of science—it is a response to science. In leaving the scientific arena where it is all to easy to use technical jargon, working with artists can make you rethink the way that you communicate your research. How can you convey the complexity of the problem, while also making it accessible?

A scientist who participated in the Wellcome Trust’s Sciart programme, was reflected on their experience in the report on that programme, saying “Through my PhD I learned to talk in a particular way, write in a particular way. Because of that I lost a piece of myself. Through working with [X] I found the way to become the real me, rather than this slightly objective scientist that I had become. I found my voice, which I had lost because of the scientific process.” 

Becoming a better researcher

Artists examine problems from different angles and engage with information in a different way from scientists.  Some might see this as a deficiency, and to be fair, you wouldn’t want to conduct science in an un-scientific way. However, I would argue that particularly in the area of scientific visualisation, there is a great deal to be gained for scientists who engage with artists.

Chiara Ambrosio, Lecturer in the History of Science at UCL, argues that art offers an opportunity for dialogue and a critique of science. When scientific data sometimes seems like a monologue, art can produce a dialogue. Artists may not – indeed, probably should not – directly challenge the way that science happens or is conducted, but they can raise questions about the purpose of the science and present different ways of looking at research outcomes. 

It’s fun

Clearly, engaging with artists is not something to be done if you don’t also think that it would be fun. Artists aren’t particularly interested being a part of a scientist’s ‘outreach’ box-ticking exercise, or in being relegated to a dusty corner of the lab from which to quietly observe the scientists going about their business. 

I am not so naïve that I believe that having an artist in the lab is something that all scientists should do, or even most. But I do think that more scientists should have an open mind to this approach, and be encouraged to engage with them in the right context. Far from being an impediment to scientific progress, it can be a way of making your science more relevant, more impactful, and hopefully a bit more fun. In my next post, I hope to highlight a few examples of how it happens in practice when artists actively work in labs alongside scientists.

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25 Responses to Why scientists should care about art

  1. Back in 2009 I spent about 6 months working as a consultant before starting my PhD. Of these 6m I spent about 2 working for the artists Jane Edden on a project with Kew Gardens economic botany collection. She had hired me to research the background of 150 odd items from the collection and provide a technical insight into their use of provenience.

    Initially Jane wasn’t all that pleased with my output, because I was so used to communicating to other scientists she couldn’t link my work to her idea. Over the course of the project my communications skills adapted quickly and I am a better scientist for it. I am now back a more permanent job where I get little opportunity to take on projects like that but if one came up again I would jump at the chance. Art and science produce better scientists!

    • Lisa Roberts says:

      This is music to my ears, Mathew. I work with scientists in Australia and get a sense that they would agree with you. It’s just impossible to place numeric value to relationships between artists and scientists that result in works that open up new ways of understanding. Google”krill sex animation” to see an example.

  2. Johanna Kieniewicz says:

    How fortunate you are to have collaborated on such wonderful work– thanks for sharing– it really is extremely interesting, and beautiful. It seems to be a common thread amongst art/science collaborations– initially a bit of suspicion (sometimes just from one side; sometimes both)– but it seems that in the vast majority of cases, both the artist and scientist walk away richer from the experience.

  3. Anonymous says:

    In the past I was given the opportunity to work together with a team of experts on the 3-dimensional reconstruction of a series of scanned human embryos. At first sight; sectioning, histological staining, scanning, indexing and segmenting seems like a very scientific task. However, I’d like to emphasize that the field of anatomy and embryology has always had an artistic background. Approaching embryology from a purely scientific perspective will not result in material that can easily be implemented in research. Take for example the great anatomical artist Frank Netter. Generations of scientists and medicine students have utilized his works of art to get a better insight into anatomy. In fact, Netter is a perfect example of an artist with a background in medicine that was able to change our way of thinking on anatomical education.

    Upon reading this blog post, I was only able to agree with the said statements that the artistic value (if such a thing even exists) of a figure contributes vastly to the accessibility of the data to novices and students. We must never forget that research is done for the public, not for a niche society of scientists.

  4. Pingback: Art for science’s sake, UCL Lunch Hour Lecture, 1 November 2012 | Martin John Callanan (notes)

  5. Wynn Abbott says:

    You’ve made some important points, nice article — the only criticsm I’d have, if you were to apply these thoughts to the science-art world in general (rather than specifically to science-art *collaboration* as here) is that the phrase ‘art inspired by science’ could be problematic.

    It implies an unequal partnership, when the rhetoric of your article is the opposite. I know a number of artists who work in the field who would be unhappy about having their work described as ‘science-inspired’ — I shifted to ‘science-related art’ some time ago.

    Just a thought for the mix…

  6. Johanna Kieniewicz says:

    Wynn, That’s a good point– thanks for making it. I think that these sorts of collaborations can take on a number of levels– some where there is an equal partnership, and others which are indeed more just ‘inspired’.

  7. M Dooley says:

    Really like the concept of improving communication in the areas of science and technology especially when we are developing innovative products that we want to launch on a global market. A point is that if we want to communicate to a technically biased audience then the artist has to consider how that audience thinks and processes information. Very abstract communication is unlikely to hit the mark as was possibly the case with the scientist in question. That having been said the field is full of curmudgeonly academics who unless you are directly polishing their ego won’t appreciate whatever you do or however you do it.

  8. Pingback: The Art of Science « Nomo-nome

  9. great post, it’s quite a lot of time that I’m trying to push scientist to have an open mind regarding art+science, but it’s quite difficult especially in my field (organic chemistry). My last poster for a conference was almost completely infographic instead of boring graphs, and i’ve got a lot of positive feedbacks.

  10. Joe Carbone says:

    My whole career has been a mash-up of my forestry education, liberal arts, public administration, and the arts. Science ALWAYS needs context with the human experience.

  11. Sherry Wagner-Henry says:

    Thanks for sharing your insights and perspective. I wanted to share with you that this collaborative work is being embraced in the state of Wisconsin and at the University of Wisconsin, in particular. We just recently celebrated our 2nd annual Wisconsin Science Festival, which is so integrated with the arts that it is primarily hosted and sponsored by the Wisconsin Arts Board. I work for UW in the School of Business, where a new Arts/Business initiative is being developed that begins to help business professors reshape their curriculum in order to utilize arts-based approaches to learning. Next steps have included mixing arts, science and business students in the classroom to work on arts/venture creation projects together. Finally, we hope to take what we learn in the Wisconsin School of Business and share/develop our concepts and successes with the rest of campus. The professors and students who are most interested in our work right now? Computer science, engineering and biology. It is indeed, because the arts help people connect to and access complex information more readily and retain/recall it more easily.

  12. Peter Hannan says:

    Strongly recommend ‘The Same and not the Same’ by Roald Hoffmann, and ‘The Periodic Table’ by Primo Levi. Also, ‘First Life’, by M. J. Russell, http://www.gla.ac.uk/projects/originoflife/html/2001/pdf_files/Russell2006FirstLife.pdf , a really beautiful scientific article conscious of art. I think some scientists are making the moves to integrate with art; are artists doing the reverse? To some extent, Pink Floyd and Muse, to my knowledge. Richard Feynman also did a number of good things with art.

  13. Pingback: Artistically linked research | Open Optics

  14. Simon Park says:

    Hi Johanna

    I met with Meroe Candy at the Wellcome Trust earlier this week and she pointed me to your fantastic blog.

    As a scientist who engages in a lot of art and science projects, I share your passion and just thought that you might like the website above which documents my explorations

    Best wishes


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