Art in popular culture has a strong influence in shaping the public’s understanding of science and scientists. Film, novels, comics, illustrations, and other media are more appealing, eye-catching, and memorable than formal scientific lectures. No genetics textbook can compete with X-Men, and no lecture on physics can match the visual wonders of the Enterprise traveling to far-away stars.
Science is extremely complex and multi-faceted, and so is popular culture's portrayal of it, but in its essence, science is just another way to look at ourselves and the universe we find ourselves in. The arts can be a strong tool to allow the public to situate themselves in the complexities of modern scientific inquiry. (Bowdoin Van Riper 2003).
In their 2014 report, Science Culture: Where Canada Stands, the Council of Canadian Academies arrived at the conclusion that “Canadians have positive attitudes towards science and technology and low levels of reservations about science.” They found that the level of public engagement is “high”, and that the Canadian public's knowledge of science is “on a par with or above citizens of other countries”.
Even though Canadians are fortunate to have many opportunities to cultivate and appreciate science, science and society are constantly evolving. Therefore, developing a strong science culture in Canada remains a work in progress.
The same report also recognized the need for an evolution from a “deficit model” focused on one-way communication from scientists to the public, to a two-way engagement model that gives the public a voice throughout the scientific process (Science Culture, 2014).
Science is extremely complex and multi-faceted, and so is popular culture's portrayal of it. The arts can be a powerful tool to allow the public to situate themselves in the complexities of modern scientific inquiry.
A Trip To The Moon (1902).
Transverse sharing of Knowledge
Convergence’s unique approach is based on a “two-way engagement” framework that promotes transverse knowledge sharing without emphasizing one side over the other.
Most scientists disseminate their findings only to peers, in the form of publications and conference presentations. About half of scientists do no public outreach because they consider it to be ineffective. The other half does minimal outreach. Scientists who do engage in outreach activities mainly focus on school children, and tend to adopt a "deficit model" approach, rather than a dialogue or engagement model (Besley et al 2015). The deficit perspective is based on the notion that the public has a knowledge gap and that scientists need to fill this gap by transmitting knowledge to them. Researchers in the field of science communication have repeatedly found that this approach is ineffective. Public engagement is necessary, and public engagement requires two-way communication (Cooper 2016).
There is growing consensus that two-way engagement can strengthen policy outcomes by attracting more voices, building support for science, growing interest among youth, encouraging science careers, improving science knowledge, and boosting the overall value of science to society (CSTA, 2003; RS, 2006; Commonwealth of Australia, 2010). Understanding the public’s needs and interests helps to enhance science’s value to society (Wilsdon et al., 2005; EURAB, 2007). Participatory activities foster interest and community engagement, and help the public to better understand not only a specific scientific issue, but the entire scientific process (Bonney et al., 2009).
There are many ways to achieve two-way public engagement. In the citizen science model, the public can participate in the research process itself by working with scientists to determine research questions, collecting and analyzing data, or discussing and sharing results (Bonney et al., 2009b). Whatever the method chosen to produce community engagement, the level of effectiveness increases when the activity is developed over time. Longer engagement periods create more opportunities for the public to participate in the scientific process, and this generates more understanding of both the specific question and the scientific process itself (EC, 2007; Powell & Colin, 2008).
Participation in the practice of science is not the only form of engagement – scientific techniques and experimental design are only one part of the equation. The new knowledge that science creates is often where science and society intersect most frequently. But conveying this complex knowledge in a way that the public can engage with is a major hurdle, and one that scientists need help with, as demonstrated by the failure of the “deficit model.” Here is where art can be most effective – by translating the complexities of science into a more familiar language.
A Partnership with the Arts
Is not hard to imagine why neuroscience-inspired Academy Award-winning movies have generated such a huge impact on viewers worldwide.
Running from 1996 to 2006, the U.K. Wellcome Trust’s Sciart programme was originally launched to fund “visual arts projects which involved an artist and a scientist in collaboration to research, develop and produce work which explored contemporary biological and medical science”. Ultimately, the Sciart programme supported 118 projects with nearly £3 million of funding (roughly 5 million CAD). The results from this programme demonstrate that the involvement of the arts in science helps to communicate scientific information in new and attractive ways to broad audiences (Glinkowski & Bamford 2009). The opening of new venues for the public to understand, discuss and participate in scientific discovery provided a way for them to challenge and be critical of science, while reinforcing the notion that association between different aspects of society stimulates interdisciplinary work.
In studies examining art-science collaborations, public outcomes often include increased observational and analytic abilities, improved questioning skills, more focus, and greater appreciation for nuance (Piro 2010).
The ArtNeuro at the University of London is a prime example of science reaching new audiences. This collaborative initiative showcased hard-to-understand science in completely different and more accessible ways (Bryony 2014). Such engagement between science and art is not new. Canada witnessed an example in 2000 in a theater piece commissioned by Michael R. Hayden, Professor of Medical Genetics at the University of British Columbia. The Score, which was later adapted into a film, tells the story of a brilliant geneticist who discovers that she has the same Huntington gene that killed her mother. Ethical issues and genetic determinism surface after she discovers that she is pregnant. Hayden believes that the play “transforms the scientific ideas explored in the world of the laboratory into universal themes of human identity, freedom and creativity, and opens a door for discussion between the scientific community and the public in general” (Genome Canada, 2006).
In the United States, advocates for the transition of "STEM" programmes into "STEAM" programmes call for the incorporation of the arts in discussions of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in an effort to “achieve a synergistic balance.” Such advocates argue that including the arts can extend the reach of science to, and thereby inspire, a community that produces an astonishing 70 billion dollars of annual aggregate income (Piro 2010).
It is not hard to imagine why Academy Award-winning movies such as Awakenings, Rain Man, A Beautiful Mind, Still Alice, and The Theory of Everything, have made such a huge impact on viewers worldwide. These movies showcase the intricacies of and challenges behind extremely complex neuroscience subjects from a deeply human perspective. Such touching revelations are only possible through art.
Scientists can find valuable and rewarding partnerships in the arts.
Reach out and start a collaboration.
As any good effort to support an idea here is a list of pertinent references and documents used during the creation of this brochure:
Bonney, R., Cooper, C. B., Dickinson, J., Kelling, S., Phillips, T., Rosenberg, K. V., & Shirk, J. (2009b). Citizen science: A developing tool for expanding science knowledge and scientific literacy. BioScience, 59(11), 977-984.
Bowdoin Van Riper. (2003). What the public thinks it knows about science. EMBO Reports, 4(12), 1104-1107.
Bryony 2014. ArtNeuro: The art, and the science, behind a collaborative public engagement.
Commonwealth of Australia. (2010). Inspiring Australia: A National Strategy for Engagement with the Sciences. Canberra, Australia: Government of Australia.
Cooper C. - Scientist should talk to the public, but also listen. Scientific American, Feb 5 2016.
Council of Canadian Academies, 2014. Science Culture: Where Canada Stands. Ottawa (ON): The Expert Panel on the State of Canada’s Science Culture, Council of Canadian Academies.
CSTA (Council of Science and Technology Advisors). (2003). Science Communications and Opportunities for Public Engagement. Ottawa (ON): Government of Canada
EC (European Commission). (2007). Report of the science in society session. Public engagement in science. Paper presented at Portuguese Presidency Conference. The Future of Science and Technology in Europe, Lisbon, Portugal.
EURAB (European Research Advisory Board). (2007). Research and Societal Engagement: Final Report. Brussels, Belgium: EURAB.
Genome Canada. (2006). Groundbreaking musical drama fuses science and art. GE3LS, 4(1), 1.
Glinkowski, P. & Bamford, A. (2009). Insight and Exchange: An Evaluation of the Wellcome Trust’s Sciart Programme. London, United Kingdom: Wellcome Trust.
Piro, J. (2010). Going from STEM to STEAM: The arts have a role in America’s future, too. Education Week, March 10.
Powell, M. C. & Colin, M. (2008). Meaningful citizen engagement in science and technology: what would it really take? Science Communication, 30(1), 126-136.
RS (The Royal Society). (2006). Factors Affecting Science Communication: A Survey of Scientists and Engineers. London, United Kingdom: RS.
Wilsdon, J., Wynne, B., & Stilgoe, J. (2005). The Public Value of Science. Or How to Ensure that Science Really Matters. London, United Kingdom: Demos.
Disclaimer: The internet data and information referenced in this report were correct, to the best of the Council’s knowledge, at the time of publication. Due to the dynamic nature of the internet, resources that are free and publicly available may subsequently require a fee or restrict access, and the location of items may change as menus and webpages are reorganized.