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 for allowing 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).
A Trip To The Moon (1902).
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.
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 papers and conference presentations. About half of them do no scientific outreach because they think it is 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 all scientists need to do is fill it by transmitting knowledge to them. Researchers in the field of science communication have repeatedly found that this is ineffective. Public engagement is necessary and that requires two-way communication (Cooper 2016).
The broad consensus is that a two-way engagement effort can strengthen policy outcomes by pulling in 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 also helps to enhance science’s value to society (Wilsdon et al., 2005; EURAB, 2007), and participatory activities can foster interest and community engagement, and help the public better understand not only a specific scientific issue but also the scientific process (Bonney et al., 2009).
Two-way public engagement can be achieved through many approaches. The public can engage 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, which in exchange generate more interest and understanding of both, the specific question, and the scientific process itself. (EC, 2007; Powell & Colin, 2008).
Participation in the doing of science is not the only form of engagement – scientific techniques and experimental design are only one part of the equation. The concepts and ideas that science is based on and the new knowledge that it creates is perhaps the juncture where science and society intersect most. 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 evidenced by the failure of the “deficit model.” Here is where art can engage in the process by translating the complexities intrinsic to science to a more familiar language.
A Partnership with the Arts
Is not hard to imagine why the Academy Award-winning movies that include neuroscience subjects have generated such a huge impact on viewers worldwide.
Running from 1996 to 2006, the U.K. Wellcome Trust’s Sciart 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”. The Sciart initiative ended up supporting 118 projects with nearly £3 million of funding (roughly 5 million CAD). The results show that the involvement of arts in science helps to communicate scientific information in new and more attractive ways to major 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 to be critical of science, while reinforcing the notion that association between different aspects of society stimulates interdisciplinary work.
Some of the outcomes for the public that are often mentioned in studies examining art-science collaborations include increased observational and analytic prowess, better questioning skills, more focused periods of intense concentration, and greater understanding that problems can have multiple answers (Piro 2010).
ArtNeuro at the University of London is another fine example of science reaching new venues. The collaborative initiative showcased hard-to-understand science in completely different and more accessible ways (Bryony 2014). This type of engagement between science and art is not new. Canada experienced an example in a play commissioned by Michael R. Hayden, Professor of Medical Genetics at UBC back in 2000. 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 then 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 up a door for a discussion between the scientific community and the public in general” (Genome Canada, 2006).
In the United States, advocates for the transition of the STEM programs to STEAM call for incorporation of the arts in discussions of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in an effort to “achieve a synergistic balance”. Such groups point out that the inclusion of the arts in the discussion can extend the reach of science to, and thereby inspire, a community that produces an astonishing $70 billion aggregate annual income just in that country (Piro 2010).
It is not hard to imagine why the Academy Award-winning movies Awakenings, Rain Man, A Beautiful Mind, Still Alice, and The Theory of Everything, have generated such a huge impact on viewers worldwide. They showcase the intricacies and challenges behind extremely complex neuroscience subjects from a deeply human perspective. This is only possible through the involvement of the arts in the process.
We as scientists can find invaluable and rewarding partnerships in the Arts, we just need to reach out and start the 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.