Science communication needs a touch of the Renaissance

'A Formidable Display' by Chris McClelland, Finalist, Works on Paper, Waterhouse 2013.
‘A Formidable Display’ by Chris McClelland, Finalist, Works on Paper, Waterhouse 2013.

Its official: science fact is losing out to a range of fictions in the public arena. A recent survey of science literacy conducted by the Australian Academy of Science found that fewer people could answer basic science questions, such as how long does it take the earth to traverse around the sun and did humans coexist with dinosaurs, than three years ago when the survey was last conducted.

This Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons image is from the user Chris 73 and is freely available at // under the creative commons cc-by-sa 3.0 license
Nautilus shell showing logarithmic growth. This Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons image is from the user Chris 73 and is freely available at // under the creative commons cc-by-sa 3.0 license

We need only look at the climate change debate to see that science has failed to communicate effectively. This sector has been plagued by unbalanced media reporting favouring the denial stand point, open support by compromised pressure groups and unprofessional targeting of high profile scientists prepared to take a stand against fictitious opinions in favour of science fact. Aside from the complex political and economic issues around climate change, a science communication strategy that relies openly or subtly on demonstrating that the public or those holding opposing views are ignorant of the facts or too stupid to understand them doesn’t dissuade a sceptical audience from their deep seated view point. If anything, crude messaging will only further alienate and entrench those holding opposing view points.

'Cocoons' by Gretta Planchon Allen, Finalist, Paintings, Waterhouse 2013.
‘Cocoons’ by Gretta Planchon Allen, Finalist, Paintings, Waterhouse 2013.

Science communication needs some help and it needs it now. Today more than ever we are relying on technological developments to help us understand and address the challenges facing our planet and environment. Being able to engender an understanding of science, in a culture rapidly going the other way, is critical to ensuring new technology opportunities for our children. It is critical to fuelling smart new ideas that ensure our society’s vibrancy. And it is critical that we can actively communicate the wonder and potential benefits of the earth’s rich resources to its people.

'Fraser Island Dingo II' by Tanya Harricks, Finalist, Paintings, Waterhouse 2013.
‘Fraser Island Dingo II’ by Tanya Harricks, Finalist, Paintings, Waterhouse 2013.

We need to be able to offer opportunities that are inspired by and inspire the understanding of science. We need to make science personally relevant on every level. This is particularly true if we are to engage school children and students in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), on which the advanced economies rely for major technological development.

So how can science messages be more effectively communicated in a world where competition for the attention of the public is at an all time high, and where in any head to head competition to grab attention science issues are likely to lose out compared to starving children, economic downturn and celebrity prurience?

Libyan sibyl by Michaelangelo Buanarotti, Sistine Chapel, (1508-12). Image in public domain
Libyan sibyl by Michelangelo Buanarroti, Sistine Chapel, (1508-12). Image in public domain

Is part of the answer to science communication in the shape of that unlikely and long usurped bedfellow – art? Can we start to support the education and communication of science through the emotional engagement that art engenders?

As a scientist myself, I know that collaboration between art and science can generate debate, understanding, new knowledge and ideas that synergise both fields. It can open up new ways of interpreting the world around us through inspiration, exploration, creativity and collaboration.

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, Galleria dell' Accademia, Venice (1485-90). Image by Luc Viatour,, in the public domain.
Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, Galleria dell’ Accademia, Venice (1485-90). Image by
Luc Viatour,, in the public domain.

The Renaissance, perhaps more successfully than any other period in history, captured this ethos and encouraged scholars and students to transcend the boundaries of traditional disciplines. The concept of the polymath emerged during the Renaissance, with great thinkers such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, who excelled in multiple fields of arts and science. Such a humanist approach encourages versatility and a desire to acquire universal learnings in order to develop one’s full potential.

One event that aims to inspire art to promote the communication and appreciation of science is the $50,000 Waterhouse art prize, which opened this weekend at the South Australian Museum. The recently- and subtly-renamed Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize, rather than being an oxymoron, is a title that aims to actively promote the science/art synergy. Previously known as the Waterhouse Natural History Art Prize, the name was changed this year, its 11th year, by the Museum, to contemporise the event and move it away from associations with Victorian collection of artefacts and scientific illustration, to a more dynamic visual exploration of a broad range of the sciences; e.g. biology, chemistry, anthropology and palaeontology.

Senecio (Head of a man) by Paul Klee (1922). Image public domain in Australia, Europe, and in US under PD-1923
Senecio (Head of a man) by Paul Klee (1922). Image public domain in Australia, Europe, and in US under PD-1923

Along with a new name has come a new logo based on the Fibonacci sequence, a mathematical series that underpins developmental biology and defines the shapes of many shells and flowers. The Fibonacci series has provided inspiration for many artists over the centuries, even if unintentional, but was perhaps most famously explored by Paul Klee, a German-Swiss artist whose highly individual style incorporated elements of expressionism, cubism, and surrealism.

In recent years The Waterhouse has become a prestigious international art competition. This year more that 850 entries were submitted by artists from all over Australia, together with a broad range of international entrants from Italy, USA, UK, Japan, Singapore, New Zealand, Hungary, Serbia, Sweden and India.

Waterhouse logoThe task of judging such a cross disciplinary event is also a difficult one, and this year, also for the first time, the overall winner was selected by pitting together judges from both the science and arts fields. Renowned South Australian Artist, James Darling, and University of Adelaide Scientist and Director of the Australian Centre for Evolutionary Biology and Biodiversity, Professor Andy Austin, together chose the overall winner, an exciting process in itself. Maybe a touch of Leonardo came out during that process too!

This year the diverse range of pieces examine a broad range of subjects, including; the beauty, wonder and diversity of life on earth, ecology, developmental form and structure, animal behaviour, geology, palaeontology, physics, anthropology, habitat change, pollution and invasive species.

'Hand scale claw Galapagos Iguana' by Bernard O'Grady. Waterhouse finalist
‘Hand scale claw Galapagos Iguana’ by Bernard O’Grady. Waterhouse finalist 2013

The insight achieved by these winning pieces is sure to leave a deep and lasting impression with all those who view them, which can stimulate areas of understanding not otherwise touched by logical verbal arguments. However a single art show is only a small step towards more effective science communication. But if the recent science literacy results are to be believed, we need a broader range of experiential initiatives that stimulate an interest in and understanding of science in schools and more broadly across society.



  1. Hi Glen,

    Thanks for responding. The reason that we believe in AGW is because the evidence is too great to be ignored. Scientists studying a variety of effects, from sea ice depth to ocean acidification to animal and plant migration and evolution, both in the oceans and on land, all concur that global warming is happening, and at a much faster rate than expected. And if there was substantial evidence to the contrary, someone would be more than keen to publish it: that’s the way that science works. Scientists can gain a great boost to their reputation if they can prove, irrefutably, that a previously held belief is completely or partially wrong.

    You might want to check out Skeptical Science ( for some rebuttals for the commonly-retailed myths about global warming. I’m not personally acquainted with all of the science, but I know some of the research done in some areas, primarily terrestrial and marine, is showing that there are marked changes already as a response to climate change.

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