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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.