February 22, 2024

Bionpa

You are Your Only Limit

Why we need an academic career path that combines science and art

23 min read

Julie Gould 00:07

Hello and welcome to Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. I’m Julie Gould.

Art and science, or art-and-science?

That’s the question for this episode as we bring three scientists from different points in the career ladder together to discuss the future of how these creatives can collaborate.

And in keeping with our art and science theme, each episode in this podcast series concludes with a follow-up sponsored slot from the International Science Council (ISC).

The ISC’s Centre for Science Futures is exploring the creative process and societal impact of science fiction by talking to some of the genre’s leading authors.

On reflection, one takeaway that I’ve gained from the conversations that I’ve had for this series is that science and art need to be viewed on equal terms.

It’s not art at the service of science, as one of my interviews said to me.

It’s a collaboration of the two that can generate a vision for the future, to explain complex information, both theoretical and hard big data. And all in a way that’s accessible to both scientists and the wider community.

Something that can inspire the next generation of scientists. New insights by current scientists, and bring new people into the field.

But the road to this future isn’t clearly paved. Yet.

So, to discuss the challenges and future of art and science, Nature Careers has brought together three scientists from across the career spectrum to see how they’re working together to build a future for these projects.

We brought together early career researcher Callie Chappell, a biologist from Stanford University, with mid-career researcher Daniel Jay, who’s the Dean of the graduate school of biomedical sciences at Tufts University.

And we’re also joined by later career stage Lou Muglia, the president and CEO of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, and an affiliate professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.

To start the conversation, Callie Chappell shared with me her definition of science and art

Callie Chappell 02:19

I would argue that science is actually a type of art.

In order to do science, you have to be creative, you have to blend different ideas, you have to communicate those ideas by creating something.

And I think in many ways that’s what artists do. So instead of having these binary ideas of art and science, I think we should really think about how both practices actually reinforce one another.

Julie Gould 02:41

Callie, Lou and Dan have been working hard together to find out if there’s a way that they can bring art and science together, and how they can pave a way for the future creatives to find each other, to carve a career out of their passions, and, as she said, how both practices can reinforce one another.

One way they’ve done this is in September 2023 when they discussed a lot of these things and the challenges facing these goals, at the ENFOLD meeting, where creatives from a variety of backgrounds came together.

Callie and Lou also recently co authored a paper in PLoS Biology titled “Fostering science-art collaborations, a toolbox of resources,” which is why I contacted them via email to have a chat.

And in the second paragraph of this paper, they referenced the famous CP Snow, Two Cultures lecture, saying that despite the fundamental similarities of art and science, the two are often still seen as separate.

I asked Callie, why is it that the art and science are still seen as separate?

And her answer: it’s institutional.

Callie Chappell: 03:47

I think a lot of the conversation is influenced by the way that institutions are structured. You don’t oftentimes see focused organizations or spaces that aren’t talking about art and science, or art or science, right? But this collective idea.

And so something that we’re really trying to push forward is “What is a framework that isn’t about combining two disciplines, but reimagining ways of being that we canonically think of as scientists or canonically think of artists” as actually being one in the same.

This was the main argument in this paper. And I think referencing the Snow paper is one way to harken back or really harken to the status quo of understanding these ideas as separate.

So we can establish a different way of thinking about moving forward through transformative creativity or wonder.

Julie Gould: 04:40

Okay, so let’s talk a little bit about this moving forward. So you actually recently just, were both part of a conference, an ENFOLD conference that you you held earlier in September this year.

So tell me a little bit about that.

Because that was a lot of discussion about where is this going to go? How do we create an environment where artists, scientists and people from all sorts of creative backgrounds can collaborate and work together on discoveries, inventions, you know, dig deeper into science, all of those things. Lou, do you want to take that one?

Lou Muglia: 05:16

Sure. I mean, the motivation for this conference was our appreciation of really the impact of what science-art bridging can do to inspire creativity.

And also, understanding that individuals that really are at the nexus don’t have an academic home right now. Or aren’t valued in traditional academia, for the bridging they play.

You know, usually, if you’re in a department of biochemistry it’s the number of grants, you get the number of papers you write, the number of students you train, which is all incredibly valuable.

And if you’re in the arts, there are exhibits and other things you have.

And what I’ve come to really try to appreciate is how to foster more people to say, “You know, this is what I want my career to be.”

And as I’ve talked about this, there are so many graduate students and postdocs that say, “You know, I don’t see myself really wanting to run a traditional laboratory, but I’m so excited about the communication, about arts. I have my foot here, I don’t want this to be a failure pathway, I want this to be my inspiration pathway,“

And trying to really foster opportunities for them, because they will have enormous impact moving forward.

So this symposium that we had was to bring people together to figure out what the community already in this area would benefit from most.

I thought it might be, you know, an academic home at one or two institutions where there would be a centre of excellence for science and the arts there, where you specifically have this.

But what I learned from the discussions there is, you know, maybe it’s not about bricks and mortar, a specific static structure to house this.

But it’s really about building a networking opportunity, where people have a sense of who else is there, how they can work together, how they can support one another, and then move the issue forward from from that standpoint Callie, am I summarizing that incorrectly? What do you think?

Callie Chappell: 07:22

I really support everything Lou shared and would also add that in addition to thinking about academic spaces, we also want to think about science-art in non-academic spaces, in communities.

Because even though oftentimes, we as academics, you know, think, “Oh, we’ve got our biology department, we’ve got our art history department,” right?

People who are not in academic spaces have been working at the intersection of science and art for a very, very long time.

And so thinking about how we can create this kind of transformative network of, of nodes, right, that celebrate not just people who are in formal academic spaces, or in schools and educational institutions, but also folks who might be gardeners, who might be community art activists, people who might be doing youth-focused education outside of formal spaces, like schools, can be really powerful places where we can learn about working at this intersection, thinking both into our history, our past and our culture, as well as for thinking about how this might drive transformative creativity into the future.

Julie Gould: 08:21

This comes back to your paper again, when you were talking about transdisciplinary training. And you were talking about how there needs to be a revision of how people are assessed as scientists and how their training needs to change.

So if you want to sort of change the culture in a way that makes it more open to creatives, to everybody working in collaborative spaces, and not just maybe, you know, not just focusing on the sort of bricks and mortar and everyone gets pigeonholed into a box.

The assessment becomes a big part of that. So tell me a little bit about what you were thinking there. And this idea of transdisciplinary training and the revision of the assessment of graduate students and younger researchers as they move through their careers.

Callie Chapell: 09:02

Totally. And we have a variety of career stages represented here. So I’m really curious what Lou and Dan think on this topic.

As an early career person, I think having spaces to explore both science and art through my disciplinary training. For example, having more access to workshops, and mentorship at this intersection, is really important.

I think broadening evaluation, so making sure that the spaces where people might be sharing their work out, for example, in a museum, ina pop-up workshop, online through social media, are ways that students or trainees can get evaluated positively as contributing through their work.

And also making sure that there are career pathways that are financially viable for us into the future.

Sometimes you can do this in the quote, unquote, safe space, (at least financial space, relatively speaking, of graduate school), having relative stable employment as you finish up a degree.

But then you want to ask what’s next? How can I continue doing this in the future and when we don’t Imagine career paths, or when there aren’t clear paths to pursue, that can deter people from really investing in the most transformative work they could during their time and training.

Julie Gould: 10:10

All right, Dan, you have survived and thrived as a mid to late career researcher in this space, you know, managing to find funding to to support this sort of transdisciplinary career that you have going on.

And so can you tell us a little bit about that, and how you’ve made that work for yourself?

Dan Jay: 10:26

I was fortunate that in my postdoc years, I was given my own lab and my own studio at the same time, and told I could do anything I wanted for three years.

And that really gave me the licence to sort of proceed in that direction. I would say from my own self, I went through the academic path pretty much straight.

Everyone knew I did art, but it was never thought of as a value added, shall we say to my career, except it was, it was interesting.

And success in science really provided me with the opportunities to further my art and working on art-science projects, thinking about using scientific materials, as new art media, provided me with two different audiences that I could bring together.

But I think Callie is spot-on saying how do we evaluate people who are at the interface? Academia doesn’t do a good job of that.

Thinking about the key question for I know, the Nature Careers group is for the growing workforce, how can they find opportunities of thriving using both halves of their brain?

It is a challenge, but I think it’s one that we’re ready for as a society.

Juile Gould: 11:32

So you you were fortunate enough to receive, like you said, a lab and a studio at the same time, when you were a postdoc. Not everyone is as fortunate as you are.

So you had that sort of platform to build from. But then by the sound of it, it sounds like you’re very much focused then on your, your science career as a primary career track, with the art as an interesting hobby/sidetrack, whatever you wish to call it.

And it’s not until now, where you’re more stable as a scientist, that you have the means and the support and the time to integrate more of the art into your career. Did I get that right?

Dan Jay: 12:09

I think that’s basically true. But what I would say is that money drives a great deal of this. And we all know that scientists have, you know, salaries, have grants that are, you know, an order of magnitude laielrger than our artist colleagues.

And so that’s an odd dynamic to think about. And for any young person going through, early career person, the challenges are, how do you pay the bills, raise a family, have a decent life, while doing these things. So the lure of a scientific career and doing well in that is a major draw.

And, you know, we still live in an era where that focus is considered an advantage. And when one does several things, it’s considered maybe a distraction.

And you use the term hobby. And I, I’m not saying that that’s totally wrong.

But for me, it’s always been two completely parallel foci, I would say.

One paid the bills, though. That’s, there’s no, no question about that.

So I think I think it’s something we need to think about. And so one thing I would say is that, I don’t want to say one is qualitatively better than the other. I think they’re both necessary. And that’s true for all disciplines.

And I like to think of it almost as heading to a post disciplinary society. For young people starting now. They want to be able to sort of pick and choose areas of competencies and strength they can grow in toward their career mission.

Callie Chappell: 13:35

And I have a quick follow on actually to what Dan said. I think as a younger career person, who in many ways has followed in Dan’s footsteps, the juncture point for me and in pursuing, you know, art as one track and sciences, another track and sciences, the one that pays the bills, is a lot of discussion about social justice and science.

We have a diversity, equity and justice issue in STEM. And how do we address that? How do we make better science. And for me, one way that I envision doing that was actually through art, by centreing other ways of knowing, other ways of being, our culture community, in conversations about science that oftentimes very powerfully can be done through the arts can be a way for actually transforming science itself.

So I think that there’s actually a lot of power in this intersection and really reimagining both what science and also what art can be towards a more liberatory and just future. So I think that’s a huge engine of motivation for me, for why these two need to be working together, and specifically why funding that intersection can actually make both fields or both disciplines stronger.

Julie Gould: 14:39

This brings me back, right back to that question I had in my email, which is, you know, focused around funding.

And is it worth funding cross disciplinary, transdisciplinary collaborations between artists or scientists or science and artists as subject matter rather than between people like for example, yours Dan, who does both? And you were saying, you know, one pays the bill more than the other.

But is there a need for funding to be more equalized, so that it’s not focused on one and the other one is not as heavily a factor towards paying these bills? Lou, is that something that you can touch on?

Lou Muglia: 15:17

So to me, the reason to fund this junction is to inspire wonder, or creativity and new ideas. You know, I love the quote by the Nobel laureate and biochemist, Albert Szent-Györgyi: “Discovery is seeing what everyone else has seen, but thinking what no one else has thought.”.

And I think this nexus is what inspires people to think what no one else has thought, about things that have been refractory to solution, whether from a biologic, planetary, or a social context.

And I think for the hard-solving problems, we need this kind of new insight that only this kind of collaboration will bring.

Julie Gould: 16:03

So how, how do you propose to make more of those things available and to fund that sort of stuff? Is there the want for it? Is there the money for it is that you know.

Lou Muglia: 16:15

That’s what wonder is, that’s why we have Dan and Kelly doing this. We are here to fund this, we want to know how. You know Burroughs Wellcome Fund, is not a huge science philanthropy organization.

I would say we’re a moderate science philanthropy organization, we fund about $15 million of research a year. But this is one of the areas we think we can make outsize impact in.

And so we’re super looking forward to investing in an area we think will catalyze and have outsized impact for the dollars we invest. And I truly believe this.

But I believe we’re not alone in this context. I think Templeton Foundation has always bridged this marriage of science and the arts,

Wellcome in the UK has had a science and arts initiative. We’re not alone.

Julie Gould: 17:00

A lot of early career researchers in all subjects, not just in the sciences, they’re funded by very large government government funding bodies that, you know, they are still very much siloed into their, you know, biology funding here, arts funding here, humanities funding here.

Do you see them following in the same sort of mindset of, you know, yet we’re going to fund more sort of collaborative projects like this? Or are they still just looking for you to just tick that impact box,

Lou Muglia: 17:29

Every scientist should view science communication as not something extra, but part of their goal, this nexus of science and the arts, where you really do something in the creative space more than just describing your work.

But imagining something new I think is a special space. And there are organizations that are already committed to that, you know, I think we’ve partnered a lot with the National Geographic Society, in the United States, with Smithsonian Institution.

And I think there are more and more examples of, really this nexus of working with traditional academic institutions, but museums, both science museums and art museums, that really are dedicated to this prospect. And we need to be more inclusive and how we partner with them in terms of thinking about this. Hey,

Julie Gould: 18:20

Dan, you know, like you wanted to say something on this topic.

Daniel Jay: 18:22

I wanted to hear everything Lou was saying because this is so absolutely seminal. We were clearly all in agreement on this. So one of the folks who came to the the unfold symposium was J D Talasek, who is the cultural director at the National Academy of Sciences.

And, you know, when when we were posing these questions, his answer to me was, “It’s no longer a question for any of the large funding groups, whether art and science benefit each other. It’s now how could that be actuated.”

And so I think that becomes the critical component here. And I share Lou’s enthusiasm for this idea of transformational creativity, of being able to think outside the box to solve the unsolved problems of the world.

And the other aspect of that is how important diversity is to that, because diversity is not something we should expand because it’s the politically correct thing to do. It’s because it makes science and the world better for that, for that matter.

When people bring their experience, their lived experience, their culture, to bear and there’s a diversity of thought there.

Diversity of thought brings diversity of ideas, and a greater chance to solve the unsolved problems.

So it’s no longer a question. It’s no longer window dressing, it’s no longer checking the box, as you put it, Julie. Now is the time to do this. And it’s almost that change in mindset now is I think the way we would put it.

And I have to say I’m so encouraged by this coming together of 30 thought leaders, some early career some late career at this meeting that we are have an opportunity to really begin to develop this interface field with the right culture, the right frame of mind, and interaction that’s very different than what certainly Lou and I grew up in terms of, of academic, you know, formal academia.

It’s not going to happen overnight, it’s going to happen in different spots and places and maybe for a while, you know, a sort of boutique field, but that’s how one grows.

Callie Chappell: 20:26

Since this is for, you know, Nature Careers, like speaking for what do what will, at least as an early career person would I like to see available for early career scientists, I would like to see specific funding opportunities that fund early career people to do work in the arts, from the perspective of, like, science graduate students.

So it’s not just something that you do on the weekends or after you get out of the lab, but it’s something that’s actually part of your training, formal training, and part of your evaluation that you’re getting supported to do.

I’d like to see role models for what that looks like in the future. So it’s not just “I’m the first person in my department trying to do this, but I can see people like Dan, right?”

Who are, what are the elders in the space? Right? And how can we make sure that we have multiple generations of people who are pushing this forward, to imagine what this can be for, you know, today’s undergraduates or today’s high school students?

And the third piece is making sure that we’re supporting non-academic community members.

How can we create granting opportunities, even if they’re micro grants, right, for a community arts educator, to be able to get $10,000, to be able to run a science summer camp? That’s something that I’ve been involved in, that centres art and science and innovation from non-academic spaces.

So how can we support today’s young people within the sciences? How can we make sure that we’re supporting people who are outside of the sciences or outside of academic spaces?

And how can we make sure that we’re supporting future generations and our elders to be the role models of the future, to continue to grow this beyond our wildest imaginations?

Julie Gould 22:10

Thank you to Callie, Lou and Dan for joining me, and also to the Sounds of Space project team for letting us use their music, a piece called Jezero Crater, which is the fourth track on their album Celestial Incantations.

Before you go, we’ve got the sponsored slot with the International Science Council about the creative process and societal impact of science fiction.

Paul Shrivastava 22:33:

Hi, I am Paul Shrivastava from the Pennsylvania State University. In this podcast series, I’m speaking to some of the world’s leading science fiction writers. I want to hear from them how science can help us tackle the many-sided challenges ahead. After all, they make a living from thinking about the future and how it could or should be.

In this episode, I’m talking to Cory Doctorow, a science fiction novelist, journalist and technology activist. For the last two decades, he has published many works on tech monopolies and digital surveillance. Our conversation touched on digital rights management and social justice and sustainability in the digital world. I hope you enjoy it.

Welcome, Cory, and thank you for being part of this podcast. Can you begin by telling us a little bit more about your relationship with science, broadly, and with science fiction writing?

Cory Doctorow 23:35:

Well, I grew up under extremely fortunate circumstances for someone interested in science fiction. I grew up specifically in Toronto in the 1980s. And there was a woman there who was quite a whirlwind in the field, a woman named Judith Merril, a great writer, editor and critic. She was the doyenne of the British new wave of science fiction. And, so, Judy would allow anyone to bring down their stories and workshop them with her, she would critique them. So this was like… I don’t know. It’s like getting your physics homework help from Einstein. And then she started these writing workshops where the promising writers that came to her, she’d gang them up into weekly meetings. And so I was in one of those for many years, and I just had as close to a formal apprenticeship in science fiction, as possible.

In terms of science, you know, I’m a dilettante. The closest I come to being a scientist is having an honorary degree in computer science from the Open University where I’m a visiting professor of CS. And, in particular, I’ve had a great policy relationship with computer science because for more than 20 years now, I’ve worked in a field we could broadly call digital human rights, related to access to information, censorship, privacy and equity online.

Paul Shrivastava 24:48:

So let’s dig a little bit deeper into some of these issues. You’ve dealt with a range of these topics relating to technological advancements and on whose interests and favour they work. You’ve talked about surveillance technology in Little Brother, copyright laws in Pirate Cinema, to cryptocurrency in Red Team Blues.

Very often, the narratives portray the negative consequences of unchecked technological growth, or technological growth in the service of capitalism, if you will. So how do you perceive the role of science in this increasingly digital landscape that we are entering in?

Cory Doctorow 25:28:

I think that you can’t have science without equity. In the sense that the thing that distinguishes science from the forms of knowledge creation that precede the enlightenment is access, which is the precondition for adversarial peer review. And I think that when you have a concentration of power in the commercial sector, which is to say monopoly, it’s very hard for regulators to remain independent. Those firms become too big to fail and too big to jail. Then you actually create the conditions for people denying science, which has disastrous consequences for themselves, but also for all of us.

Paul Shrivastava 26:08:

Let’s move on to talking about the period of the Anthropocene. Processes that support life are now changing, if not collapsing outright. How can we leverage the advancement in the digital world, which you’ve covered in so many different ways, to mitigate the human impact on environment and ensure a sustainable future?

Cory Doctorow 26:31:

My latest novel is a novel about this, it’s called The Lost Cause. And the thing that’s happened in this novel is not a deus ex. We have not figured out how to do carbon capture at a rate that defies all of the current state-of-the-art. But what we have done is we’ve taken it seriously. Here we are, you know, trapped on this bus, barreling towards a cliff. And the people in the front rows and first class keep saying, there’s no cliff. And if there is a cliff, we’ll just keep accelerating until we go over it. And one thing that we know for sure is we can’t swerve. If we swerve, the bus could roll and someone might break their arm, and no one wants a broken arm.

And this is a book where people grab the wheel and swerve. Where millions of people are engaged in very serious long-term projects to do things like relocate every coastal city, several kilometres inland. And that climate adaptation, when you contemplate it, it’s quite dizzying. It can feel a little demoralizing to think, well, I guess all the spare labour that everyone has for the next 300 years is going to go into fixing these foolish errors that we made before.

And so this is a book that’s about that project. And it’s about pursuing that project along the insights of a dear friend of mine who’s written a very good book recently, Deborah Chachra, whose book is called How Infrastructure Works. And Deb’s a material scientist, and she points out that energy is effectively infinitely abundant, but materials are very scarce. And yet for most of human history, we treated materials as abundant, use them once and threw them away. And we treated energy as scarce. And there is a technical reorientation that’s latent in this book and that Deb makes very explicit in her book, in which we do things like use more energy to produce things so that they are more easily decomposed back into the material stream.

Paul Shrivastava 28:30:

We seem to be busy consuming the planet at an unprecedented pace. And can science fiction be an aid somehow in helping humans reformulate their world view so that it’s more compatible with what’s going on over here – our challenges on this planet?

Cory Doctorow 28:46:

Well, and this is something I’ve been writing about since my novel Walkaway, in 2017. This idea that abundance arises out of access to material, but also the social construction of what we want. And finally, the efficiency of distributing goods. So I am a homeowner, and that means that three times a year I need to make a hole in a wall. And so I own a drill, and I jokingly call it the minimum viable drill. It’s the drill that is economically rational for someone who makes three holes a year to own. And I have to give up, like, a whole drawer to storing this awful drill.

And, what you realize is that you are paying an enormous tax, both in the calibre of goods that you have and the availability of space in your home, to maintain access to things that you rarely need. There’s another kind of drill, I sometimes call it the library socialism drill, where there’s just, like, a stochastic cloud of drills in your neighborhood that know where they are, that maintain telemetry on their usage to improve future manufacturing. They readily decompose back into the material stream. And you can always lay hand on a drill when you need it, and it’s the greatest drill ever made.

Multiply that by lawnmowers and the extra plates that you keep for Christmas or dinner parties, and all the other things that are in your house that you don’t need all the time. And that is a world of enormous abundance. That is more luxury. And when you combine those three things, the efficiency of material and energy use, the coordinative nature of technology, and the engineering of our desire, there is a future in which we live with a much smaller material and energy footprint and have a much more luxurious life. A life of enormous abundance.

Paul Shrivastava 30:34:

On that hopeful message, I’m going to give you one last question. And that is, if there was one lesson for science to learn from science fiction, what would that be in your mind?

Cory Doctorow 30:48:

I would say that the most important thing that science fiction does, in respect of science, is challenge the social relations of technology and of scientific discovery and scientific knowledge. The most important question about technology is rarely, what does this do? But rather, who does it do it for and who does it do it to? And that technology under democratic control is very different from technology that is imposed on people.

The idea that a technology designed with the humility to understand that you cannot predict the circumstances under which that technology will be used – and so you leave the space for the users themselves to adapt it – that is the best of all technical worlds. And every language has a name for this. You could call it a bodge, which is sometimes a bit pejorative. But I think we all like a good bodge. In French it’s bricolage. In Hindi, it’s jugaad.

Paul Shrivastava 32:14:

Jugaad!

Cory Doctorow 32:15:

Every language has a word for this, and we love it. And it’s only through the humility to anticipate the unanticipatable, that we are the worthy ancestors to our intellectual descendants who will come after us.

Paul Shrivastava 32:20:

Thank you for listening to this podcast from the International Science Council’s Centre for Science Futures, done in partnership with the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at the University of California San Diego. Visit futures.council.science for the extended versions of these conversations, which will be released in January 2024. They delve deeper into science, its organization and where it could take us in the future.

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