Arty farty’s contribution to science and technology research

On 15 July 2010, Vince Cable – the coalition government’s Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills – set out the choices facing the UK higher education sector in a speech. This included extensive reference to STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) disciplines, and how they are vital to economic competitiveness, research and scientific and technological progress. Then, in passing, he said that “what my father used to describe as ‘arty farty’ subjects feed into the rapidly growing and successful industries like creative design, publishing and music.” Really? Well, he is Secretary of State, so I am sure he has pored over the evidence on the subject. But here is some evidence that Vince Cable may be less familiar with.

The annual Morgan Stanley ‘Great Briton’ awards celebrated the highest achievements in the arts, business, sport, public life, and science and innovation. Each year four people were shortlisted for each of the awards. 2007’s shortlist for the Great Briton in Science and Innovation included a theoretical physicist from Imperial College, an international expert in the pathology of dinosaur bones and John McGhee, an Arts & Humanities Research Council-funded research student based in an art school. His digital animation research on 3D visualization strategies to improve disease understanding among patient groups has twice featured on BBC News and secured the front page of the Guardian’s education supplement (30 October 2007). John is an animator with a background in 3D design.

When crop geneticists provided printmaker Elaine Shemilt with their DNA data, their expectation of the science-art project was that it would result in some striking decorative prints that would liven up the walls of their research institute. However, the resulting prints revealed to them the occurrence of new elements and data patterns that they had previously been unable to perceive. The prints led directly to a whole new externally funded research project examining gene progression in pathogens. Within the decorative patterns, new knowledge became visible. Vital research in crop genetics was triggered by the work and insights of a fine art printmaker.

With a background in craft-making and product design, Graham Whiteley brought a highly idiosyncratic approach to his doctoral research on prosthetic design. To begin with, the medical physics specialist who was part of the supervisory team saw dubious value in Graham’s emphasis on life-drawing and model-making as his key research methods. Six years later, his research contributed to a new bionic arm and hand that has been hailed as one of the most significant breakthroughs in prosthetics.

We look to our art schools to produce great art and design, and their broader value is always pitched in terms of their contribution to Britain’s Creative Industries. However, their recently emergent research culture is producing something else as well: unique contributions to science, technology and innovation in fields far removed from ‘creative industries’. The examples above are taken from a book chapter I am working on that will be published later this year on The Hidden Value of Art & Design. The chapter explores art and design’s contribution to other specialist disciplines, to industrial competitiveness and innovation, and to social policy. In exploring this value, the chapter ventures from hospital wards to the suboceanic world; we will examine the role of designers in defining advanced manufacturing processes and the role of artists in scientific research; we will see how art and design researchers can contribute to crime prevention, prosthetic technologies and urban planning.

The cases I draw upon are not particularly new – but as Vince Cable’s comments suggest, this message on the wider value of art and design is simply not getting through. Recent research by Mary Schwarz and Dr Karen Yair for the Crafts Council is one recent addition to a growing literature on the wider economic and social value of creative disciplines, in the case of their research, craft specifically. So we need to marshal more evidence, more positive cases, and tell the story more effectively. Comments to this post that include other cases are most welcome, so that we can begin to assemble an up-to-date broad based and accessible listing that can help to strengthen research on this issue, and help tell our stories in a more powerful way.

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