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Article categories: Issue 68
June 4th, 2009

The world of science research is changing. In place of the intense specialisation once so prevalent, there is a new emphasis on the need to ‘connect’ parts and to work across boundaries and disciplines.Tanya Monro and Bob Williamson are silo-busting scientists with the confidence to explore worlds and territories outside of their comfort zones. Here they share their perspectives on the brave new world in which more and more practitioners (of both art and science) need to break down boundaries.

Tanya Monro
The traditional view of a scientist is of someone who works to extend the bounds of human knowledge by creating and testing hypotheses utilising the tools of their trade, whether that be complex mathematics or DNA analysis. Increasingly, the real opportunities in research – those with the potential to improve our quality of life and deepen our understanding of our universe – are emerging in areas that are truly interdisciplinary. For example, emerging photonics technologies have the potential to provide real-time tests for bird flu, just as nanotechnology promises to revolutionalise the treatment of wastewater.

One of the greatest challenges we face in trying to push forward and grasp such opportunities, lies at the core of the very scientific tradition and culture that has enabled the dramatic advances of the past two centuries. Training to do cutting-edge research in any individual scientific discipline, whether it be physics, molecular biology or any other specific field, is a serious commitment, typically requiring a minimum of seven or eight years of university study. Different fields often not only have different tools and techniques, but also different ‘languages’, which present real barriers needing to be overcome. In addition, the structure of many of our scientific and research organisations and the associated science funding systems often limit incentives for researchers to take risks and work outside their comfort zone. We need to come up with creative ways of encouraging research at these boundaries. Any country that finds effective mechanisms for doing this will surely see not only a scientific renaissance, but also a plethora of practical outcomes.

Investment at the interface between science and art creates an immediate pathway that can be used to question and challenge scientific methods and culture, as well as enriching artistic practice via the adoption of new science and technologies. It offers scientists a vehicle for critically appraising our approach to research by allowing us to look through the eyes of the artist. Ultimately, the rubbing together of these two cultures could embolden a new generation of scientists to extend their gaze beyond the medium of their discipline alone, allowing them to focus on the true prizes – new knowledge and real outcomes. This shift will play a pivotal role in putting a strong, versatile and creative scientific culture at the heart of our society.

Bob Williamson
Most scientists don’t know much about art! Of course, we were taken to the National Gallery when we were in year 12 at school, but most of us tried to skip out and go to the pub for a beer instead. These were the days when ‘The two cultures’ were alive; art was, well, for ’arty-farty types’, and scientists were not encouraged to take it seriously. At university, I cannot remember a single lecture in which ‘Art’ was presented in any way, though at University College London we did at least walk through hallowed halls on which Rembrandt prints (now taken down due to the risk of theft!) were displayed.

As recently as ten years ago, you could still think of science as a set of independent silos set on a field: here is the chemistry silo, this one is physics, over here is zoology, and so on. Australia was particularly good in the ‘immunology silo’, but the ‘human genetics silo’ was practically empty. Thankfully, this compartmentalisation is no longer the norm, and science has become truly interdependent, in practice as well as in principle. Today the person who achieves success in research is often someone who comes at it with a different view; a mathematician looking at brain dysfunction or a biologist considering the best way to raise heavy weights in engineering.

Suppose, like me, you are interested in anorexia – its causes and possible cures. In 1980, you would approach the problem through psychiatry (and, perhaps, nutrition). Today you would bring together psychiatrists and geneticists, sociologists and epidemiologists, someone to run the MRI machine and look at the brain, someone from nutrition to check the foods, a psychologist, an athletics coach and an expert on sex. You might even rope in an artist, to put some of the problem into pictures.

Contemporary scientific research brings together of people from many different backgrounds and encourages them to learn from each other. Nowadays, successful research groups will include people from many and varied trainings, an approach considered more ‘arty’ than the single disciple groups of the past. People today who stay in their silos probably won’t do well. Yet the traditional practice at universities, of allowing anyone to sit in on any class that interested them, exists no more, sacrificed to the accountants who expect their fee for each bum on a seat (I sat in on a course on European Films at the Slade for a year when I was a student in London in the early 1960s; I loved it, I learnt a lot and everyone welcomed me).

Living in a box – be it old or new – limits confidence, bravery and creativity. It is hard to be quietly confident if you know nothing of the many rich subjects relating to our world and our culture; instead bragging and arrogance often replace real knowledge and understanding. For example, in the absence of sufficient knowledge, non scientists can be tricked into taking automatically anti-science views (on issues such as genetically modified organisms) without any real evidence base. While on the flip side resides the scientist who expresses contempt of all forms of modern art.

Creativity and insight, so difficult to define in art or science alike, are what makes a work change a world. And yet, we still train young people in the old ways. In fact, if anything it’s getting worse. My students no longer read; they just use a computer program to pick out the articles on ’their subject‘ for them. They don’t look widely; pick up casual interesting articles, pictures or photos; or think outside the box. Instead, in their excessive use of computers to obtain relevant information, they rely on a new, different kind of box. One that is usually thought of in terms of its positive definitions without realising that it also defines exclusions that are as important as inclusions.

We should try to find ways around this. A good place to start would be to make it compulsory (as they do in many US universities) for every science Honours student to study (and pass!) one arts course (fine arts would be a great one), and every arts Honours student to study and pass one science course. It goes without saying that the teaching would have to be both inspired and inspiring, but there are some pretty good teachers out there. If only, if only!

Professor Tanya Monro
Professor Tanya Monro is the Director of the Centre of Expertise in Photonics at the University of Adelaide and was recently named an ARC Federation Fellow. She has published over 240 research papers, and has won a number of awards including a Cosmos Magazine Bright Spark award and the Bragg Gold medal. Tanya’s research focuses on the development of new glasses and optical fibres for diverse applications.

Professor Bob Williamson
Professor Bob Williamson was Professor of Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London, and is former Director/Professor of Medical Genetics at the Murdoch Institute. He identified or cloned genes for thalassaemia, craniofacial abnormalities, cystic fibrosis, myotonic dystrophy and Alzheimer disease. A Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, Fellow of the Royal Society, and Officer of the Order of Australia, Bob takes a major interest in national science policy and ethics.

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One Response to “BUSTING THE BOX”

  1. Dr Ada Henskens says:

    This matches my experience of researching perception and representation for an advanced Visual Arts degree. The main drive was how we come to create a concept of reality, in this instance expressed as landscape, under the action of data in the form of light impinging on the visual cortex. It progressed to reference neuro-physiology, aspects of quantum physics, evolution and mass communications media. Needless to say, the quest continues!