A Third Culture: We Need Art-Science Collaborations for More Democratic Research

Tamar Law · March 4, 2021

In 1959 C.P. Snow, a renowned British chemist, politician, bureaucrat and novelist, lamented the stark division between the arts and sciences, "The clashing point of two subjects, two disciplines, two cultures - of two galaxies, so far as that goes - ought to produce creative chances... The chances are there now. But they are there, as it were, in a vacuum, because those in the two cultures can't talk to each other. It is bizarre how very little of twentieth-century science has been assimilated into twentieth-century art (Snow, 1959).” This prominent polemic ushered in a wave of interdisciplinary scholarship, with an increase of cross-disciplinary collaborations offering new insights and more holistic solutions to societal issues. Yet, despite these efforts, nearly a half century later, these two cultures still have much to learn from one another.

Artists with Evidence (AwE) is a new non-profit, emerging out of a discussion of these issues between scientists and the members of the board of directors at PSE Healthy Energy (PSE), planning to address this very challenge. PSE is a science-policy institute concerned with the public health and environmental impacts of fossil fuel production and the co-benefits of a transition to clean energy. It is a pioneer in contemporary interdisciplinary engagement across environmental science, public health and energy policy. Since its founding, an integral part of PSE’s mission has been to produce independent, socially just, transparent and rigorous scientific research through equitable and democratic engagement with the public. Now, AwE is taking these ideas and bringing them to the issues concerning PSE while also broadening the scope to include the science of climate change, and the environmental crisis in various manifestations. AwE seeks to foster transdisciplinary art-science collaborations, taking seriously CP Snow’s suggestion for a true ‘third culture’, enlivening new possibilities for more democratic scientific knowledge production and novel opportunities for public engagement.

Science and Knowledge Production: From Mode 1 to Mode 2
The precedence for interdisciplinarity has been increasingly instrumentalized in recent decades to respond to growing public scientific distrust and uncertainty. Critical work from the social sciences traces the shifting dynamics of science in relation to changing societal and governmental expectations of science (Buller, 2009). For the larger part of scientific history, scientific knowledge production has operated from the objective 'view from nowhere’ (Shapin, 1998) through its traditional sphere situated in a laboratory, away from the public eyes of social society (Latour, 1983). Those that have studied the various paradigms of science have named this discipline driven stage ‘Mode 1 Science’ operating in an atmosphere where Science was seen as more accurate when distanced from politics and society, and findings were seen as authoritative and universally applicable (Nowotony, Gibbons and Scott, 2001). It was from this moment that C.P. Snow described the ‘two-culture’ problem.

However, in the second part of the 20th century, it became apparent that scientific knowledge could not continue to emerge from such a vacuum. ‘Knowledge controversies’, moments where knowledge claims by scientists become disputed and shown to be less objective than previously assumed, unsettled public confidence (Sarewitz 2004, Whatmore 2009). These moments arose from when science’s unseemly funding sources were revealed or when scientific application was not in line with the direct experience with stakeholders. In fact, a knowledge controversy is what solidified the necessity of PSE, when uncertainty around the science arose surrounding the ‘safety’ of hydraulic fracturing in frontline communities and demanded science that was in conversation with public interests.

These instances of scientific uncertainty and indeterminacy reveal the siloed nature of scientific research, conjured a wave of public distrust and lead to a demand to make explicit the implicit political ramifications of science. In a way, these events shifted the relationship between scientific knowledge and public democracy, calling for science that is more politically accountable, publicly transparent and socially responsive (Born and Barry 2010, Chilvers and Kearns 2015). Responding to the push to ‘open-up’ science, this current scientific paradigm was named, ‘Mode 2’ in which science assuaged the symptoms of a neutral objective science, increasing contextualization and public accountability in the process of knowledge production (Nowotony, Gibbons and Scott 2001).

In this mode, expertise is distributed and science is driven by public policy, with the understanding that socially robust knowledge is the solution to such controversies, fostering good will between the public and scientists. The type of science produced in Mode-2 is seen as accountable to actors and the context of its application, not just peer reviewed journals (Born and Barry, 2010). A key component of Mode-2 is an increase in public engagement, through participation in the scientific process (such as citizen science) and increased public discussion in the application of the scientific knowledge (Chilvers and Kearns, 2015). However, despite science now being more ‘open’ than ever, prioritizing public participation and accountability, anti-scientific sentiment and public distrust abounds. In the last decade, this paradox has become a wicked problem, begging the question, how does the process of scientific knowledge production become more democratic?

One possibility offered is that the type of public engagement demonstrated by Mode-2 still does not adequately address the problem. In a move to make science more open and democratic, Mode-2 has increased public participation in science more than ever before. However, the nature of this participation has been critiqued for shutting down generative moments where science could be further open (Callon 2009, Chilvers and Kearns, 2015). The way the public is seen in Mode-2 is as an audience to the already completed science which just needs to be thoroughly explained so they can understand (Buller, 2009). While this form of participation might make the scientific process more transparent, it still eclipses the opportunity to make scientific knowledge production more representative (Chilvers and Kearns, 2015). Addressing this issue, there has been an increase in the call to the ‘co-production’ of knowledge where the public might offer valuable insights and help shape the science that is generation (Jasanoff 2004, 2005). Rather than participation being a discrete, one-off event, co-production focuses on continuous public engagement in knowledge production (Buller, 2009).

Can Science be More Democratic? The Potential of Art-Science
Now, nearly a century after his proclamation, C.P. Snow’s desire for a new practice of a ‘third-culture’ of scholarship is being realized through the pioneering field of art-science. Beyond just a conceptual bridge, art-science is a space of novel engagement between the arts, sciences and publics. Not to be confused with science informed art, where art is used as a vehicle to communicate ready-made science to the public, art-science collaborations produce new forms of transdisciplinary insight (Calvert and Schyfter, 2017). By questioning the confines of disciplinary jurisdiction, art-science is more than just a joining of the arts and sciences, but a lively process of the synergy of the two fields, which creates and redefines the problems and solutions with the public (Gabrys and Yusoff 2012, Muller et al., 2015, 2020). Art-science is a platform for how aesthetic and affective environments can inform the possibility of practice, employing the use of imagination and creativity to create new framings and conceptualizations of the situation at hand. Bringing the diverse disciplines of the arts to the different stages of the scientific process facilitates the scientists making their work more legible, relevant and accountable to peers, policy makers, stakeholders and the wider audience of the public.

An art-science collaboration is likely to question, “what is to be done” and “what is known” as they don’t just make something visible, they actively create debate and discussion (Gabrys and Yusoff, 2012). This transdisciplinary engagement actively redefines the objects and practices of knowledge production. Scientific knowledge in this form of co-production, is not seen as complete or self-contained, but enriched and modified through its engagement with art. Furthermore, art-science collaborations offer new understandings and enactments of publicness, “the public are not merely enjoined to understand science, but given new ways of thinking about...social, cultural and ethical issues (Born and Barry, 2010 p. 6).” Art-science brings the democratic process into the task of conceiving of and responding to scientific questions that are socially motivated, not just ‘opening-up’ the science itself but instead, reconceptualizing the entire process of knowledge production, creating something truly new: a ‘third culture.’

← Back to blog