Graphic by Elena Lin

Art, Sci, and EDI

Why bringing together artists, scientists, and principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion is crucial to science communication.

by Danielle Nadin & Elena Lin. Published on August 19, 2019.

In today’s era of fake news and world leaders who believe climate change is a hoax (and somehow also make it racist), there is more need than ever for researchers to communicate their findings in an accurate, effective, and understandable way. But with the firehose of information being fed to us through traditional news platforms and social media feeds, how can scientists break through the noise? How can we ensure that the message maintains scientific credibility without losing the public’s interest? In the first special issue on science communication from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, communication scholars Drs. Baruch Frischhoff and Dietram Scheufele describe the dilemma well: “Just as there is science to be communicated, there is a science of communication.”

Indeed, scientists and their research can benefit greatly from collaborations with artists, who, fundamentally, are specialists in depicting complex ideas. The dissemination of scientific knowledge is often limited to journal publications and conference presentations. Unfortunately, findings presented in these formats are only readily accessible to a select few. Sometimes this information is inaccessible even among scientists (try attending a lecture given by someone outside your field!) Alternative communication media such as podcasts and YouTube videos are ways scientific information can be distilled into digestible chunks without "dumbing down" the content. This is where artists come in. Artists can help scientists engage wider audiences and reach individuals who may prefer casually listening through headphones on their way to work over Googling all the scientific jargon. Engaging artists in this process inspires public engagement and prompts social awareness of scientific subjects.

Beyond the mechanics of communicating science effectively, socially-sensitive science communication needs to be founded on principles of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI). Making science accessible to everyone means that the representation of science and in science should reflect the full spectrum of diversity that exists in society. You're probably already aware of the prominent issues plaguing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM): there is a massive underrepresentation of women, gender-diverse individuals, and people of colour in these fields; this is especially evident in STEM leadership positions. Researchers from underrepresented groups often suffer the harmful effects of implicit bias, discrimination, and/or harassment that discourage them from staying in their field. EDI promotes an environment of acceptance and creates a platform for diverse stories to be told. Diversity, in addition to making everyone feel seen and heard, is also known to benefit scientific problem-solving and innovation.

How can bringing together art, science, and EDI create tangible social impact? In a 2015 survey of 557 female scientists, almost half of Black and Latina scientists reported having been mistaken as janitors or administrative assistants. The proportion of white and Asian scientists who reported similarly was around a third. Where does this discrimination come from? A Google image search of “famous scientists” is telling: scientists are typically depicted as white and male. Initiatives like WOC in Tech Chat, who have assembled a stock image collection of women of colour in tech, aim to shift public perceptions of what software engineers and computer scientists look like. It comes as no surprise that access to diverse role models encourages trainees to stay in science. Likewise, the work of computer scientist Joy Buolamwini exposed gender and racial bias in facial recognition algorithms built by big players such as IBM and Microsoft. She inspired social mobilization by presenting her research through film and spoken-word poetry. EDI-based science communication not only encourages cross-talk between major stakeholders but can also change the culture of science itself.

These are just a couple of examples of how art, science, and EDI intersect to reshape social perceptions of science. Rather than sticking to the age-old, text-filled PowerPoint for your next presentation, why not consider collaborating with an artist? Why not take steps to improve your communication skills and integrate EDI as well? There are innumerable ways to make science more engaging, and there are curious audiences who cannot wait to hear all about it!

The SciComm Collective aims to mediate the production of accessible science communication content by fostering connections between scientists and visual artists. We strive to communicate science in a way that makes everyone feel seen and heard. Stay tuned for upcoming events! If you would like to be a part of the Collective, sign up for our mailing list, send us an email to contribute an article, and/or apply to one of our Director positions. We look forward to creating with you!