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Science in Culture

Theme overview

The ‘Science in Culture’ theme aims to develop the reciprocal relationship between the sciences on the one hand, and arts and humanities on the other. The sciences and the arts and humanities often seek to answer very different kinds of questions about human nature, the nature of the world we inhabit, and the relationship between the two. Sometimes, however, the questions we seek to answer do not neatly fall within the remit of one or the other.

Arts and humanities research goes beyond investigating the cultural contexts for science to inform and contribute to its advancement. Situated in a radically different research paradigm, the arts and humanities bring knowledge not normally covered by science, offering exciting possibilities for new scientific discoveries and critical confluences of ideas and practices. It can promote a broader understanding of societal views about science, the diverse pathways taken by science in different societies, the role of scientific advances in cultural life and how this shapes broader world views. Arts and humanities research in the 21st century will inform science as much as it charts its cultural impacts. It will provoke new scientific enquiry as much as account for the historical, cultural, legal and ethical contexts for the future development of many areas of science. It can help to anticipate and inform future public engagement and policy debates and controversies. There is growing recognition of the interconnections and complementarity between the sciences and the arts and humanities, the potential for creativity and innovation that these connections can generate and the limits of using scientific approaches in isolation to tackle societal challenges.

The public understanding of, and engagement with, science – in the sense of our ability to integrate the findings of the sciences within our overall worldview – is one in which the arts and humanities play an essential role. Arts and humanities research can help us answer questions such as:

  • What are the nature, value and scope of scientific research?
  • What roles do culture, imagination, argumentation, creativity, discovery and curiosity play in scientific enquiry?
  • How might the arts and humanities engage with the sciences as systems of knowledge from the perspective of their cultural context, development and impact?
  • How might such interaction enhance public engagement and educational approaches, and inform policy debates?

There is significant potential for collaborative research pathways between the sciences and the arts and humanities.  For example, a sophisticated understanding of cultural values, rights, religions and systems of belief is essential for addressing the complex legal, ethical and regulatory policy issues raised by some emerging areas of science and technology. And there is significant potential for research on the representation of scientific ideas and progress (for example in language, literature, visual media and the performing arts) and on the role of narrative, imagery, artefacts and cultural institutions (including museums and galleries) to inform ways of enhancing public engagement with science and technology. Beyond this, the arts and humanities can generate new knowledges about human life and interaction which may inform and directly contribute to scientific discovery and advancement. The Science in Culture theme aims to encourage mutual exchanges between the sciences and the arts and humanities that offer scope for developing new areas of research, methodologies, research frameworks styles of thinking and/or ways of working across the disciplines.

 

Theme Development

Our central focus is on innovative and cutting-edge inter-relationships between the sciences and the arts and humanities. Innovative research might include:

  • the application of arts and humanities in advancing scientific discovery;
  • what science and humanities have learnt, and might learn, from each other;
  • the development of new epistemologies for collaborative enquiry between the sciences, arts and humanities;
  • the comparative roles of experts and expertise in the sciences, arts and humanities;
  • the making of authority, integrity and trust in scientific and interpretivist research;
  • rights, openness and ownership in collaborative research across the sciences, arts and humanities;
  • the relationships between scientific, religious and other world views.

Another major area for potential research is how developments in science are influencing, and are being influenced by, cultural change. For example, how are advances in genetics, neuroscience and artificial intelligence affecting, and being affected by, our conceptions of what it is to be human? How have arts and humanities perspectives on, and representations of, science, through for example science fiction, film, exhibitions, media coverage, histories of science and technology, and legal, theological and philosophical debates, led to further scientific developments, shaped public views or helped  to inform, educate and engage society on key issues or debates? How have the natural sciences affected our perceptions of nature and the ‘natural world’, and influenced our beliefs about human relationships, roles and responsibilities with respect to the environment? Conversely, how has culture shaped the mission and development of science? There are many senses and versions of culture, and through the Science in Culture theme, we can explore and help to understand notions of culture.   

By building on existing strengths in areas such as the history and philosophy of science, innovative collaborations between scientists and artists and emerging cross-disciplinary fields such as medical or health humanities, we will be able to open up new and exciting opportunities for collaboration and learning between the arts and humanities and the sciences. In addition to working across the Research Councils and with the Technology Strategy Board, academies and learned societies, other funders (both national and international), science educators, museums, regulators and policy-makers, there will be collaborative opportunities with research-led businesses, high technology companies and designers. Cross-national comparative perspectives and research collaborations have the potential to create significant added value. There are opportunities for research under this theme to contribute to inter-disciplinary collaboration across all of the RCUK’s research challenges, including ’Lifelong Health and Well-being’ and ‘Living with Environmental Change’, as well as in ‘breakthrough’ research areas.

An Advisory Group has been established to assist with the further development of this theme.