What makes a scientist?

<<Warning! Philosophical musing ahead!>>

The other week, I participated in one of the monthly #onsci science communication chats on Twitter. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about at this point, try this article as a general intro to hashtags or this one for how they are used in science communication).

At the beginning of the #onsci chat, it is customary for people to introduce themselves: who they are, where they work, how they fit into the overall science communication picture. I described myself as an “ex-scientist”, which a couple of people pulled me up over: “How can you be an ‘ex-scientist’?” “You’re doing a PhD, doesn’t that count?” These questions made me ponder what a scientist is, and why I don’t quite feel comfortable claiming the title anymore.

In my undergraduate years there was no question – I was definitely a scientist. My first degree was in Biochemistry, including an Honours year that was spent almost entirely in the lab. So if a scientist is someone with a tertiary qualification in science, then I definitely am one. And I’m sure my first degree has shaped my thinking and view of the world in ways I can’t articulate and am possibly not even fully aware of. My appreciation of this has increased over the past year as I have been reading about research philosophy as part of my PhD. It has made me think about what I believe knowledge is, and how we come to know it (i.e., epistemology). Science takes a particular view on this point, and it is so intrinsic to the way science is done that it is pretty much taken for granted.

After my first degree, I completed a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication. So still pretty sciencey. But this set me on a career trajectory that took me away from the lab and into (broadly speaking) the museums sector. Museums span many disciplines but they often fall into arts portfolios, and so these days it’s just as likely that I’ll find myself at a table of arts professionals as rubbing shoulders with scientists. Sometimes I feel stuck in the middle: not “sciencey” enough to be a proper scientist, but not “arty” enough to feel fully at ease saying I’m an arts professional myself.

I was wondering whether my reticence to claim the ‘scientist’ title was something of my own making. However, an unrelated conversation last week reinforced my suspicion that many people (including scientists) have a fairly narrow conception of what a scientist is: essentially it is a researcher on an academic career track in the natural sciences. Anyone who strays from that path, no matter how useful or valuable their contribution to the field, is somehow ‘lost’ to the science cause and is therefore not a ‘real’ scientist.

This has real implications for science and science communication. If science builds such a rigid fence around itself, then ‘scientists’ will never be able to fully participate in broader social and cultural conversations – for this would increasingly take them away from the lab bench, and then by definition they are not proper scientists any more. It will also have implications for the people that study science at tertiary level – science degrees will only be attractive to people who envisage a career in the lab. Thus our future business and political leaders will be less likely to have science qualifications, as their ambitions will have taken them to different disciplines. In practice, this means that many of them will not have studied any science beyond year 10 or 11. This creates a distinct imbalance in the knowledge base of our key decision-makers.

So I think the current definition of ‘scientist’ is too narrow. Although I’m struggling to think about how broad to cast the net without it becoming so broad as to be meaningless. This struggle is not a new one – C.P. Snow described the artificial divide between arts and humanities over 50 years ago. And the definition of ‘science’ varies between cultures and languages too as I understand it, for instance the German word Wissenschaft seems to encompass a broader view than ‘science’ as its nearest English equivalent.

So the bottom line is that in many people’s eyes, I probably don’t count as a ‘real’ scientist. However, even if I’m not studying within a science faculty, my PhD uses science (particularly Psychology and Statistics). So maybe I can be less shy about making the claim. Perhaps if enough of us less-conventional types start calling ourselves ‘scientists’ too, then we can help bring science (however it is defined) more fully into the national conversation.


The shifting sands of state heritage funding

(N.B. This is another of my blog posts comparing the 2010 and 2011 versions of the ABS report Arts and Culture in Australia: A Statistical Overview. The first one is here.)

In this post, I’m looking at government funding of arts and heritage and comparing it to 2010’s effort. Again it’s a complex and slightly confusing picture, not least because some of the figures reported for the 2008-2009 year do not always tally between the respective reports. For the purpose of this post, I’ve used the figures cited in the 2011 report wherever possible.

First the overall picture of Federal, State and Local government funding:

Comparison of state funding over the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 years (Source: ABS)

As with my 2010 post, I’ve made funding increases over 6% green, and decreases over 6% red.

Cultural heritage and ‘other’ museums had a significant funding boost in 2009-2010, particularly at Federal and Local levels. This appears to have been at the expense of large cuts to Federal environmental heritage funding  (local government funding of environmental heritage is not provided in the report). Meanwhile, there has been an increase of state funding of art museums, partially offset by a cut to local government funding in this area.

As with last year, there are significant (and inconsistent) year-on-year changes in funding at state level:

State by state breakdown of heritage funding: 2008-2009 & 2009-2010 (Source ABS)

The big increase in Art Museum funding in NSW appears to be a return to ‘usual’ funding levels, since the 2008-2009 amount was a 32% decrease from 2007-2008 (see table in previous blog post). The drop in Art Museum funding in Qld is also in the context of a far larger increase in the previous year. The ACT has had large funding increases across the board (again balancing cuts from the previous years in some instances.)

It’s possible that state funding cycles are highly variable when looked at on a year-by-year basis like this, hence the erratic numbers – perhaps comparing three-year averages might give a more clear picture of what’s going on.

Another point to note is that while state funding of environmental heritage is relatively static in the aggregate, the individual state breakdowns show some clear winners and losers. I should point out that no states saw cuts to environmental heritage last year, and a couple had reasonably large increases, so the funding picture for environmental heritage may not be as bad as it first appears. However, when taking the federal funding into consideration too, it does look like environmental heritage has had a pretty severe funding blow.

Who’s visiting (now)?

Late in 2010, I wrote a series of posts based on the Australian Bureau of Statistics report: Arts and Culture in Australia: A Statistical Overview, 2010.

It looks like the 2011 version of this report was issued just before Christmas, although I only found out about its release a few days ago. So I thought I’d look at the 2011 report and compare it to the 2010 figures I blogged about previously, to see if there are any interesting changes (or conversely, evidence of stable patterns).

The first post I’m revisiting is Who’s visiting?, which looked at participation rates by age. (‘Participation rate’ is defined as the person having attended that kind of venue least once in the previous 12 month period). Now it looks like the participation rates shown in the 2010 report  were based on data from 2005-2006, whereas the 2011 report has more recent figures (2009-2010). So what has happened to participation rates over the past five years?

Firstly, let’s look at the overall participation rates from each year (NB: the ABS report also includes libraries, archives and performing arts, but these are not included in this analysis):

Attendance rates at Australian cultural venues (people aged 15 or over), as a total figure and as a percentage of the population (Source: ABS).

So it appears that participation rates are increasing across the board, albeit modestly (and the report does not say whether this increase is statistically significant or not). This increase appears to be spread across the age ranges:

Attendance rates at cultural venues by age group, comparing 2005-2006 and 2009-2010 (Source: ABS)

So there is no radical change in any particular age group, and the patterns of participation follow broadly the same patterns in both 2006-2006 and 2009-2010. Similarly to previous years, the report also showed that women are still slightly more likely to be visitors than men. So there is nothing earth shattering, but perhaps there is something to be quietly optimistic about if the increased participation rates are evidence of a slow and steady trend.



Interpretation – just for kids?

A visitor to your average art exhibition might be forgiven for thinking so.

A couple of weeks ago, while I was in Brisbane, I spent an afternoon taking in the Matisse: Drawing Life exhibition at GoMA. As regular readers would know, it was not my first visit to GoMA and given I’m a bit of a Matisse fan (albeit a lay fan, not one with an MA in Art History!), it was something I was looking forward to.

And before I create the wrong impression, I should say that I was definitely not disappointed by what I saw. There was an impressive collection of drawings, woodcuts, etching and collages spread over a significant portion of GoMA’s ground floor. (Unfortunately I was not permitted to take photos of the works to help jog my memory of specific works, but I suspect this was beyond GoMA’s control and part and parcel of hosting an exhibition of this type.)

I probably spent at least an hour and a half in the exhibition – long enough that I didn’t really get much of a chance to experiment in the interactive drawing room at the exhibition’s exit (by this stage it was nearing closing time). However I left feeling that my $16 entry (student concession – a rare perk of the PhD student!) was money well-spent.

Drawing Room at Matisse Exhibition
Part of the Drawing Room. Visitors could try their hand at drawing on iPads (shown) or on paper. The iPad images could be shown on the large screen. Surrounding the benches were a wide range of objects similar to those seen in Matisse's works.

But even so, I think there were some missed opportunities with the overall interpretation of the works. It appeared to me that the main exhibition text was directed at experts and art historians, whereas the real nuggets were either relegated to the “For Kids” text or the virtual tour comprising short video clips accessible via QR code. (These clips were very good by the way – I particularly enjoyed the ones made in conjunction with Griffith University / Queensland College of Art that showed how etchings and such like are made (see here). However, as far as I could tell, I was the only person using the QR codes. I wonder how well they are used?)

The “For Kids” text was written in an informal style, often using the second person and active language. It was broken up into short paragraphs, making it easy on the eye. It pointed out features of the works that you may have missed. And while it was ostensibly “for kids”, in some cases it was the only place where a knowledge of art history was not automatically assumed. As an example, there was a whole room of works that we were told were from Matisse’s ‘odalisque’ period. (Obvious, huh?) While from the context you could more or less figure out what it meant, it was only in the kids’ text that it was explained that ‘odalisque’ is a word for a female nude posed indoors, and is derived from the Turkish word ‘odalik’. So I learned something new. To me that’s not kids’ text, that’s interpretation – and it works for all ages!

As a case in point, here is a comparison of the different interpretations of a work commissioned by the Barnes Foundation – in main text, kids text, and the QR clip (with apologies for the shocking quality of the photos – I hope you get the idea).

The main text for "The Dance"
The Kids Text

I found the kids text far more enlightening about what I was actually looking at, and you have to see the video clip to get the kicker – initially, the work was accidentally made to the wrong scale!

I note from the website that the exhibition was curated by a French curatorial team, so it is likely that the exhibition text is from them as well (although the QR clips are obviously a GoMA production; the source of the kids text is not obvious but I’m guessing that’s GoMA’s too). So it’s possible that there is something lost in the translation, however my (limited) experience of French museums is that exhibition text generally assumes far more knowledge than is usual in the Anglosphere (even topics I know well have had labels that sailed straight over my head). I’m not sure if this represents a real difference in what the average Parisian on the street knows, or just different curatorial attitudes to what people *should* know.

Despite these points that are specific to this particular exhibition, I would argue that art exhibitions in general have more formal and less visitor-focused labels. Perhaps this is because other kinds of museums (particularly natural history) are more consciously focused on a family audience (art museums seemingly have no qualms about being mainly for ‘grown ups’). Or perhaps I’m betraying my relative ignorance of art relative to the sciences (but then again, wouldn’t the typical visitor lack specialist subject knowledge too)?

I just hope it’s not because clear, conversational and accessible text is somehow seen as a “kids’ thing”.