By Julie Hare
There are a lot of things that happen in universities that the majority of the population don’t know about. Research is one of them. The average punter – even the average undergraduate – would have little idea as the scope, scale and importance of research that takes place. And having a scientist try to describe it usually doesn’t help. A quick read of successful research grants of the two major granting bodies explains why. This is esoteric stuff. It’s arcane, mystical and cabalistic all at the same time. Not stuff ordinary people like me can even begin to comprehend.
In recent years universities have taken much more seriously their responsibility to explain what it is that they do. The reasons are both financial and brand-building – if you want continued government support, it helps if the community supports your endeavours and understands you do good things for the world. It helps attract smart students to the brands they recognise. It helps put higher education on the political agenda. It helps bring philanthropists on board. Let’s not forget an anonymous American donor with no known connection to the University of Sydney, gave the institution a pretty classy Picasso back in 2011 because he or she liked their ground breaking work in obesity, diabetics and cardiovascular disease. It sold for $20.6 million at Christies in London.
Communicating with general audiences has increasingly been encouraged of academics and researchers in recent years. They are taught to dumb down the conceptual stuff and rid their sentences of shoptalk – not always successfully – for media interviews.
And then there are the wonderful 3 Minute Thesis and Dance your PhD programs, I mean, how good is that!
More recently, I’ve become intrigued by the abundance of artist-in-residence programs, museums and other ways universities are using art and artists to connect with the broader community.
It’s been happening for a few years now, but my ears pricked up in May when Sydney University’s multi-disciplinary Charles Perkins Centre (yes, the very same one that was donated the Picasso) announced a $100,000 writer in residence program. The inaugural winner was the hugely talented Charlotte Wood, who will spend her year thinking about and writing about perceptions of ageing.
As the centre’s director Steve Simpson told the Australian, the fellowship is designed to “shake up conventional thinking on some of the nation’s greatest health challenges and bridge the gap between academia and the world at large”.
And that’s the point, isn’t it. To shake up the way we think about things, and to make us think about things we otherwise wouldn’t.
The University of NSW has recently held exhibitions on quantum physics and the artist as a medical patient.
Over at the University of Western Australia, there is the SymbioticA which is a pushing-the-boundaries artistic lab at the intersection of art meets the life sciences.
At Melbourne University, the Science Gallery Melbourne, a space where “science and the arts collide”, is due to open in 2018. It will join sister museums in Dublin, London and Belanguru in India.
Obviously, there’s a trend happening here.
My own interest in artist-in-residence science and research programs was sparked about five years ago when I saw CERN had appointed their first artist. I mean science doesn’t get much bigger than the Large Hadron Collider. It was also the birthplace of the world wide web and the Higgs Bosun. I mean this is big stuff and the thought of someone dancing an interpretation of the Higgs bosun is unutterably delightful.
The next step, surely, is for more artist academics to step out of their creative arts faculties and into science, business, economics, medical, even dentistry, schools to act as translators. Surely this cross-pollination of ideas would benefit everyone, especially students. And isn’t that what it’s all about.
Julie Hare is the higher education editor at The Australian.