How Does Creativity Fit into Science Communication

Natalie Sopinka | AFS Contributing Writer; E-mail: natsopinka@gmail.com

This article was originally published on the Canadian Science Publishing blog as part of the series “Making Waves: The Future of #Scicomm in Fisheries Sciences.” The series was spawned from the science communication session held at last year’s Annual Meeting in Portland. An introduction to the blog series is available at: cdnsciencepub.com/blog.

Since childhood I’ve always been a “crafter.” I would spend all my birthday money on glitter and googly eyes at White Rose—a Canadian craft store that broke my young heart when it led for bankruptcy. I would make Christmas ornaments, without the aid of Pinterest, to give to family members. I wrote poems about vegetables and stories about stolen groundhog shadows. I proudly wore a purple sweatshirt and pair of purple sweatpants I had sewn. One might say I was creative.

Fast-forward two decades and I am an aquatic scientist. I want to know what happens to baby salmon when their mothers are stressed out. I observe the behavior of baby salmon swimming in aquaria. I measure hormones in the blood of baby salmon. I use computer software to graph and analyze data. I write structured articles that describe my research. I present my scientific findings on PowerPoint slides at conferences.

Would someone describe my profession as creative? Probably not. I’m a scientist after all, not an artist, and artists are synonymous with creativity. Scientists are rigid and analytical. They lack the passion and spirit that artists possess.

Where did this divide between scientists and artists originate? When the word "scientist" was proposed in the 19th century by William Whewell, individuals who pontificated about the natural world were already distinguished from artists and referred to as natural philosophers or cultivators of science. With Whewell’s definition, published in 1840, “that as an artist is a musician, painter, or poet, a scientist is a mathematician, physicist, or naturalist,” the division was formally articulated in the English language. As Duke University graduate student Megan Fork reflected, “We’ve been brought up to believe in an unspoken dichotomy between rational thinking (the realm of science) and creativity.”

Yet, when we go further back in history, notable artists were also what would have been described as scientists. Leonardo da Vinci painted The Mona Lisa, but he also dissected human cadavers and created meticulously detailed anatomical drawings, an important contribution to the emergence of evidence-based knowledge. Figures more well-known for their scientific contributions also possessed artistic talents. Albert Einstein played the piano and violin. He is thought to have very much appreciated the influence of music on his scientific discoveries, and is attributed to statements such as “The greatest scientists are artists as well.” Einstein also acknowledged and appreciated creativity, being ascribed to the quote “Creativity is contagious, pass it on.”

The truth is, scientists are creative. Megan Fork sums it up as “good science relies on creativity.” To be creative is to create. Scientists are constantly creating. They generate new knowledge to explain natural phenomena. They discover new ways to solve problems. In the 1950s, Archie Carr attached radio transmitters to weather balloons, the balloons to a float, and tied the float to sea turtles. This was one of the earliest examples of aquatic telemetry. Creativity is also evident in conservation initiatives. The International Crane Foundation prevented crane chicks from imprinting on their human caregivers by feeding the chicks with a hand puppet resembling an adult crane. Scientists are also creating new platforms to communicate their research— platforms that incorporate the tools of an artist.

Scientists are sharing science via:
• Dance – Dance Your Ph.D.
• Video – Ocean 180 Challenge
• Music – Daniel Crawford’s “A Song of Our Warming Planet”

• Animations – StemCellShorts
• Podcasts – Naturally Speaking: A Science Pod-yssey
• Cartoons – Buzz Hoot Roar
• Comics – Squidtoons
• Stories – Before the Abstract, The Story Collider, Anecdotal Evidence
• Interactive graphics – data.ecotrust.ca
• Poetry – Gregory Johnson’s Climate Change Science 2013: Haiku

Scientists are sharing science in:
• Three minutes – Three Minute Thesis (3MT)
• Two minutes – Ph.D. Comics 2 Minute Thesis
• Five seconds or less – UsefulScience.org
• Ways that use only the ten hundred most used words –Up-Goer Five Challenge

So why, in general, is science not considered a creative profession? Well, as science historian Laura Snyder pointed out, an unforeseen consequence of Whewell’s defining of the “modern scientist,” is “today’s disjunction between science and the rest of culture.” By being dissociated from artists—the musicians, painters, and poets—were scientists stripped of their capacity to be identified as creative?

I and others argue that creativity is inherent to science, but are external agents stifling that creativity? Agents such as shifted funding priorities and looming chants of “publish or perish.”

Despite progress in how scientists are extending their creativity to the way they communicate their findings, if there is a roadblock to creativity at the initial step of hypothesis formation, would that barricade scientists from honing their communication skills? What are the cascading effects of creatively-curbed scientists on the education and mentorship of future scientists?

The current state of creativity in science is unlikely to be improved upon simply or quickly.

So, where do we go from here?

From psychologist to dancer, the consensus is that creativity is a skill that can be sharpened. Would exercising creativity while communicating our science enhance our confidence in being creative at all stages of the scientific process?

I’ve fallen into many thought-avalanches trying to disentangle the connections among creativity, science, and science communication. We should continue having discussions about these connections. How can we embrace, cultivate and evaluate these connections?

I’ve asked a lot of questions here but have few answers. I do know that I am a scientist and I am creative. I still go to craft stores and buy glitter and googly eyes. I still write poems but the purple sweatpants have been packed away in the attic.

When I found myself in a scientific rut following my Ph.D., I was inspired by illustrator Bethann Merkle, and tried sketching. The results were comical at first but when you’re drawing a goofy-looking animal like a flatfish, it’s okay. I found myself surprisingly invigorated. When I have gone a few days without sketching, I have a sensation that I can only describe as a “low-fuel” light going off somewhere in my brain – an indicator that my tank of creativity is emptying.

I do believe that practicing creativity has made me a better communicator of science. I keep striving to flex my creativity muscles, so they don’t get stiff or worse, atrophied.  I encourage you to do the same. Whatever your creative outlet is, do it, if only for a few moments each day.

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