Friday, January 13, 2012

The 'Culture' of Science

Image: BT
This morning's Irish Times editorial carried an argument that science and the engagement with science be considered as a part of what makes any society "cultured".

I've written occasionally here regarding science and culture and I certainly think it's an area for rich collaboration and interaction.

"Engagement with dance, music, theatre, writing, art, all these are readily proffered when questioned about the cultural aspects of a society. Yet the word culture carries a much broader meaning than just these forms of artistic endeavour" writes the editorial.

The author argues that scientific research is considered abstract or removed from our daily lives and not something we consider a cultural activity. "This is despite our ready embrace of all that the culture of science can deliver, from mobile phones and modern aircraft to tablet computers and advanced medical diagnostics. And yet Ireland seems unwilling to acknowledge the importance of research as a cultural activity that enriches society."

Despite the billions of euro spent on scientific research, researchers and infrastructure in this country over the years, the Irish Times editorial makes the argument that science is still not considered a cultural pursuit: "all this money has had scant impact on the public recognition of science as a cultural activity that can enhance our society as well as our economic life."

 While contributing to a much needed debate on the role of science in Irish culture and society, I can't say I agree fully with the tone of the editorial. Isn't culture much more about how we live our lives than about some sort of "fine arts" definition of culture which requires us to stand in awe of a painting, sculpture or piece of architecture?

If, as suggested, a broad definition of culture is taken, then science has had a huge impact on Irish culture throughout the years. RTE celebrate their 50th birthday this year - an anniversary which would have been impossible without the early pioneers of television like John Logie Baird. RTE television, for better of worse, has had a huge influence on Irish society since its establishment.

Mobile phone, the internet and computer technology pervades our society. This 'e' or 'i' culture of sending emails, text messages and tweets allow us to communicate as a nation and as a world in ways we could not have imagined just decades before. The ease with which we can send photographic and video imagery in seconds has also profoundly changed our culture and how we develop as a nation.

Essentially, what I am saying (and I'm sure the IT is too) is that science and the pursuit of science has had a real and important impact of Irish society and culture. Science has been a part of Irish culture - even if, as the Irish Times point out, it has not always been recognised as the cultural force that it is.

However, I would argue that there is no need for us to consider science a cultural activity in the way that we approach other areas of our 'culture'. Instead of visiting a museum or gallery and looking at a painting or piece of sculpture (which, by the way, I wholeheartedly encourage you to do!), one can look around you and view the impact science has had on the world. That, in the end, is science's ultimate reward - that it is a force for change and cultural development in our country. Lives saved by medical science, crops protected by botanists, communication made possible by computer scientists - all these things are worth more than some label that says science is now a cultural experience.

As the editorial writer in the Irish Times points out, young scientists (at least those gathered at this week's BT Young Scientists Exhibition) don't care whether science is considered a cultural pursuit or not: "These students are not distracted about whether Ireland has a culture of science, they simply engage with the subject with the same enthusiasm as they would any other activity that attracts their interest." We should do the same!


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