Art as a Science Communication Tool: I Need Your Help

Photo credit: asifthebes/stock.xchng

Visual art has the power to inspire, provoke and fascinate. I know some incredibly talented artists that focus on scientific subjects, and I think their work is a beautiful and valuable science communication tool – but I’m having a hard time quantifying that value. So I want you to help me out.

As a flack, I primarily use art (still images or video) to draw attention to a story. I rarely (if ever) use it to help tell a story more effectively. To remedy this, I started doing some homework to see if I could learn more about how to incorporate art into my science outreach. I began by going through the literature, with the goal of getting some numbers about how effective art can be when it comes to science communication. Why? Because good art isn’t free. You need solid numbers to make an argument for an art budget.

This was more difficult than I anticipated.

I found a fair amount of material on how images and video influence social media users (like this and this). But that wasn’t really what I was looking for.

Ultimately, I could find very little research on whether art actually helps people understand scientific concepts or issues – much less any studies that attempted to quantify the science communication benefits of art. And the studies I did find were extremely limited.

For example, a 2012 paper published in Ecology and Society focused solely on what scientists attending the 2003 conference of the Ecological Society of Australia thought about using art to communicate about ecology (the scientists liked it). And a 2002 paper, published in Public Understanding of Science, was an overview of how science and art influence each other. Neither gave me much insight into how effective visual art can be as a science communication tool.

How You Can Help Me Out

First, if you are aware of any research that addresses this issue, please share it with me: shiplives[at] And if it’s publicly available, please post a link in the comments. Second, if you’re a communication researcher who is interested in pursuing research related to this question, please let me know (via email or in the comments here) – I might be able to connect you with some science artists who would be interested in working with you. Third, if you are a science artist who is interested in exploring this question, please let me know – I might be able to connect you with some communication researchers who would be interested in working with you.

believe that art is an important part of science communication, but I want to know whether that is accurate. And if there is an emerging body of evidence that art is an effective tool for conveying scientific concepts, maybe we can get some more money to support it.

Note: I link to a couple papers that may not be open access. Citations below.

“Communicating Ecology Through Art: What Scientists Think,” Ecology and Society, Curtis, D.J., N. Reid and G. Ballard, DOI: 10.5751/ES-04670-170203

“Science and the contemporary visual arts,” Public Understanding of Science, Sian Ede, DOI: 10.1088/0963-6625/11/1/304


21 thoughts on “Art as a Science Communication Tool: I Need Your Help

  1. I love the combination of science and art, not to mention that there are a myriad of parallels between the inspiration of art and the inspiration of science.

    A while back I did some work on a research tool that was directly inspired by my previous work with an artist. I was trying to both develop a useful publishing tool and make something that was visually appealing (link below).

    Artistically linked research:

    As a scientist I tend to focus on the utility of what I do but I would be very interest in working with an artist again to explore the artistic appeal of some of our experimental work and even our data analysis.


  2. This is a good question. There is a lot of talk about STEAM right now, and so many articles, reports, books, etc. promoting the idea of using the arts to teach science. While it’s a very good idea, and there are solid neurological, psychological, anthropological, educational studies pointing to why it’s a good idea, it’s hard to find hard data on actual educational outcomes from using the arts to teach science. There are some data on using arts integration in schools, in elementary science ed. But for informal science for the general public, for college or university level, or high school, I haven’t found much hard data.

    I have put out a call for this with other colleagues, and I’ll share what I find.


  3. Wonderful feedback — thank you! Also, found this interesting: (Thanks for the tip, @mikesgene!). Projects like this one are a great example of efforts to marry science and the arts. It would be great if we could incorporate social scientists into these efforts so that we could collect data and perform quantitative analyses as part of the process — and, ultimately, see some published studies as well!


  4. Another question: what outfits would be interested in funding science/art outcome research? In re: reaching out to social science collaborators, may be as simple as the “If we fund it, they will come” model. 🙂


  5. Hi!
    I ‘m really interest in these topics, even more in doing research on the effectiveness of art as a communication tool. I wrote to your mail.
    Once I found a publication about integrating art in schools for improving young’s education… I should find it again and post it there.

    Thanks for the links!


  6. This reminds me of the extraordinary relationship Richard Feynman had with several artists. I agree there is such a unique relationship between art and science. One of the most important parts of being a successful scientist is being creative. Some of the best advice I ever received in grad school.


  7. Jen Christiansen

    The field of information visualization seems to have a very healthy backbone of research, although perhaps a bit tangential to what, exactly, you’re looking for. These suggestions don’t focus specifically on art/illustration in the service of science communication for the popular audience. But they *do* explore the effectiveness of visuals (primarily data-based visuals) as communication tools.

    Storytelling: The Next Step for Visualization
    Robert Kosara, Jock Mackinlay,
    explanatory blog post:

    VisWeek (conference for scientific and information visualization, sponsored by IEEE)
    This annual conference is chock full of research projects on the topic.
    You might enjoy clicking through the archives, to see the sort of research that has been presented in this forum in the past. I’ve never attended, but it sure looks intriguing. In particular, I recall that this paper (by Michelle Borkin et al) generated some positive buzz a few years ago (as reported by Stephen Few on his blog):

    You might enjoy Alberto Cairo’s site as well.
    No primary research papers included, but lots of thoughts on information graphics and perception, and an excellent round-up of academic and popular book reviews on the topic.

    Enrico Bertini’s research and blog also might be of interest and/or provide more leads.

    Again, I’m afraid this isn’t a link to a primary research paper, but I think it’s relevant. From The Huntington Library– a series of short videos of scientists and historians discussing the intersection of science and art:

    I hope this helps! I look forward to your follow-up posts on the topic.


  8. Hans Youngmann

    This may be of interest: ”
    Synergy has a new website:
    Synergy is an experimental program that catalyzes partnerships between artists and research scientists. With an emphasis on communication and collaboration, Synergy aims to provide meaningful creative and intellectual experiences for both the general public and for participating artists and scientists. We carefully select and match artists and scientists to work together to formulate a shared voice. We then present the outcome of these collaborations as group exhibitions that invite the public to engage with this unique collision of art and science.

    Synergy was conceived in early 2012 in affiliation with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).”


  9. Has Synergy developed any methodology for collecting data on how these art/science collaborations affect people? E.g., quantitative data on their willingness to engage with scientific material, understanding of scientific concepts, etc. If so, would LOVE to learn more about that.


  10. Professional medical illustrators are extremely interested in effective visual learning in life science and medicine: see Association of Medical Illustrators
    We grapple with this issue constantly in life science research communication, medical education, medical legal cases and in commercialization of biopharmaceutical products or devices including the differences between learning from static and dynamic visuals. Our conference in the summer and the VIZBI ( are two meetings that might be of interest. Wilson-Pauwels L. Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics. 2007;81(3):455-59. McClean, P. et al. Molecular and cellular biology animations: development and impact on student learning. Cell Biol. Educ. 2005;4:169–179. Jonassen and Harris. The Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology 2004 are starting points. Richard E Mayer was deeply interested in visual learning and published both journal articles and his book Multimedia Learning.


  11. I replied to this post on my own blog:

    I suggested a way to distinguish art from sci-com and linked to an article about ‘Space Art’ that discusses this in a bit more detail: Oct. 2005 ‘Belonging to the Universe’ Leonardo Vol. 38, No. 5

    My conclusion was: don’t try to quantify the value of art to sci-com. Art does not lend itself to the kind of analysis that seems to work well for pedagogical science communication.


  12. Hi Matt, I appreciate your attention to this topic, but I think you might be trying to combine too many things in your definition of science art. Things like data visualization, illustration or photography can be very important to a scicomm effort. Maybe you should try to focus on those.

    Real art, slippery as it is to define, generally isn’t trying to teach people anything. I definitely don’t see my artwork as educational – it uses scientific content to express some of its ideas, but mainly in the service of really broad concepts like “what does it mean to be alive” rather than, for example, how does a particular brain cell work.

    I have a very simple method of assessing its value – what people pay for it.


  13. Excellent point. Here’s PRECISELY what I’m interested in (and not interested in) — There appears to be a fair amount of data on certain types of infographics in conjunction with teaching materials targeting school age children — so I’m not interested in more of that, and I haven’t seen much beyond that. I’m not trying to find metrics for art that is inspired by science. I’m trying to find metrics for art that has been developed for use in science outreach/communication efforts. I.e., I’m not interesting in determining the value of Wrights’ “Bird in the Air Pump” painting (or whatever the full title is) as an objet d’art. I’m interested in how to quantify the impact of art that was specifically commissioned for purposes of science communication (which I refer repeatedly to funding and to art as a scicomm tool). So, whatever the value of the art in an “art for art’s sake” context, what is it’s value in a *scicomm context* — particularly for art (whatever the medium) that was commissioned explicitly for use in a science communication effort (e.g., accompanying a news story, in a museum exhibit, in a brochure, etc.). Also, I’m not particularly interested in (more) qualitative evaluations of various science/art efforts. I’ve seen a shitload of those already. I’m curious to see how people have attempted to quantify the communication value/impact/effect of art in trying to engage audiences/communicate with audiences on scientific topics. Can it even be done? I don’t know. But I’d like to see someone try.


  14. Hi Matt, I am an artist that makes work communicating specific scientific ideas, and I am interesting in researching this exact question. We talk to our audiences after each performance / installation and ask them what they learnt and record the results. It would be great to know more about your research in this area and connect to communication researchers that you know.


  15. Hello Matt,
    I have an interest in both sides of the fence here. I’m a textile artist who is also a science communicator. One valuable tool in communication is getting the public to join in. Workshops and participation create a much bigger impact. I’d be happy to dicuss further.

    Also I’d love to here about the out come of your research.


  16. Hi Matt, I am a science-trained practicing artist (with a business management/entrepreneurial background). I have only now found your big question about art-sci whilst researching the subject myself. I am a final year Geography PhD student in Wales, UK exploring how art-science can engage the public in climate change adaptation. I have applied my art practice skills to field research in order to collect both quantitative and qualitative data. I have found that the medium of art is more of a vehicle and catalyst than an instructional device (outside of obvious graphics, diagrams and illustrations, of course). Are yo still seeking answers to your blog art-sci questions?
    Best wishes


  17. Jancy McPhee

    Hi Rhian and Matt,
    I am also still interested in this topic if it is still alive. I am a scientist now running a program to use science-integrated-with-art approaches to promote engagement, innovation, and collaboration in space, science and technology.(Our definition of art includes literary, visual, musical and video formats.) I am thus also interested in evidence about the value of art about science/engineering to engage/educate/inspire/communicate to viewers/listeners…and not just making really engaging data representations, which is also important, but not what I am interested in for this discussion. Perhaps, the value is mainly at the “broad concept or inspirational level” and not the detailed “knowledge exchange level”?


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