Cooking up interdisciplinarity (with added artist)
Discussions about the future of science and technology have increasingly considered how interdisciplinary working might contribute to science’s discoveries and technology’s innovations. The National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) was launched in the US in 2003, a program designed to “stimulate new modes of inquiry and break down conceptual and institutional barriers to interdisciplinary research”.
The central tool of NAKFI is an annual themed “think-tank” style conference, attended by around 100 participants selected from an international open call. Participants work in interdisciplinary groups to try to address urgent scientific or societal challenges. Afterwards, they can apply for seed grants to enable further pursuit of their ideas.
Previous NAKFI conferences have brought people together from science, engineering and medicine. For the first time in the 2015 conference, the academies decided to include artists and designers. The intention was explore how bringing together arts, design, sciences, engineering and medicine can help to stimulate innovation, as well as how such collaborations might encourage public and academic discourse around critical societal, scientific and environmental issues.
David Edwards, a biomedical engineer and founder-director of Le Laboratoire, an art/science innovation space in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was asked to chair the 2015 NAKFI steering committee and invited me as a member. This role involved helping to select participants from the open call, generating ‘seed ideas’, and mentoring some of the groups during the conference. I was impressed by the openness of the committee to the possible forms and impact that projects resulting from the conference might take. Most members were scientists or technologists, but had appreciation of the arts from different perspectives.
So does NAKFI work, as an initiator for innovative projects, and as a contribution to breaking down institutional and systemic barriers to interdisciplinary research? NAKFI has funded many interesting looking projects through the process in the past, so perhaps that ticks the first part of the question. Whether it has had a long-term impact on interdisciplinary research in the US can probably only be answered by a longitudinal and attitudinal study of participants and their institutions.
It’s difficult to draw any conclusions as yet from the 2015 conference, including the effectiveness of adding artists into the mix, partly because it’s early days in the development of the proposed projects. The ideas and content of the discussions are embargoed until Spring 2016, however I think I’m allowed to make some general observations.
As with earlier conferences, the goal was to come up with concrete project proposals. However, the type of impact of the project could be cultural/artistic, as well as educational, social or scientific. Participants were allocated to ‘seed idea’ groups, whose composition was largely led by participant preference, which – whilst apparently a good idea – meant that one group I was mentoring contained no artists, while a second held no scientists. This was a bit of a lost opportunity, as I felt both groups could have benefited from the absent expertise and perspective, although they were both interdisciplinary and came up with exciting initial proposals.
One realisation I had, observing the conference unfold and speaking with people who had attended previous conferences, was that the group dynamics this year were far more animated than in previous years. One person remarked that back in 2004 there had “nearly been a stand-up fight” between two group participants, but that was a far cry from the impassioned debates, emotional arguments, group upheavals and reformations that characterised 2015’s conference. One organiser suggested it was because the artists were more “desperate” for funding, but I wonder if it isn’t more to do with the tendency (even tradition) for artists to offer the dissident voice, to question consensus and to seek alternative ways of doing things. It’s important too to emphasise that it was not only artists reassigning themselves to other groups, and that some artists stayed in groups where they were uncomfortable, but I like to think that these tendencies of artists I mention can actually benefit such an experimental process.
In accepting the committee role, I was motivated by my interest in exploring the role of contemporary art in society, and particularly its potential inter-relationships with science. While interdisciplinary research and education are enduring interests for me, I’ve been less involved with the innovation agenda, but it seems to me that engaging the interest of policymakers and those in industry can help to strengthen interdisciplinary research involving artists. In the USA, the agenda of ‘STEM to STEAM’ (transforming research, innovation and education policy by placing art and design at the centre of science, technology, engineering and medicine) is being discussed in the National Academies of Science, major universities, and even the US House of Representatives. So I was interested in the NAKFI conference as a testing ground to explore the potential role/s for art within innovation.
And then too I have an underlying urge, which I know I share with many artists, to initiate projects that may have clear practical benefits for people. This tendency in art is something that, in an art historical context, the Arts Catalyst will be exploring at our new centre in London in its opening exhibition: ‘Notes from the Field: Commoning Practices in Art and Science’. Perhaps the role of art is to experience and understand the problem, rather than to seek a solution. But this act of problematising can itself inflame a desire to transform those situations.
The National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) aims to catalyse interdisciplinary research at the intersection of science, engineering and medicine. You can sign up for NAKFI email alerts and apply to attend their next conference.