Lovely Weather, The End of Astronomy and the need for ArtSci Socio-Economic indicators

by Roger F Malina  |  January 2, 2011

In preparing for last year’s US National Science Foundation/National Endowment of the Arts workshop, I was forced to articulate the best case for why it would be a good thing for society to encourage more collaboration between artists and scientists,

I found it impossible to quantify my gut feeling and the passion I have developed after 30 years of working with artists involved in science and new technologies. I can generate general heuristic arguments, but I don’t know yet how to make them precise enough to develop “criteria of quality”, or to quantify their value within general innovation or creativity theory, never mind their socio-economic value to society. Some of my attempts can be found at:

We are not alone in this dilemma, as many disciplines face governmental budget cuts in many countries which seek to maximize near term economic impact of government investment. Science and the Arts are going to be severely cut in the efforts to reduce government deficits. English astronomers have started a “save astronomy’ movement in England,

In his Presidential Address to the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) , Andrew Fabian comes to the reluctant conclusion that it is not possible to quantify in economic terms the benefits of astronomy to society. He concludes with gloomy concern about cuts in funding in astronomy in the UK in coming years,

Under pressure from UK funding authorities, the RAS commissioned economic analyses which sought to trace back several key contemporary technologies to their original discoveries by astronomers. They gave up after a pilot study and concluded it was impossible to do a meaningful analysis. Not only does the chain of cause and effect between discovery and application take decades, but it occurs through a complex network of collaborative and international relationships that defies probabilistic or quantitative analysis, or cause and effect interpretation.

They sought then to include societal and cultural impact of astronomy, including its role in attracting young people to science. They were unable to find reliable ways to quantify these impacts.

Even in the area of applications, astronomers for instance played key roles in pushing camera CCD technologies that are now in widespread use, it is very difficult to make useful generalizations because these developments were embedded in a complex ecology of research and business that defy straightforward causal analysis. Fewer than one in a thousand patents ever result in any application; and the ‘long tail’ nature of successful patents means that a very small number of cases dominate the analyses. It is easy to find “shining examples”( eg the development of X ray cameras by astronomers now used in security systems) but the RAS was unable to develop meaningful metrics in general. And Fabian points out that  often serendipity of various kinds plays predominant roles in selecting winners and losers.

Physicist Sheldon Glashow has recently argued this aspect in his talk “Blind Chance or Intelligent Design?” where he asks “Do you think before you look, or look before you think ?” with the answer that you need to do both,

So: would it be a good idea for our societies to support and encourage more collaboration between artists and scientists?

I recently had my enthusiasm boosted through the involvement of Leonardo/OLATS ( ( the French sister organization to Leonardo/ISAST( in San Francisco) in a project called “Lovely Weather” on Art and Climate Change  in Ireland,

The project, led by John Cunningham and Terre Duffe of the Letterkenny Art Center, and Annick Bureaud of Leonardo/OLATS,  involved 5 artists in residencies on projects related to the issue of Climate Change in the surrounding area of Donegal county,

Each of the artists projects involved a climate science component in some way and interaction if not always collaboration with climate scientists:

Peter d’Agostino (USA), WorldWide Walks/between earth & sky/Dún na nGall

Seema Goel (Can), Carbon Capture Sweaters

The League of Imaginary Scientists (Lucy Hg & partners, USA), The Irish Rover: Looking for Mars Off the Northern Coast of Ireland

Antony Lyons (UK/IRE), Weather Proof

Softday (Sean Taylor & Mikael Fernstrom, IRE), Marbh Chrios (Dead Zone)

I encourage you to take a look at the projects, as I feel several of them are ‘exemplars’ of the way that art science projects can engage burning societal issues of our time, in ways that engage and dialog with the local communities and result in compelling art work. None of the works would be called science education or science outreach. Their impact is allegorical, metaphorical, philosophical not pedagogic.

The group Softday created public musical performances that encoded and transformed marine scientific data on the ecological ‘dead zones’ in the sea off Ireland,

Seema Goel creating new knitting communities that drew on climate change data to create patterns and designs, transforming the idea of ‘carbon footprint”,

Anthony Lyons created site specific work from weather data and explored in particular the local uses of peat and its role in carbon capture,

The League of Imaginary Scientists worked with scientists at NASA’s JPL Lab to “twin” an island off the coast with a newly discovered rock on the surface of Mars as an elegy to climate change on our sister planet Mars,

I am convinced that we need more art-science work of this kind. I cant describe yet the scientific discoveries that may result from a chain of future networked events, I cant predict what inventions will be made initiated by these projects, there were no long term jobs created in the local community.

It will be important in coming decades to document these ‘socio-economic benefits”. Those benefits exist. I well remember in the 1970s and 1980s the general disbelief that computers could be used for art making; we now have entire industries in the arts and entertainment that have arisen from the work of pioneer artists working with computer scientists. That’s an analogy, but it is part of the success story of the art-science-technology community.

But these Lovely Weather projects do articulate clearly the importance of coupling as closely possible the artistic imagination and the scientific imagination. And that coupling requires intimate contact between artists and scientists, and projects that are culturally meaningful in very local contexts. We know we have built a civilization that is unsustainable with the current cultural values that are enshrined in our economy and institutions.

I am convinced that encouraging art-science projects is part of a cultural survival strategy but it would sure be nice to have some ‘socio-economic impact indicators”: can you suggest some? As a start, Robert Thill has been working on a list of patents filed by artists,


  1. Thanks Roger
    I certainly support what you say about “projects that are culturally meaningful in very local contexts”. There is I think potential here to harness the thinking inherent in ‘Deep Mapping’. For a recent review of this subject by Dr Iain Biggs (Director of PLaCE), have a look at pages 5-8 of this conference document:

    On the subject of my ‘WeatherProof’ residency project, the main strands probably were (and still are): the exploration of the local landscape/countryside for information on very long-term climate change, as well as the tensions and contested landuse/politics/culture/narratives of the contemporary bog-lands. The legacy aspects are still evolving, and hopefully will result in long-term art+science ‘residency’ activities in this area (The River Finn Valley), drawing on the ‘Deep Mapping’ ideas.
    To read more, and keep track of future developments:


  2. Glad to see Antony Lyon’s work being referenced so appropriately here (equally glad to see mention of my own work of course). Antony’s approach exemplifies many of the central values and concerns of “deep mapping” as a rigorous, scientifically informed poetics that draws equally on the imaginative arts and the social and hard sciences. I believe that, among other things, the urge to “deep mapping” is one aspect of a radical attempt to address a substantive – and increasingly problematic – side effect of our educational system. I see this as follows.

    Like almost everyone educated in the previous century I was taught at secondary, degree and post-graduate level within a disciplinary framework. I learned both practical and conceptual skills within that disciplinary framework and was expected to pursue a profession based upon it. However, even during the 1960s that situation was in question within the arts. Today there is much talk in certain areas of the academy about the tension between a “post-disciplinary” world on the one hand and the need for maintaining disciplinary specialism as a skill-base on which to build inter- and trans- disciplinarities on the other.

    In relation to the field of “deep mapping” in which I now work, Cliff McLucas has argued that it should: ‘bring together the amateur and the professional, the artist and the scientist, the official and the unofficial, the national and the local’. I accept this as a situation made necessary by the growing social and environmental realization that, as Barbara Bender points out, phenomena such as landscapes: “… refuse to be disciplined. They make a mockery of the oppositions that we create between time [History] and space [Geography], or between nature [Science] and culture [Social Anthropology]”. Observations like those of McLucas and Bender highlight a growing tension between conceptions of specialism too often based on over-investment in disciplinary exclusivity (often aggressively maintained by those for who whose that investment provides them with an institutional power base) and those oriented to a more holistic approach to knowing – one that recognizes a multiplicity of ways of understanding and acting in the world, each with its own particular (and inevitably partial) validity.

    Mike Pearson and Michael Shanks have argued that, in the final stage of theatre/archaeology, the two disciplines are no longer discrete: “They coexist within a blurred genre … or a science/fiction, a mixture of narration and scientific practices, an integrated approach to recording, writing and illustrating the material past”. While I would want to argue that deep mapping results not from the blurring of two disciplines to create a new, hybrid third, but rather from an interweaving of many disparate, tensioned strands of experience, genres, knowledge positions and narrative perspectives, it strikes me as important to acknowledge the radical nature of Pearson and Shanks’ proposition. To blur the distinction between science and fiction is to challenge a fundamental opposition on which academic disciplinarity depends – particularly that between science (fact) and art (fiction) – and to open up a “post-disciplinary” space. However, that term remains both problematic and misleading if we fail to address the pedagogic context that provides students with specific practical and intellectual skills.

    Arguably then what we increasingly need is a degree of disciplinary agnosticism – to suspend our belief in the taken-for-granted authority of traditional discipline-based knowledge – whether that embodied in the practice of art or science. I’m suggesting that our knowing the world far exceeds the particular kinds of knowledge authorized by the system of disciplinarity upon which the institutional power of the academy is still largely based. If we want to address the many complex socio-environmental issues that now face us, we need to both discuss and start acting on understandings that are not qualified by assumptions that, for example, conventionally treat land use, politics, culture, questions of identity and narratives of the contemporary bog-lands as matters of distinct and separate intellectual concern.

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