Value of joint science-arts venture called into doubt

September 16, 2005

A multimillion-pound scheme bringing together scientists and artists has come under scathing attack from a former supporter.

Little good work has emerged from the Sciart initiative, with scientists "patronising" artists by agreeing to work with them purely to win cash, according to Lloyd Anderson, the science director of the British Council.

He said last week: "Over three years, I do not know that any great work came out of it." His comments will once again trigger a debate over the usefulness of science-art collaborations.

They come as the Wellcome Trust this week announces the 14 Sciart award winners for 2005, including projects on the "aesthetic pattern" of the bird-flu virus and sounds that emanate from organs and arteries.

The initiative, led by Wellcome, has been running for about a decade. It offers grants totalling about £500,000 a year for projects that explore interaction between scientific research and the arts.

The British Council was formerly part of a Sciart consortium with Wellcome, the Arts Council, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, and the Gulbenkian Foundation.

Dr Anderson told a science and art conference at York University: "People started to say that things were Sciart because they could get money for it.

" Verity Slater, Wellcome's Sciart project manager, responded by arguing that much collaboration between science and art would never have taken place without the scheme. She said: "We are now getting more applications led by scientists and projects are more about a critical engagement between science and the arts."Dr Anderson argued that the scheme needed to be revamped to fund the space and time for scientists and artists to come together to explore big ideas.

Darren Wright, a space physicist at Leicester University, said he had been involved in a project that had led to the development of a 3-D model for presenting data on the Earth's magnetic field.

"When the artist first joined our group a lot of people were sceptical, but I think they had their eyes opened in the end," he said.

But Andy Gracie, an artist and visiting lecturer at Huddersfield University, agreed with Dr Anderson. "Bringing a scientist into an artist's studio or an artist into a laboratory will never produce good collaboration," he said. "We need a funded neutral space where scientists and artists can work together with an open mind."

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