Devaluing Art Hurts Our Ability to Communicate Science

You should hire an artist for your next project. Why? Read on.

I started out in Film & Television, studying it in middle school, high school, and then university. I loved it, but already saw issues with how artists were treated as a commodity.

It’s not a good sign when others ask “How are you going to make money doing that?”

One day in film school, our teacher played us a YouTube video. YT was only a year old, but a video had gone viral. The video was…well…bad. But it got so many views that a studio contacted the creator and gave him a contract.

Then, our teacher went on to explain that our degrees were useless. That even with our degrees, we’d still have to start at the bottom and work our way up. There was a small caveat that we might move up faster, but that was it.

And here we were spending $30,000 per year in this school.

So, while the advent of high quality digital cameras meant that everyone has access to cool new tech, it also meant that professional creatives became somewhat redundant. Or at least made to feel that way.

Why you need to hire an artist (expert)

The truth is, we live in a society where art is all around us. Magazines, billboards, bridges, buildings, offices, murals. We have beautiful things to look at every day, and looks are totally free.

But all of these projects had artists on the team to make them. Those artists got paid.

Yet somehow, every artist has heard the “die from exposure” joke too many times.

Being able to see art every day has desensitized us to the fact that artists are highly skilled laborers (think postdoc) who are often underpaid (again…postdoc). When freelancing, artists go from job to job (postdoc?) unless they can find a permanent position.

Learn the tools, but still get help

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard, “why hire a (insert artist title here)? I’ll just do it myself. I have (insert tool).” This devalues people who’ve spent years learning and perfecting their craft.

Today, we have amazing technology that’s available to anyone with enough money to buy it. Tech to create video, animation, and illustration. This is awesome.

I highly encourage others to get to know new tech. Small labs with small projects often don’t warrant hiring professionals, but once a project scales, so do project needs. The money is usually there. I often find that scientists are able to be creative with money when it suits their needs, but when it comes to communicating effectively, they are less willing to consider reevaluating the budget.

You may know your way around the lab, but would you do all the experiments by yourself?

The same is true for communicating science. Scientists should absolutely learn communication skills. Learn software that will help. But when the project scales to the point that warrants outside help, hire an artist.

Artists can help in several ways:

  • Decrease the time you spend on presentations, figures, and illustrations
  • Improve readability of your research
  • Make your research stand out
  • Improve accessibility to your research

Where the money comes from?

Where does the money come from? IMO, it should come as part of your research budget. Just as you budget to pay for publishing papers, you should pay for public outreach. Would you ever consider not publishing because the budget just isn’t there? Of course not!

Many of us get funding through the government. In the US, that’s the NSF and NIH. The people fund those institutions. By helping people understand our findings, I believe we build trust that will lead to further funding. People don’t want to fund what they don’t understand (and I don’t blame them).

I’ve worked in 3 separate labs now for 9 years. I’ve seen how money is used in not only my labs, but in adjacent labs and in departments. You can’t convince me that a lab is so efficient with its funding that it can’t spare $$ for an artist. Funding tight for everyone, but I’ve seen how that funding is often used wastefully.

Still can’t find the $$$?

Get a group of researchers together in your department and hire an artist together for a project. Contact the local news station to pick up a story about the collaboration. Show your dept that its good for your image.

Do you run a dept?

Reach out to past donors about creating a fund to share your dept’s work with the donor community (+ social media). These often end up paying for themselves in donations, if done well.

Run a college?

I hope you already have a communications dept, but consider hiring freelance artists who can spruce up the look of development publications or create new media (animations, infographics, interactive websites?).

I’m not trying to put the burden completely on the scientists, here. I’m a scientist. I know that there are always a million problems going on, and that the communications side of things can get overshadowed with politics, strange research results, and a to-do list a mile long.

But this is also the exact reason that you should bring in someone (an expert) to help.

Think of SciComm as Marketing

I hate thinking of science as business, but the unfortunate fact is that every lab is like a small business. Every grant is like an investment from a donor. And labs always need more funding for their cool, new project.

Marketing companies are light years beyond scientists as far as raising money for the latest and greatest, so why not use that knowledge to help us?

How much of your budget should you spend on marketing?

“U.S. Small Business Administration recommends spending 7 to 8% of gross revenue for marketing and advertising if you’re doing <$5M / year in sales.”

I think allocating 5% is a reasonable start. After the first project, I think you’ll find how useful and impactful it can be.

Recently, @scicommcat shared the @artthescience residency program with me. An artist spent time with scientists and created an art piece. Here are some insights shared by the sci & the artist from their summary report: https://artthescience.com/residencies/between-the-sand/

My takeaway from this is that scientists and artists can learn from each other. It’s when we collaborate (scientists, communicators, artists) that we can make the most impact.

A Magic Formula

Here’s how I see it.

Better Communication -> Public interest -> Government interest -> Funding -> More Science

More science can not only lead to better understanding of the universe, technological advances, and improved health outcomes. It also should mean better communication.

When I was in my second undergraduate lab, my research advisor asked me for a picture of myself for the website. I didn’t want to give him one, but he was insistent. He told me that donors and funding agencies want to see that the lab is productive, and they want to see the face of the science.

I also learned more about his early research advisor. The communication they both did, though very different, inspired me. In the same way I was inspired by Bill Nye as a kid, and in the same way I’m inspired by amazing scientists here on Twitter.

I’m not the only one inspired. Generation after generation have been inspired by great science communicators working with scientists and artists to create amazing pieces that touch your heart and soul.

I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but my hope is that you know someone who is sitting in that choir’s audience waiting for you to sing (for free). Go talk to them and inspire them to pay a songwriter for their newest musical masterpiece.

Did I go too far with the metaphor?

If you’re a PhD student, talk about funding artists to your advisor, program, or dept. As a Principal Investigator, talk to your dept chair or communications department. If you’re a communications person, talk to scientists. Inspire!

Let’s change the culture of devaluing artists. There are a TON of amazing artists who would love to work with you on a project! Reach out and chat. Then hire an artist for your next project.

Let’s not make excuses, but instead ask hard questions and learn from each other. I’d love to hear strategies!