Menu Close

I’m a failed scientist, Nicky Morgan, and we have much to learn from art and design

Corn marigold. Stained stem section constructed from 250 individual images. Rob Kesseler, 2011

So the education secretary Nicky Morgan thinks that the arts and humanities run a poor second to the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) in the employability stakes.

Over the past 15 years I have had the privilege to collaborate with botanical scientists at Kew. I have also worked with cell biologists at the Gulbenkian Science Institute in Portugal, creating a series of images of (coincidentally) stem sections that recently featured on the websites of the New Scientist and the BBC World Service. And this year I was invited to work on a €10m project with the geneticist Melina Schuh investigating mitosis.

No, I am not a scientist. I failed all my science subjects at school, one of them twice.

Forgive me for listing my achievements, but I do so to prove a point. Despite my lack of scientific acumen at school I am now in a position where I am equally at home talking at the Royal Institution as I am at the Hayward Gallery. Yes, I’ve made it a point to always try to meet the scientists halfway, to learn their languages, however hard. But what has prepared me more is the exceptional art and design education I received, in which I have taught and which I now champion through example.

Skin wall. Installation view during Mi Pattern event of magnified skin images. Rob Kesseler


There is a long and glorious history of collaboration between artists and scientists that developed up until the mid-19th century – at which point the increasing complexities of scientific disciplines and the escalating costs of their technologies prohibited access to artists and designers.

Microscopy is a case in point. When photography arrived in the 19th century and cameras were attached to microscopes, the imaging processes that were once a collaboration became the almost exclusive domain of the scientist. But since the advent of digital platforms, the boundaries have again become more permeable, making opportunities for interdisciplinary dialogue easier and increasingly desirable.

In a time of restless futures, solutions to a more resilient, sustainable future will become increasingly dependent on our ability to share knowledge. In this climate, students at art and design institutions will become increasingly valuable as conduits of change.

Scientific arts

This is possible now – let me give you some examples. In a recent project ceramic designer Anthony Quinn at Central Saint Martins worked with computer scientist Steve Benford to develop visually unique and aesthetically enhanced QR codes which significantly improve their potential applications.

Or there’s the potential of big data and advances in synthetic biology, which offer immense opportunities to designers. Carole Collet, an expert in Textile Futures, headed a project that asked if designers could embrace biological technologies to harness and exploit big data.

Three weeks were dedicated to transforming ideas from big data biology into blueprints for design futures. In one group project, Bespoke Care 2030, a team designed a system where data indicators from our bodies (hormone levels, blood sugar, blood pressure, nutrient levels, infections) could be stored along with our genetic information and analysed to provide early warnings of potential problems.

And recently I led an event in which a gallery at the university became a laboratory for the exploration of worlds too small to be seen with the naked eye. It was equipped with a large and varied collection of microscopes on loan. One, a Phenom desktop Scanning Electron Microscope, is capable of up to x100k magnification. More than 800 visitors and students looked, drew, photographed and printed out everything from skin blemishes to stained leaf specimens to geological specimens. There was an insatiable desire to look and consider how they might exploit what was revealed to them.

Bicyclus eye spot, Hand coloured micrograph created using the Phenom Pro X SEM. Katerina Evangelou 2014

Katerina Evangelou, for example, a PhD student in Illustration, is researching graphic means by which to communicate the genetic development of butterfly eyespots. Her coloured micrograph produced during the event reveals how the structural interference to the arrangement of scales on the butterfly wing coincide with the centre of the eye spot. Her work was recently selected for inclusion in a peer-reviewed scientific paper, in preference to those produced by the scientist.

These are just a few examples that I have been involved with. What they make evident is the enormous amount of potential. As the worlds of science and technology become ever more visible, so too will the desire of students of art and design seek to embrace the worlds of science and technology.

The evidence of the need to move from STEM to STEAM is clearly overwhelming. What is needed is the highest-quality education across all disciplines. It is essential that as a nation we can produce graduates with a deep and world-leading knowledge of their subject, but what is more vital is their ability to engage meaningfully across those disciplines.

An inclusive education that is available to all students in the UK, irrespective of wealth, social status or discipline is therefore essential to maintain our position as a significant global leader.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 184,200 academics and researchers from 4,969 institutions.

Register now