Humanities and science collaboration isn’t well understood, but letting off STEAM is not the answer

Working together. studiostoks/Shutterstock

Humanities and science collaboration isn’t well understood, but letting off STEAM is not the answer

Debates about the need for the humanities and sciences to work together suffer from repetition compulsion. Too frequently, those writing on the subject immediately turn to the work of chemist and novelist C.P. Snow on the “two cultures” – a lecture that was written nearly 60 years ago. Since then, there have been many examples of researchers in universities doing precisely the collaboration that Snow thought did not exist.

Recently, Ryerson university associate professor Richard Lachman wrote that he wanted to put the arts into the sciences, the STEAM into STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). Lachman suggested that the humanities should merely help the sciences to understand the implications of their work. All he achieved in calling for this was to recreate divisions between the humanities and the sciences, which don’t exist as he characterises them.

Numerous appeals for collaboration, like Lachman’s, demonstrate a limited understanding of the depth of existing engagements between science and culture. Often, they ignore the considerable body of work specifically on the history and philosophy of science. They also limit the expertise of the humanities to questions of empathy, ethics and values. At the same time, just like Lachman, they mischaracterise scientists as devoid of the sort of “soft” skills that are often associated with the humanities alone.

The result is that the relationship is always one-way. The humanities are reduced to a service role where they work under the direction of the sciences. Rather than producing knowledge of their own, they exist merely to make the sciences seem more human. Because these appeals don’t understand what the humanities do, they also cannot suggest specific ways for the sciences and the humanities to collaborate effectively.

In fact, there are lots of institutions where such collaborations already occur. At Cardiff University, we run an initiative – ScienceHumanities – that thinks about this issue in theory and in practice. And we’re not alone. We collaborate with Duke University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Science and Cultural Theory. Their focus is precisely on how science and culture are intertwined. Neither is this limited to English-speaking countries, nor to the present moment. For 25 years, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science has similarly been working to understand scientific knowledge in new ways.

These places create spaces for thinking between disciplines which build upon but are not limited to Snow’s “two cultures”, and are more profitable.

Collaboration in action. Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock

The question is not whether we should collaborate but, instead, how we are already collaborating and how we might collaborate better.

Let’s take an example of a recent challenge for society. Both scientists and humanists have been thinking about genes for over half a century. Advances in genomic science have been widely publicised and discussed in scientific papers, the news media and bestselling novels. Everyone understands that what we do with our genes has huge implications and is an urgent issue for cultural investigation. The potential for altering our genes with CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology doesn’t just affect medicine, but also makes us think again about whether human beings are born or created. With regards to this, the Egenis Centre for the Study of Life Sciences at the University of Exeter brings together philosophers and genetic scientists to think through just these issues.

Another obvious challenge is our age of ecological crisis. A new but debated way of thinking about this is to see ourselves as living in a new geological epoch. We call this the “Anthropocene”, and it marks a period where no part of nature has been left untouched by human activity. Although a much debated term, this new era is currently being ratified by an international commission, the Anthropocene Working Group. This is comprised of scholars from a wide range of disciplines, including some humanities. Nevertheless, the impacts and challenges of the Anthropocene are so wide ranging that it is clear that the conversation will need to be broadened further to policy makers, businesses and local communities.

These examples show us projects where the humanities are not just an ethical adjunct to the sciences. Instead, the humanities are absolutely vital to understand and respond to such complex challenges. Sensitive to their similarities and differences, we must think across and between the disciplines in order to address the grand challenges of our time.