Culture arguably sits at the centre of our society, but what it means isn’t always clear. To many, too many I would say, it only refers to the ‘arty’ stuff: literature, films, art and music perhaps. That science could be part of culture, whilst rarely explicitly stated as impossible, generally seems to be regarded as not being the case. But then, what is science? What is included in science and what is not? These questions that have long bothered me have been brought into sharper relief by my stint as chair of the (pilot) Science Advisory Council (SAC) for the Department of Culture, Media and Sports (DCMS). One of the first questions posed, by SAC member Geoff Crossick, was ‘what do we mean by science?’. Within the SAC we are taking it to mean ‘everything covered by one of the research councils’, so a pretty catholic description. It would certainly include much of the heritage industry (clearly relevant to DCMS’s activities), as well as the more obvious laboratory and social sciences as well as health (up to a point; no need to clash with the Department of Health’s remit).
Questions about culture are close to Geoff Crossick’s heart. He is a former head of the AHRC and co-author of a recent AHRC report discussing the importance of culture for our society. Understanding the value of arts & culture it represents the outcome of the Cultural Value Project and was published last month. This week a meeting is being held to reflect on its findings. By its very nature it seeks to define what ‘culture’ is, and then explore what impact it has on our society, including our well-being. As such it is highly relevant to the work the SAC does and I was honoured that Geoff invited me to participate in this week’s meeting (although I have been away and so unable to accept). It implies that through our work on the SAC and more broadly he believes that I, as a scientist, have something to offer the cultural debate, and I hope I do. But first we have to get past what ‘culture’ is and here I still think the debate has been too narrowly framed. Or rather, I think using the word culture to exclude science simply highlights the limitations of our language. In turn, this deficiency in language hinders our broader thinking (this is in no way meant as a criticism of the report’s content).
The report itself specifically aims to broaden the coverage compared with previous discussions and states
‘It is interested not just in publicly-funded concert halls, art galleries, theatres and museums, important as these are; but also commercial film, music and literature; young people getting together in a band, amateur choirs, local art clubs and reading groups, and people crafting at home or in local clubs; as well as those engaging in prisons, hospitals and care homes.’
Implicitly from this it is clear that the scope will restrict itself to those things that are ‘arty’ in a broad but not merely professional sense. Nevertheless, there is no sense that attending a science festival or participating in a citizen science project might count as ‘culture’
Our language does not have a suitable word to cover this broader sense of culture. Nor do we have a word that encompasses science in all its manifestations. In German, Wissenschaft has conveys this broad sense of knowledge, and if the Germans want to be more specific they can use Naturwissenschaft to indicate they are referring to the Natural Sciences. The English vocabulary is lacking any such single word. As a result we end up splitting our world into culture and science as if there is a neat dividing line. Paul Nurse, in his 2012 Dimbleby Lecture said
‘I am passionate about science because it has shaped the world and made it a better place, and I want to see science placed more centre stage in our culture and economy.’
I quite agree, but as long as we explicitly and implicitly identify this sharp division between the two parts of our rich world we are failing.
The absence of a suitable word drives us to keeping the different parts of our knowledge-based activities (a horrid phrase, but I can’t use culture for obvious reasons) compartmentalised. A while ago I took exception to Stephan Collini’s distinction between ‘scientists’ and ‘scholars’ for exactly the same reason. It divides us when we should be sharing what each of us can bring to this particular party. It encourages pitting science against the humanities (as I’ve also written about before). Such splitting can only be damaging to the way we, collectively, approach the world and bring up the next generation. I wish there was an easy solution but I think it is a dialogue we should not be wary of facilitating.
May 1st 2016 For those interested in seeing these ideas taken further, Brigitte Nerlich has published her own blogpost exploring linguistic distinctions in other languages. There is further debate in her comment stream too.