Transformative Possibilities When Art and Science Collaborate

April 10, 2024

By Elizabeth Christopherson and Louis J. Muglia

From Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical explorations, to Albert Einstein’s breakthroughs while playing violin and piano, to Maryam Mirzakhani, who worked out mathematical problems while drawing on huge sheets of paper, the history of art and science are full of examples of their fruitful interaction. 

Combining art and science opens doors—to new forms of scientific and artistic creativity, to wonder and curiosity about the world around us, and to new approaches to the deep challenges we face across science and society. Biochemist and artist Daniel Jay calls it “that openness of thought”—the chance to generate new ideas that comes whenever we cross fields. 

The intersection of art and science is a powerful civic science nexus, as we explored with many from the civic science network in a recent Civic Science Connect on the possibilities that emerge when art and science collaborate (watch the full conversation here). We delved into these collaborations: 

As a welcome 

Recognizing the vast underrepresentation of women of color in STEM fields, Yamilée Toussaint founded STEM From Dance to foster girls’ sense of belonging in science at an early age by connecting it with dance—sometimes quite literally, as when they create circuits that light up when they dance. Her work has been recognized with support from the Simons Foundation and as the 2024 Falling Walls Foundation Science Engagement Breakthrough of the Year.

“Dance was always this space where I felt welcomed, where I felt talented, where I felt creative and confident and powerful,” she said. “Those are the words I want to describe the experience of learning about math and science and engineering.” 

The success of STEM From Dance shows how art can be part of making progress on one of the most important priorities for strengthening our society and enabling the discoveries of the future: breaking down barriers to science.

As a career path

Reyhaneh Maktoufi, a 2020–21 Civic Science Fellow who is now a Science Communication and Outreach Fellow with HHMI Tangled Bank Studios, described the impact of the civic science network in opening the idea of combining her interests in research, science engagement, and the arts into a career. “You start a conversation, you see opportunities,” she said. You realize, “that is a possible path that I never thought is possible, and I didn’t even know that I should go look for it.”

Our conversation also pointed to a challenge—the need for more stable job and funding opportunities to enable boundary spanners to make these new connections. As we seek to grow this network and our collective support for boundary spanners, we are collecting resources for those carving new career paths in the Civic Science Career Roadmap—with an ongoing invitation to share your insights.

As a new culture

Ten years from now, what change do we hope to see?   

When moderator Daren Ginete, a 2021–23 Civic Science Fellow with the Science Philanthropy Alliance, asked this question, a common theme was the aspiration that we’ll have built a new culture of inclusion at the intersection of art and science—where artists and scientists come together as equal partners “with mutual respect, with humility, with openness,” Daniel Jay said. “We have a rare opportunity, because the coming together of these two fields creates an interface community, and we can define the culture of that.”

The Rita Allen Foundation and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund recently partnered with researchers Nic Bennett and Anthony Dudo to conduct a study of the landscape of art and science collaborations—pointing to the seeds of this new culture. Analyzing more than 130 initiatives (collected in an online database), they find that art and science collaborations can seem “more relevant and welcoming to people with marginalized identities” than either science or art as separate fields, helping to make both more accessible.

“Working across disparate disciplines is a challenge,” the authors note. “But these intersections are incredibly generative and create work that would not have been possible with art or science alone. Ideally, both artists and scientists leave transformed in some way.”

As civic science funders, we look forward to continuing to catalyze, support, and learn from these collaborations, to foster what Einstein called the “combinatory play” necessary for discovery. And we anticipate coming away transformed as well.

Elizabeth Good Christopherson is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Rita Allen FoundationLouis J. Muglia is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Both foundations are among the Civic Science Fellows funding partners.