Friday, February 25, 2011

Scientists and Artists

Yesterday, I attended the kick-off meeting of a new partnership between SUNY, the SUNY Research Foundation, and the New York Academy of Sciences. This partnership, an outgrowth of the SUNY strategic plan and New York State strategic plans for SUNY to be a prime motivator of economic development in the state, was established to support the implementation team on which I serve. Our mandate is to develop an entrepreneurial culture throughout the state and in SUNY.

The meeting, held at the Academy offices overlooking the Ground Zero site, was all day and was attended by some thirty SUNY, Research Foundation, and Academy colleagues. Each of the SUNY representatives was asked to make a brief presentation on their campus' research, funding, technology transfer, etc. Needless to say, we don't compete in this arena, so my presentation took a different point of view.

Here are my comments with the five slides I was able to present.

Comments at the Kick-Off meeting of the
SUNY-New York Academy of Sciences Partnership
February 24, 2011

Well, I certainly feel like the “odd man out” in this group. Despite overseeing an arts training program, where we are creating entrepreneurs every day, I will not be able to present the same kind of quantitative information about technology transfer, incubators, and private-public partnerships as the rest of you. So I ask that you indulge me for a few minutes so that I can present a different perspective on the topics we have been discussing: entrepreneurship and economic development. I am very grateful to the Academy and the Research Foundation for giving me this opportunity to address you.

While it is a common perception that the arts don’t drive economic development, all the data show that the arts are instrumental in certain kinds of development. Over the past 50-75 years, we have seen, time and time again, that urban planners have turned to the arts as instigators of urban redevelopment. In addition to serving as engines of urban development, the public spends between $150-160 billion annually on the arts and there are some 2.2 million artists in the United States workforce.

But it is difficult to quantify the direct effect of the arts in terms of prospective economic development. While artists embody the characteristics we are looking for - risk-taking, innovative thinking, resilience, and a necessary tolerance for failure – the effect of producing art or of artistic communities is only indirectly measureable and almost only in retrospect after a great investment of time and effort. In a world in which precious resources must be allocated and in which we are less and less competitive, we are all striving to identify the most efficacious use of our resources to produce maximal results. As we have fallen behind other cultures and societies, we have focused on our competitive shortcomings in science, mathematics, and related subjects, choosing in many cases to elevate these areas over the arts, whose benefits are harder to quantify.

So how exactly can the arts participate in our goal of reenergizing our economy and in economic development?
Last August, I was graciously asked to address our faculty on the topic of creativity. One of the critical points I addressed was the existence of creativity in all spheres, not just artistic ones. Today, I would like to further develop that thought and look at artistic endeavor as an indicator of successful scientific creativity and innovation.

As a starting point, I would posit that the traditional distinction between the arts and sciences is, in some ways, a false one since artists and scientists engage in like explorations. I would go farther and argue that the essence of scientific advancement is driven by the very same impulses that drive artistic activity – understanding the world, taking risks in this exploration, pursuing this exploration until a satisfactory conclusion is reached, and a persistent attempt to conform the exterior world of experience to the inner world of the mind. While their means of expression may be different, both scientists and artists seek to respond to experience and increase our understanding of the wonder of nature and life.

Part of my argument last August was that creativity, the ability to imagine or invent something new, is not limited to any single discipline. In fact, the “symptoms” attendant to creativity - an openness to newness or change, a flexibility of thought and outlook, a natural curiosity, and, at least in certain areas, an ability to synthesize data in ways that may be at odds with common or accepted ways, can easily describe the successful scientist. It will not be a surprise to any of you that the successful scientist, like the successful artist, necessarily has a tenacity and corresponding tolerance for failure. Innovation, creating something new from the old, requires many of these same traits as well.

Recently, I have been reading the works of Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, who have been looking into the relationship between artistic activity and successful scientists. What they have found is that there is a “very significant relationship between success as a scientist and evidence of adult arts and crafts avocations.”1 They surmise that successful scientists who are also practicing artists have a wider range of physical and intellectual skills than the average person or scientist. Their data show that a Nobel laureate in science is 29 times more likely to create in the arts than a member of the public.2

In my talk last year, I commented that creativity often involves the synthesis of complex and sometimes apparently unrelated data into a coherent whole. The Root-Bernsteins similarly state: “Creative scientists [have the ability] to explore a wide range of apparently unrelated activities and to connect the knowledge and skills gained thereby into integrated networks that can be brought effectively to bear in raising and solving important scientific problems.”3
Over time, many well-known men of wisdom have been scientists and artists. Leonardo DaVinci, Albert Einstein, Samuel Morse, Max Planck, and Alexander Graham Bell come to mind. Many of these and others have commented on the unity that their artistic and scientific endeavor created and how it was essential to their success. Laureate Santiago Ramon y Cajal [Ka-Chal] commented that “[a scientist] would possess something of this happy combination of attributes: an artistic temperament which impels him to search for, and have the admiration of, the number, beauty, and harmony of things.”4 Max Planck, echoing Ramon y Cajal and others said that “[t]he pioneer scientist must have . . . [an] artistically creative imagination.”5 As noted above and in the attendant list, I think it is fair to say that many of our great scientists were polymaths and omnivores who exceled in multiple fields to the benefit of us all.

But how, getting back to where we began, does this relate to economic development?
We live in a world that craves innovation and creativity. Not only are we all curators of our own experience, but we need new ways of building our businesses in order to compete. In a recent blog post, Root-Bernstein quoted a number of big business leaders who acknowledged the inter-relationship between creativity and innovation. These leaders, from companies such as Boeing, United Technologies, Lilly, and Bayer, go further, articulating their understanding of the necessity of the arts to creating an environment and set of skills to maximize creativity and innovation.6

Looking ahead and planning how to ensure New York State is competitive, there is a critical place for the arts. As data and experience show, those who integrate the arts into their training and experience are more likely to be more creative and, therefore, able to make a more impactful contribution to business and society. Let’s not forget this as we allocate our diminishing resources and strive to build an entrepreneurial culture and spur economic development.

Thank you.

1 Root-Bernstein, Robert, et al. “Arts Foster Scientific Success: Avocations of Nobel, National Academy, Royal Society, and Sigma XI Members.” Journal of Psychology of Science and Technology, Volume 1, Number 2 (2008): 53.
2 Ibid. 55.
3 Ibid. 56-57.
4 Ibid. 57.
5 Ibid. 58.
6 Root-Bernstein, Robert and Michelle. "A Missing Piece in the Economic Stimulus: Hobbling Arts Hobbles Innovation." Imagine That! Annals of Ordinary and Extraordinary Genius. Psychology Today, 11 Feb 2009. Web. 20 Feb 2011.