Recent world events and concern over ‘fake news’ and ‘post-factualism’ have highlighted the difficulties encountered when trying to find trustworthy sources of information. The ability to judge the reliability of different sources of information is a skill that can be learned. As well as impacting the political sphere, difficulties in accessing and judging information can have profound effects on individual lives. For example, educational differences caused by social inequality account for substantial differences in life expectancy - partly caused by differences in health knowledge and literacy - in other words, being better at finding reliable information. When some people do not have the same access to information as others, inequalities are born.
The AccessLab project aims to improve access to and the judgement of information, through direct citizen-scientist pairings. Scientific research impacts on many important aspects of people’s lives. Farmers need to know how to encourage biodiversity and how to protect their livestock from disease – shoppers want to know whether the latest 'superfood' really does provide health benefits – house owners might like to know if their home will be under water in ten years due to climate change – and those who get ill will be more likely to seek the right treatment given access to reliable information.
We begin AccessLab with a focus on the arts. Artists are exceptional disseminators of information – often interpreting and reflecting societal and environmental issues through their work. More fundamentally though, art is a powerful and essential approach for understanding the world – and access to reliable information is a necessary core component of the process. Yet, finding and judging the information to inform this work, particularly when it relates to sciences, can be a considerable challenge that is not readily taught on typical arts courses. This is particularly pertinent to critical/political artists, and bio- or technologically-inspired artists, who are frequently underserved by traditional discipline-based education. In contrast, finding information and then critically asking 'why do you believe this information?' is one of the most fundamental skills required of all junior scientific researchers. However, there are few opportunities for junior scientific researchers to come into working contact with those who want to understand and use their research, and this has direct consequences for how accessible scientists make their work. The separation of scientific and artistic approaches over the past centuries has arguably harmed our ability to conceptualise the deepest connections in our world. Scientists would benefit greatly from exposure to the free and visual thinking that is inherent in the arts, while the evidence-based rigor of scientific thinking would be of advantage to artists seeking to use their work as a mirror to reflect the world or hammer to change the world.
The AccessLab project will launch in Spring 2017 with a workshop pairing artists (practitioners and researchers, particularly those who have community engagement as a core part of their practice and/or who work with data) with early career science researchers. The participating artists will be able to request help with a topic that relates to science and is of interest personally or for their work – for example regarding a medical issue, renewable energy, farming or fishing, robotics or artificial intelligence. Through one-to-one working with the science researchers, we will provide an opportunity for the arts participants to learn how to find sources of scientific information, and how to judge the reliability of these sources. Instead of focusing on the dissemination of subject-specific information, we will support participating artists in understanding how they can find reliable information on topics that are relevant to them. This approach means that the participants will be empowered to extend their learning to other issues of interest, and are themselves able to pass on the skills learned.
This project is funded by FEAST Cornwall. The FEAST programme is funded by Arts Council England in partnership with Cornwall Council. In addition the project is supported by the British Science Association.