Seeing Science: NSF Backs RISD Research

Seeing Science: NSF Backs RISD Research

For the last year, a consortium of nine Rhode Island colleges and universities – including RISD, Brown and the University of Rhode Island (URI) – has been engaged in a joint, multiyear project to investigate the impact of climate change on marine life. The project, funded by a landmark $20-million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), is part of a national effort known as the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR.

Charlie Cannon refutes the "cocktail party problem" at an EPSCoR gathering at URI.

At the heart of Rhode Island’s EPSCoR partnership are important scientific questions: how rising ocean temperatures are affecting coastal food webs, whether those temperatures will lead to an increase in marine pathogens and how marine organisms are adapting to this environmental stress. But underlying all of those is another critical question: How can EPSCoR researchers – and the scientific community in general – better communicate complex scientific ideas to the public in an age when science itself is considered suspect, or advancing so rapidly that most non-scientists can’t grasp it?

That challenge, says Associate Professor of Industrial Design Charlie Cannon, is essentially a design problem—one that artists and designers are uniquely positioned to tackle, and one where RISD is now playing a leading role as the only art and design school in the country selected to participate in EPSCoR.

Faculty member Rafael Attias discusses the role artists play in communicating scientific discoveries.

“As a stand-alone art and design school, we are unique in this program,” says Cannon, who is co-principal investigator of RISD’s EPSCoR initiative along with Furniture Design Professor John Dunnigan MFA 80 ID. “The fact that we are participating in efforts like these is indicative of a growing recognition in the scientific community that there are broader opportunities here, with the potential for real technological developments and contributions in solving problems.”

“The fact that we are participating in efforts like these is indicative of a growing recognition in the scientific community that there are broader opportunities here.”co-principal investigator charlie cannon

So far RISD students have participated in two of nine EPSCoR studios planned over the next five years, working with Brown and URI scientists to find new ways to communicate scientific information, visualize massive data sets and better understand how the approach to discovery in the design studio can inform scientific discoveries in the lab.

Using Art to Map Science

The Hypothesis Studio, a spring 2011 course led by Cannon and geographer and RISD Critic Marie Cieri, laid the groundwork for the partnership, with students from Industrial Design, Landscape Architecture, Digital+Media and Film/Animation/Video working with scientists to understand the research already underway and stake out areas of collaboration. Experimental Data Visualization, a fall 2011 studio led by Assistant Professor of Foundation Studies Shawn Greenlee and Digital+Media Critic Kurt Ralske, focused on creating interactive computer programs to map research data on gene expression in oysters responding to attacks from viruses or other parasites.

Next month scientists at URI will present one of those data visualization models at the annual conference of the National Shellfisheries Association, an international organization of scientists, industry and policymakers dedicated to better understanding, managing and protecting shellfish resources.

“One important question we want to address in the EPSCoR collaboration is: How can we make these research questions and the findings that flow from them accessible to the broadest possible audience?” says Cannon, who is presenting various RISD STEM to STEAM initiatives this month at the 2012 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “That’s important, because doubts about climate change and doubts about science in the public discourse are making decision-making more difficult and more fraught.”

Borrowing a phrase from one of his EPSCoR collaborators, Cannon describes the disconnect between science research and the public as “the cocktail party problem.”

“You’re at a cocktail party and someone asks, ‘What do you?’ And you answer, ‘I study plankton,’” Cannon says. “And as soon as you say that the eyes roll back into their heads and they move along, when in fact, every other breath we take is actually produced by plankton and three-quarters of the world population indirectly relies on plankton for the protein in their diet, which largely comes from seafood. I think the public is much more likely to support this kind of work if they understand what the work is about.”

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