Science & Humanities: Should You Bridge the Divide?

Every time I greet workshop participants prior to teaching, the introductions quickly outline divisions in the disciplines. In a typical grant training course, I see about seventy percent scientists, twenty-five percent social scientists, and three to five percent various humanities professionals. Within minutes, I notice a stark behavioral approach between the two groups. The scientists, quite confident, easily interact among each other. Those in the humanities huddle together in a different part of the room, usually in a corner. The “us” against “them” divide develops quickly because the two groups think and feel they do not have anything in common. I have witnessed the same phenomenon in the halls of academia, not just my workshops. As I ponder this predicament, I wonder how such harsh adversarial relationships have arisen in the 21st century. Consider some of the greatest minds in history, such as Michelangelo, Freud, Chomsky, Einstein, Rousseau, Kant, Newton, Franklin, and Jefferson, who each have worked at the intersection between the sciences and the humanities. The scientific paradigm is in vogue because it is related to economics and consumption. We buy computers, software, machines, and cars, but what exactly can we buy from the humanities?

Signs of ever increasing magnitude are emerging which indicate the road back to the union between these disciplines is necessary, if not crucial. When it comes to the dialogue and funding choices from various donors in the public and private sectors, a clear pattern has begun to reveal itself. The two sides are being brought together again.

What is the Current State between the Sciences and the Humanities?

The current state between the two disciplines was best exemplified by a literary critic who attended my class. He was envious of the highly collaborative research of the scientists, while he spoke of his isolation as a scholar. He wished it were different, but the reward structure for him was a book and not a laboratory. Scientists receive funds to build their laboratories, while a humanities grant will pay moving expenses, a computer, and maybe some reassigned time.What constitutes a large grant in the humanities is only a fraction of an award in the sciences. Grants, although a good thing to have, are often not part of the academic success for those in the humanities, while they are a matter of life and death for the scientists.

New Frontiers Toward a Creative Union

Donors across the U.S. and Europe are encouraging the creation of new frontiers for research. Most recently:

  • Opening up new dimensions in the collaborative efforts between physics and music was exemplified via the University of Chicago May 2014 Arts and Sciences Collaboration grant. “Xu and Peters, graduate students in physics, and Aharony, a graduate student in music, crushed and melted ice in the laboratory, recording the entire process. Next, they used their data and video to create a multimedia composition that incorporated live cello, interactive electronics, and video“ (News, University of Chicago, 06/06/2014, Erin Fuller and Steve Koppes).
  • The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council of the United Kingdom (AHRC) are cooperating to advance research focused on the humanities and health and well-being. Applications for grants must support collaborative research projects that use humanities disciplines to better understand health, well-being, disability, medical science, and technology, or other aspects of the health sciences. Projects might investigate, for example, literary narratives of healing, the role of culture or cultural difference in health and medicine, or comparative cultural perspectives on disability.
  • The National Library of Medicine (NLM), the world’s largest medical library and a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the NEH are forming a new partnership. They will collaborate to develop initiatives that bring together scholars, scientists, librarians, doctors and cultural heritage professionals from the humanities and biomedical communities in order to share expertise and develop new research agendas.
  • The National Science Foundation (NSF) has at least 10 awards in collaboration with the humanities including languages, culture, and preservation of history and literature.
  • The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) has been granted more than $560,000 by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation towards its forthcoming headline program, Humanities and Science: Two cultures or a shared enterprise?
  • Numerous private donors such as the Von Humboldt, Simons, Sloan, and MacArthur foundations are also encouraging innovative approaches, respectively, in collaboration between the arts and sciences.
  • The NEH is funding research that uses the knowledge and perspectives of the humanities and historical or philosophical methods to enhance understanding of science, technology, medicine, and the social sciences.

Bridging the self-imposed gap between humanities and the sciences is long overdue. Engineers build bridges to advance the human condition, and the humanities possess the understanding of the human condition to enhance the work of the scientists, whether in physics or medicine. When donors speak of transformation and innovation, we need to be prepared to answer the call with the disciplines that – for a moment in history – thought they could live without each other.

Mathilda Harris

Over the past 18 years, she has written grants, conducted capital campaigns, developed strategic plans for grant procurement, and assisted individuals and institutions to write winning proposals for various donors.

4 comments on “Science & Humanities: Should You Bridge the Divide?

  1. THe world as a whole ,to save the environment,really needs humanities to work with science and economics. Let true learning happen unhindered.

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