Science and engineering must stake their claim on creativity
10 Dec 2021
The late Jacob Bronowski defined a singular trait of creative personalities thus: they think of the world as a canvas for change. Nothing in that description excludes the work of the scientist or engineer at the highest level, any more than it might the artist or playwright.
Yet, in the public mind, creativity is seen as the jurisdiction of the arts and humanities – all blue sky and big picture. STEM professions, by contrast, are consigned to the realm of obscure formulae, interminable facts and the mundane, if worthy. In part, those sectors have acquiesced with this stereotypical view.
Bronowski himself provided the antidote to that image: a media-friendly academic polymath, he also wrote and lectured on aesthetics and ethics, and presented what remains a half century later the gold standard for any television programme on scientific and technological achievement, The Ascent of Man series.
He was also a nuts and bolts process scientist, for 13 years running a 200- strong team at the National Coal Board; an experience he referenced to counter those who saw creativity as the monopoly of the arts, saying: “When the Greek departments produce a Sophocles, or the English departments produce a Shakespeare, then I shall begin to look in my laboratory for a Newton.”
Just as we have largely forgotten Bronowski, so it seems we have forgotten his assertion that science and thus engineering is an imaginative endeavour. Simultaneously, the increasingly rigorous straitjacketing of further and higher education has made the process of rectification more difficult.
When a representative of the New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering (NMITE) queries the degree of emphasis on science qualifications for entrants to engineering courses, some will see this as smart marketing.
But we should perhaps pause before dismissing her assertion that creative thinking is as important as the possession of a science A Level. Past precedent supports that view.