This year’s Research in Film Awards, organised by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council, raises the question: is film a good medium to showcase research? The award’s mission statement is to “showcase, reward and recognise the best of the large and increasing number of high-quality short films … produced as outputs or by-products of arts and humanities research.”
In 2005, there were just 20 researchers who listed film or animation as a creative or artistic output of their AHRC-funded research. In 2013, that figure had grown to 149. Alongside this data, it’s also easy to point to recent groundbreaking documentaries and the renewed respect they have begun to acquire. Before the Flood (2016), a documentary film about climate change, gained considerable press due to the growing undeniability of research, and the starpower of collaborator Leonardo DiCaprio.
AHRC’s multimedia editor, Emi Spinner said: “Just making a film provides a reason for people to get in touch and share ideas and expertise, which can be very productive in itself.” She added, “I really do believe that a well-made film can shift the debate just by reaching the right specialist networks, as well as a general audience.”
Certainly we can look at Chasing Ice (2012), a tour de force in the glacial effects of climate change, and admit that film has a deserved place in sharing research. Environmental photographer James Balog’s journeys into Greenland, Iceland and Alaska, and his goal to capture images that would help to convey the extreme effects of global warming have garnered a 96% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song.
However, this view isn’t shared by everyone. Writing for the Times Higher Education, Matthew Reisz found that “in the US, Howard Hughes Medical Institute does not support public engagement through film at all.” Reisz also found that “requests for funding to make [research films] ‘would occur in a very small percentage of awards’ and would not constitute a ‘significant element of funding requested’, according to Valentine Kass, programme director for advancing informal STEM learning at the NSF.” In his investigative article, Reisz went on to outline similar viewpoints at other American research groups.
In Britain, attitudes towards research funding for films is different. The Wellcome Trust, among other research councils, regularly provide funding to researchers for public engagement, of which films are counted. The changing mood towards film as a medium for research can be tracked alongside the social media trend of the early 21st Century. At a time when science needs to be viral for people to care about it, pop-science curators such as Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson have guided public discourse on issues such as the fate of our planet and journeys to Mars, in TV series and short films. In summary, the beautiful medium of cinema deserves the noble goal of the dissemination of science-based research.