Sloan Foundation Using the Arts to Promote Science and Technology

Quietly but steadily, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has become a major proponent of using the arts to expand the public's understanding of science and technology, the New York Times reports.

The New York City-based foundation has awarded some $5 million already this year to commission, develop, and present plays, films, televsion shows, and books with a science-related theme, plus another $5 million in support of public radio and television. It also provides individual writers and filmmakers with access to scientists on its selection panel, who assist them by vetting the accuracy and plausibility of science-related material in their projects. Recent projects include Anna Ziegler's play Photograph 51, which tells the story of Rosalind Franklin, the least known of the four scientists who discovered the double-helix structure of DNA in 1953; Matt Schatz's play The Tallest Building in the World, about the engineering of the World Trade Center; and Alan Alda's new play about Marie Curie titled Radiance.

According to the Times, the Sloan program has coincided with — and helped to popularize — a mini-boom in science-themed plays, music, films, and books that began in the late 1990s. Since then, the foundation has supported films such as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the true story of a Paris-based magazine editor who suffers a stroke that leaves him paralyzed and able only to communicate by blinking his left eye, and Flash of Genius, the story of the legal battle against the Ford Motor Company waged by the man who invented the intermittent windshield wiper; the Pulitzer-Prize-winning play Proof; and books such as Dava Sobel's Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love.

Most of the foundation's arts-related grants are awarded through partnerships with film schools, festivals, and theaters. In discussing the Sloan-supported plays staged at Ensemble Studio Theatre, where he is artistic director, William Carden emphasized the importance of organically integrating science into the story. "The grants encourage writers to go outside their comfort zone," Carden told the Times. "Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. If a writer ends up worrying more about the science than the story, then it won't work."

Patricia Cohen. "Sloan Group Is Lab Partner to the Arts." New York Times 05/06/2011.