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About Art in Global Health

‘Global health’ is a phrase we hear more and more frequently. As it attracts more attention it attracts more investment and more research. But what does it mean?

Can health really be ‘global’? To the extent that some diseases are tied to geography, no. But the challenges facing researchers, doctors, families, politicians and individuals who deal with disease often have a great deal in common, wherever they are in the world.

Whether the challenge is investigating genetic susceptibility to malaria, designing diagnostics for dengue fever or sequencing the human genome, all research teams have trained personnel working with agreed protocols and standard equipment to generate data that will be analysed using recognised statistical methods.

However, who gets recruited to studies, why they agree to take part, what some politicians do with the results and how a drug gets marketed are all things that can vary enormously from place to place and that can lead to the enthusiastic adoption of dubious solutions or bury lab successes under a mountain of bureaucratic indifference. The social relevance of scientific research is shaped by its cultural context.

'Art in Global Health' has set up six artist residencies in six Wellcome Trust-funded research centres as a way of teasing out some of the more personal, philosophical, cultural and political dimensions of health research. This exciting project is born out of Wellcome Collection’s desire to engage the curious public globally with the health research that the Trust funds – in Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Thailand, Vietnam and the UK.

'Art in Global Health' residencies will last for six months, with artists given a wide brief: to find out about the research being undertaken, to interact with scientists and team members from other disciplines (anthropologists, ethicists, economists, educators and so on) and to produce work in response to the processes of research and discovery they have observed. Outcomes of the residencies – exhibitions, performances and supporting events – will begin in the last quarter of 2012 and continue into early 2013.

Each investigative journey and its outcomes will be documented online, helping to illuminate the scientific processes and the web of relationships upon which those processes depend.

We can't predict what questions will be raised by the work of the artists in residence as they work with (and question) scientists and specialists in other disciplines in six very different settings on three continents; however, we're prepared to bet that we will be surprised and challenged, that the project will broaden our thinking about why and how we do health research and that – given the artists selected – it will produce some extraordinary work along the way.

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