Dr Daisy Fancourt (above), an early-career scientist, talks about her research which focuses on the effects of arts participation on health, the use of the arts within clinical settings, and the psychosocial impact of cultural engagement at an individual and public health level. She is one of the ten 2017 New Generation Thinkers whose research will be made into radio and television programmes for the BBC, in collaboration with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Tell us about yourself
I’m a research fellow in the Centre for Performance Science, which is a partnership between the faculty of medicine at Imperial College London and the Royal College of Music, where my research looks at the intersection between arts and health. I’ve always found these links between science and creativity really fascinating.

I undertook my PhD in psychoneuroimmunology in the Psychobiology Group, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London (UCL), tracing the mechanisms behind the effect of music on the immune system. And alongside this I’ve worked for a number of years with the NHS, including working on clinical innovations programmes that involve the arts and now delivering consultancy to hospitals and clinical commissioning groups on how arts interventions can support the health service. I also really enjoy being involved with science public engagement events, and I’m currently the British Science Association Jacob Bronowski Award Lecturer for Arts and Science.

What is the area of your research?
My research looks at the impact of arts and cultural engagement on health, which generally involves two aspects. One is looking at how taking part in arts and cultural activities (such as going to galleries, reading, listening to music and visiting heritage sites) can affect health across the lifespan. Another aspect is identifying specific challenges associated with certain health conditions and exploring the effects of targeted arts programmes on those conditions, working in partnership with clinicians and healthcare professionals.

For example, over the past few years I’ve worked with many different people, including mental health service users, cancer patients, carers, older adults with dementia, healthcare staff and women with postnatal depression to explore the effects and potential benefits of interventions such as group drumming, arts workshops and community choirs.

In August, I’ll be moving to the Department of Behavioural Science and Health at UCL to take up a Wellcome Fellowship looking at the impact of arts and culture in the UK at a public health level. The project is working in partnership with the UK Arts Councils and Public Health bodies as well as a range of politicians. It should be a fantastic opportunity to explore, through statistical analyses of large datasets, what the impact of cultural funding is from a health perspective.

What is the importance of this research?
Science currently focuses so much on healthy lifestyles, and scientists have such strong data on the effects of things such as exercise, diet, social support and mindfulness.

However, the effects of arts, community and cultural engagement are much less understood. Yet research shows that they have important effects on our health. People who engage in the arts are less likely to die prematurely, less likely to develop dementia and more likely to report good health and have higher levels of wellbeing.

I hope that my research will help to reveal more about how cultural activities can support our health, and I want to use the opportunity of being a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker to promote these findings so that people can make the most of the rich and diverse arts and cultural sector that we have in the UK. I also want to raise the profile of the many fantastic arts and cultural organisations who are already delivering pioneering work in hospitals, hospices, nursing homes and communities.

If people are interested in learning more, I’ve just had a book published, ‘Arts in Health: Designing and Researching Interventions’. It focuses on the work I do and the findings in my field, and provides a complete overview of how the arts are being researched and put into practice within the NHS and other healthcare systems around the world.