Monthly Archives: April 2010

Can science communication teach the rest of the academy?

I’ve just given a talk about science communication at an event on public engagement with arts, humanities and social science research.

Although I hoped all the time, money, anxiety and analysis poured into science communication over the last 25 years (250 years…) would mean I’d have something useful to say, I was a bit unsure about it. It’s arrogant to assume science communication can tell the rest of the academy how to go about sharing it’s research. There are huge differences between communicating the natural sciences and communicating other research areas. For one thing, we shouldn’t discount the huge amount of money, professional expertise and institutional support provided by the now huge science communication industry. The standard sociology post-doc just wouldn’t have those sort of support systems.

That said, there are similarities too, and I believe there is potentially a lot science communication can learn from attempts to communicate other subjects. For example, Farida Vis‘ reflections on being trolled by racist online groups has, I think, lots of interesting things to say to those caught up in climategate (Vis’ slides are first link here). Also, I say that there are differences between science and everyone else, but it’s not as if there aren’t huge differences within this big old thing we call science. Epigenetics has a completely different public cultural context to high energy physics. Communicating one synbio project to one audience will be very different from another, to another.

Anyway, it was a difficult gig, so I did the sensible thing and chickened out by getting other people talk for me. Firstly I showed this video by some of my MSc students, which juxtaposes four scientists’ ideas about their relationships with the public: one from 1950, one from 1970, another from 1990 and finally, a 2010 point of view.

Debate on science and society from Cecilia Rosen on Vimeo

In particular, I wanted to draw out the difference between the 1990 character’s approach and that of 2010: the shift away from talking down to the public and towards a more discursive, interactive and contextual approach: from “deficit model” to “dialogue” to use the sci-com jargon.

There are loads of problems with the 1990 “deficit model” stance, if you really care there are many books and papers summarising them (or this report provides a good overview). Most of the criticisms stressed how simplistic it is to black-box “science” and “the public”, and that media audiences tend to contextualise information given to them, sometimes in unpredictable ways. It’s often said that the only word in “Public Understanding of Science” anyone could agree on was “of” (and even that had its discontents). Some people objected to the hierarchical set up of the models, which assumed science sits on the top, passing down information to the laity. It was also argued that it doesn’t do the advancement of knowledge much good to rely only on scientists: there are useful things to be learned from talking to people without advanced degrees. None of this is to suggest that the public know better than science, just that listening to the occasional outside voice can be useful. To argue against a top-down model isn’t necessarily to argue for a singularly bottom-up one (though some people might). If nothing else, going around acting as if your audience are stupid is bad PR. Having a conversation with someone where you build mutual trust, respect and understanding (even if you do not always agree) is, quite simply, more likely to get your voice heard.

However, in showing this video I also wanted to emphasise the way my clever MSc students put the 1950, 1970, 1990 and 2010 attitudes together, making the characters fight it out across-generations. Science communication often likes to pat itself on the shoulder that it’s left the problems of the top-down model behind. It hasn’t, despite the rhetoric of engagement and dialogue and involvement (and using “deficit model” like it’s an insult). More importantly, moving to a more interactive model doesn’t solve all our problems, if anything it just creates new ones. There are also several points the older characters make which are still worth listening to. None of this is simple.

I then talked briefly about four science communication projects I thought were worth noting: Colliding Particles, a series of short films exploring the “human stories” of scientists working on the the LHC; Galaxy Zoo, possibly the world’s most successful citizen science project; Opal, which uses “community embedded scientists” in a range of interesting ways which both makes and communicates ecology at the same time; and “I’m a Scientist”, a dialogue web event which pitches teenagers’ questions to scientists. I finished by handing over to Jenny Joplin who works in events at the Wellcome Collection (a fifth science communication project of note). None of these are perfect and you can’t necessarily apply their approaches outside of their own specific contexts, but they are all well thought out, successful and (I think) worth a look at.

The twitter tag was #enres if you want to hear what others think/ said at the event, and further blogs/ comments may well crop up on their website.

Treatise on the Astrolabe

Here’s a nice TED talk on the astrolabe, thanks to Alun Salt for the tip-off. The speaker uses an example of an astrolabe from the Oxford Museum for the History of Science (also featured in Alun’s blogpost). The Science Museum have some pretty gorgeous ones too.

I won’t rehearse what an astrolabe is here, watch the video. But I can use it to say something about children’s science books. The first manual for the Astrolabe was written for a kid (Geoffrey Chaucer’s son Lewis, yes that Chaucer). The British Museum has an astrolabe they think matches the one the Chaucers would have used. This book is often described as first children’s book. So, the first ever children’s book was a science book.

This little fact-ette pleases me immensely. Obviously it relies on a rather ridiculous (not to mention anachronistic) over-simplification of our definitions of “children” “science” and “book”. I don’t care though. When people at children’s literature studies conferences look at me with incredulity when I say I study science books (people have, quite seriously, looked down their noses and informed me “but, non-fiction isn’t literature“), I love to direct them to Chaucer.

Via Peter Hunt (1994) An Introduction to Children’s Literature (Opus, Oxford: pp.189) if you want a full bibliographic reference from a professor of children’s literature studies.

Science is cool? Considering the "evidence"

I’ve just written a piece on Comment is Free responding to the “How Science Became Cool” feature they ran last Tuesday. This is the sweary bit I couldn’t fit in (though with slightly less swearing than when I saw the headline they’d given it and read comment number 3…)

The piece for the Guardian runs through some of the evidence of science’s public popularity. But research into science and the public doesn’t just provide evidence, it also provides reflection. One basic tenet of such reflection being that the notion of “science” isn’t nearly as uniform as is sometimes imagined (for developed theory and a set of historical examples, see this book). Another central tenet is that whether you like, agree and/ or believe in a piece science is largely cultural (classic study of this being Brian Wynne’s sheep farmers). Baring both these points in mind, we should not forget the tensions within the great big Venn diagram of groups which have connected to form the apparent “new” coolness of science.

I think the most illustrative example of this is last December’s “Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People“. Or, as it later became known for the post-Christmas TV transmission: Nerdstock. I remember hearing people say they much preferred the term Nerdstock, they would have loved to have gone but were put off by the word “Godless” in the title. And yet people wanting to express their atheism were arguably the fuel of the event. Similarly, within self-confessed science fans, there are those with more space-y interests and those who are rather more David Attenborough in their tastes, both sitting alongside each other with some degree of incomprehension. There are also the wades of commentators on the “How Science Became Cool” piece who wined “don’t leave science to the cool kids, that’s the last thing we want”.

These are all tensions, territories and cultural identities we have to remember if considering the movement of science through popular culture. Moreover, I think that the more activist science communicators (i.e. those who want to change peoples minds) need to take seriously those who disagree or are not sure about particular ideas in science. I don’t think it’s helpful to write them off as anything as broad brush as “anti” the whole of science. This is not to say you have to agree with them, or even display any rhetorical sense of agreement. But you have to think about what precisely they don’t like and why if you really want to convince them otherwise. As I wrote in the post about Shell and the Science Museum, throw your hands up in the air with incredulity at their stupidity if you like: see how far that gets you.

I worry that that with a celebration of aesthetics of science the response to “isn’t this cool” will be, from many, “er, no”. There’s the famous youtube clip of Richard Dawkins saying “Science is interesting, and if you don’t like it, you can fuck off.” That’s great if you already agree with him. It’s funny and the appeal to those who “can fuck off” helps emphasise a sense of bonded community by way of noting those aren’t in it. But it only puts off those who disagree with you even more. As I’ve blogged before, I think science communication should say this is awesome because. It should earn and demonstrate wonderment, not assume it.

Of course, another central tenet of science communication research is you shouldn’t assume a need to ram science down everyone’s throat. Not everyone likes science, not everyone knows much science. And that’s ok. Maybe the disinterested can fuck off then, though I can think of a fair few specific examples where I’d rather they didn’t (personally, for me: science funding, climate change). It’s a difference between liking or disliking that big old complex thing called “science” and having an opinion about a specific scientific issue which I think is the important point here.

I agree the science brand seems to be doing pretty well right now, but let’s not get carried away about the novelty or reach of this. Moreover, don’t let a sense of glitzy uniformity of a big old thing called “science” obscure the detail in its guts, be this good, bad, useful, pointless, ugly or beautiful. Don’t fuck off if you don’t happen find one or other aspect of it interesting, and please don’t get arrogant or cliquey enough to tell others to do so either.

EDIT 19:45 20th April: just in case you worry I’m quoting Dawkins out of context, he is repeating a New Scientist editor with the “can fuck off” line. There’s great context provided in this longer video of the event, which I can heartily recommend anyway (ta Scott)

The Royal Institution, the Bodmer report, and the future of science communication

My guest post over on the Times Science blog, pasted below:

Professor Colin Blakemore has seen the future of UK science communication: it the Bodmer report. That’s Sir Walter Bodmer’s report on the Public Understanding of Science, of 1985.

It’s rather esoteric, and Blakemore’s reference to it in The Times on Wednesday took me by surprise. Though in a tangential way I maybe owe it my job, it’s been gathering dust in the archives of the Royal Society for a few years now.

I should stress that I think Professor Blakemore is entirely right that re-invention is the only way for the Royal Institution (RI), but recourse to 1985 isn’t the way to get there. In particular, I worry about the image, propagated by some, of the RI’s long history up against a Greenfield sense of modern realities. It seems out of date to me: playing 19th against 20th centuries (when we’re well into the 21st).

It worries me in the same way the juxtaposition of greybeards verses miniskirts does. It allows Baroness Greenfield to be painted as new and fresh, battling against an old guard. This is not how she is viewed in end of the scientific community I inhabit, where Greenfield has herself long stood as emblematic of an old guard. It would be exceedingly unladylike of me to repeat the various tweets that circulated after The Times posted its interview with her online today. Suffice to say, she isn’t just a figure of fun: the things she says about science in society make a lot of people very angry.

1985 was a long time ago. I was in nursery school when the Bodmer report was published; I’m now a lecturer in Imperial College’s Science Communication Group. One of the reasons degrees such as ours exist is the decades of debate over the meanings and appropriate attitudes of science communication that have followed the Bodmer report.

Science communication has changed. It has turned itself on its head in places, and at least tried to move “upstream”. As some recent LSE research demonstrates, Sir Walter himself uses a very different vocabulary. I remember, in 2003, reading Jon Turney’s now classic rant against ideas of so-called scientific literacy: “How Greenfield Got it Wrong”. Even then, it read a little as if Turney was having to explain very slowly to someone who has not quite caught up with the 1990s.

Professional navel gazing aside, we have all been through the National Curriculum, BSE, the 1997 election, Lords Sainsbury and Drayson, Frankenfoods, Wikipedia, Climategate and Brian Cox. I wouldn’t be as complacent as to suggest the rest of the UK science communication industry has been doing nothing but sterling work whilst the RI looked the other way, but today’s science does sit in a different social, cultural and political context from 1985.

As I left the RI after the special general meeting on Monday, I saw the looks on the faces of the staff (note: many under 35, many female). They looked pleased. Moreover, they looked excited. Over the last few months, the phrase “what’s the RI for exactly?” has been repeated a lot. Not least by me. However I now think a better approach is be to start from the position that it exists, and then think of all the great things we could do with it.

Whatever the RI staff decide, there was a heartening sense of freedom and imagination breaking through all the fear, gossip and backbiting of Monday night. I imagine the financial problem will remain a cloud for sometime still, but I for one am really looking forward to seeing what they come up with next.

On the repackaging of technological objects (or not)

new laptop case - zips

This is my new laptop case. The design features the “TG12345 Mk II recording desk” from London’s famous Abbey Road studios. You can read a bit about that mixing desk, and buy your own laptop case (or notebook, t-shirt…) here.

It was a birthday present from my mother. It reminds us both of my father, a professional musician who spent a lot of his life working at those studios. Most people hear “Abbey Road” and think Beatles; I think “Ah, Dad’s got sessions this week, he’ll be wandering around the house distracted, loosing his glasses, making endless cups of tea, muttering about percussionists and swearing at his piano at 2am…”. My brother did loads of work experience there as a teenager and, or at least so he says, met Paul McCartney. Apparently I spent a fair bit of time there as a baby too, quietly sleeping in the corner of the studio (I must have been an unusually quiet baby).

Personal connections aside, I think this laptop case is interesting object. It’s a desirable consumer product, at least for those of a certain aesthetic. I’m very much looking forward to showing it off at the British Library. I think it’s fascinating that what is, in many ways, a technical object designed for utilitarian purpose has been repackaged purely for its image. I think this is interesting. Also, it’s a relatively “retro” piece of technology. These desks were used between 1975 and 1985, somewhat before the emergence of the laptop case as a consumer product. So it signals technology and geekiness, whilst at the same time reflecting a form of nostalgia. Technostalgia perhaps.

I’ve blogged elsewhere about some of these issues before, inspired by some children’s t-shirts which recycled old cover art from Popular Mechanics. Now, I could bang on about the everyday anachronism of postmodern technological media consumption. Clothing remade from cassette tapes, or our delight in old internet sites, for example. I could also return to the personal connection and use it to make a point about the personal relationships we all have to technological objects. I don’t name my laptop, phone, ipod, bicycle, etc, but I know a fair number of people who do. Or, there’s that odd disconnection between the public cultural associations of Abbey road compared to my more individual domestic one: ripe for a bit of structuration theory. Or perhaps, in honor of Susan Leigh Star who died recently, I might reflect on the ways in which single objects may have multiple meanings for multiple peoples; this multiplicitous nature allowing them to be sites for both the making and unmaking of boundaries. Cultural theorists of technology do love an artefactual case study. And er, emphasising plurality and words like multiplicitous.

But I won’t drone on about all that. It’s my birthday and although I’ve worked a chunk of it already, right now I’m going to zip-up all my sociological citations firmly inside this laptop case and potter down to the pub for lunch (a pub with its own history of technology associations, but a pub nonetheless).

new laptop case - sliders

The "booms" of 20th C popular science

Just before Easter, I co-ran a small conference entitled Science Communication in the 20th Century: The “Booms” of Popular Science Publishing. I almost don’t need to blog about, as Scott Keir’s already done such a thoughtful (and bloody funny) job over at Nature Network. You can also read a short piece by me posted last week, inspired by a slide used in one of the talks (of a 1958 girls chemistry set). Still, I thought it was worth typing up some notes, and I could provide a link to a googledoc of the abstracts for anyone who’s interested.

In stumbling around for some sort of theme for an academic(ish) event on popular science, my co-organiser, Dr Hauke Riesch, and I (after much debate) settled first on the 20th century, then more specifically on that century’s so-called “booms” of pop sci publishing. The initial idea was to to devote the morning to discussions of early 20th C popularisations of relativity, with an afternoon on more recent “Hawkin/ Dawkins” matters. However, our call for papers tended seemed to attract papers emphasising other trends or moments in popular science. Perhaps this says something about how important these apparently high profile booms really were, or maybe researchers are just bored by them by now.

I wanted to keep our definition of “popular science” reasonably loose, to include a range of media, but Hauke was adamant “popular science” means books. In the end we compromised with the word “publishing”. As the papers presented at the conference demonstrated very neatly, however, you can publish all sorts of things, and publishing about one medium often gets tangled up in discussion of another. So maybe I got my way after-all (though the previous event did include discussion of songs, I missed the singing). We ended up with a fair bit of discussion of magazines, toys and, via a set of books, blackboards. So, the photo I’m illustrating this post with isn’t a big pile of Dawkins and Hawkins. It isn’t a dusty pile of early copies of New Scientist either, but a snipped from a 1980s computer magazine.

Einstein vs Zombies FTW

To move onto the day’s content: I’ll give some notes on Peter Bowler’s plenary, and then say something about the event as a whole. I won’t dwell on the papers themselves. You can read more in the abstracts, and google the speakers to see if they’ll give you a copy of their paper (i.e. don’t bug me for papers, I don’t have them). We’re looking into publishing a collection of the papers as a special edition of a journal, so the researchers might have a chance to develop their points elsewhere anyway.

Peter Bowler’s talk was truly lovely. As Scott’s blogpost puts it so nicely, Peter seemed to relish the word boom (which really is a fantastic word). More substantively, I think Peter really got to the heart of the issue. Much of his talk referred to inter-war science magazine publishing which he argued was not nearly as much as a boom area as it was sometimes made out as. Bowler started with the example of Conquest magazine, founded in 1919 under much rhetoric on the demand for public information about science. It was soon absorbed by Discovery though, a much more “top-down” publication, very much organised by the academy (edited by one CP Snow) and ran at a loss. 1929 saw the emergence of Armchair Science, once again under much rhetoric of a new boom in public interest, and once again of limited financial success. He showed us a great slide of its cover, with headlines including “Why eat bad cheese but not bad meat?” “What is noise?” and “Wonders of the night sky”. From these studies, Bowler went on to talk more broadly about where the booms are imagined to stem from suggesting it was, in some respects, double-sided. There is a rhetoric of a public-led boom (i.e. fulfilling a desire from potential readership) and also a science-led one (i.e. suggesting the ‘inspirational power’ of a particular scientific idea, person or discovery drives the boom): a sort of conflation of both bottom-up and top-down models of science communication. Peter noted the ‘modern synthesis’ as a scientific moment which interestingly didn’t provoke any sense of publishing boom, maybe because by then anything connected with evolution was seen as ‘old hat’, or maybe because (as a synthesis) it couldn’t be easily tied to a single character like relativity and Einstein. He also reflected on three publishing areas which he thought could be seen as a popular science boom of the interwar period: serials of popular science books, such as Huxley/Well’s The Science of Life which was serialised in thirty fortnightly parts; “boys books”, highly illustrated pieces celebrating warfare, exploration and wonder largely marketed as prizes and Christmas presents; and self education guides such as the Home University Library, which would were general knowledge guides but often stressed scientific content in their PR.

What then was the key topic of the day? Well probably not booms, despite Bowler’s beautiful set up of the topic, the word “booms” was occasionally referred to, but rarely explored in any depth by the papers which had other things to say (this isn’t a failing in the papers, and maybe Bowler said it all). The rhetoric and cultural standing of mystery with respects to popular science was, for me, was the most dominant theme, though I’m sure other delegates would disagree.

museum sponsorship, climate change and the Smithonian


This video comes via a Treehugger piece on the Smithsonian’s new human origins gallery. That’s the new David H Koch Hall of Human Origins, as in “coal empire billionaire” David Koch who sponsored the gallery. The complaint made by Treehugger, Joseph Romm (the guy in the video) and some others being, simply, that this gallery’s depiction of human evolution is being used to peddle some rather unscientific ideas about climate change. Specifically, how much the climate has changed since the industrial revolution, and the ways humans have/might adapt to such change. To get an idea of their argument, just watch the video of Dr Romm at the exhibition.

Last week I blogged about Shell’s sponsorship of a climate change gallery at the London Science Museum, so thought it was worth flagging up this controversy from over the pond too. I don’t pretend to know nearly as much about the Smithsonian. Still, whether Treehugger et at are being fair or not, the controversy is interesting in itself. Googling from a desk in South London (e.g. see also write up in USA today, and the review and curator Q&A in the Washington post) it does look scarily as if the Smithsonian have managed to avoid having to even pay lip-service to Intelligent Design, only to have their story of evolution hijacked to relay a rather marginal approach to climate change science. It was also interesting to find this Washington Post story, from 2007, suggesting the Smithsonian had previously toned down an exhibition on climate change, fearing anger from Bush administration.

Whilst on the topic, I think it’s also worth flagging up this report in Nature on the rise in philanthropically-funded climate change work. They refer to a range of activities, including supporting academic research. Whether you prefer your climate science and climate science communication funded by charities or by the tax payer (and so, we might hope, also accountable to the tax payers) is an important question, one that probably reflects your own personal politics. Like many members of the British science community, I’m thankful for the existence of the Wellcome Trust but I’m also very thankful that the Wellcome Trust happens to be quite so awesome (for “awesome” read “run largely by people who happen to agree with me”).

The Nature news piece and Smithsonian controversy might seem very American concerns, but as the bulk of state-sponsored science communication in the UK goes into pre-election purdah, they are matters for us Brits to mull over too. As Christine Ottery has just blogged in terms of investigative science journalism “Heigh-ho: here’s to the future, here’s to new funding models”. If we don’t want people like Shell or Koch or the government bankrolling such work, who do we want to pay for it? Who will we trust, why, and how are we going to make this work?

Thanks to Scott Keir for the tip-off on this story.