Science, public engagement and ‘The Big Society’

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Yesterday, Jack Stilgoe posted a piece about science and the Big Society on the Royal Society’s science policy blog. He starts by playing with the juxtaposition of the Big Society with the idea of “Big Science”:

Scientific research is increasingly specialised, a trend accelerated by the emergence of Big Science – an expensive, equipment-heavy team sport – in the second half of the 20th century.  This means it’s pretty hard to democratise much scientific research. Big Society science probably won’t therefore involve street gene-sequencing parties or the Women’s Institute designing a particle accelerator.

Stilgoe then goes on to stress the ways in which this specialised world of contemporary science can still accommodate, indeed be helped by, some collaboration with non-experts, celebrating a range of projects which might broadly be called ‘Citizen Science’.

Sadly, such enthusiasm for public engagement doesn’t seem to extend to the Royal Society’s website: their blogs don’t support readers’ comments. Much as I do love the piece of French social theory Stilgoe links to in pace of a platform for debate, I think there are some more pragmatic points to raise, ones that are worth making if we are to develop thought on this important issue.

So here’s my two-pennyworth, which I offer alongside an open comment thread for others to add their own ideas, arguments and examples.

Stilgoe mentions Galaxy Zoo. As does everyone who talks about this issue. As they should. It’s great. It lets professional researchers tap into the energy and enthusiasm  of amateurs. Everyone learns, everyone has fun, everyone is involved. There is now a whole Zooniverse of  projects, everyone wants in on the game. But there are problems. As I’ve argued before, Galaxy Zoo is relatively unusual. Astronomy is an area many people enjoy as a hobby, with a long history of amateur/ professional collaboration. The specific tasks Galaxy Zoo involves happen to be relatively easy to pick up.

Most science isn’t like this. This doesn’t damper the brilliance of Galaxy Zoo at all (I’m a big fan), but it does say something about it’s reach and potential role as poster boy for Big Society Science.

Stilgoe also mentions Steven Epstein’s excellent book about the ways in which AIDS patients in the 1980s managed to take some control of the research agenda, becoming experts themselves in the process. Again, this is an example that’s always wheeled out in debates like this. Like Galaxy Zoo, I can see why; it is brilliant. But also like Galaxy Zoo, I wonder if it’s cited so often because there aren’t many other good examples?

It’s important to remember issues of social and cultural capital here. Or, more bluntly: class. Not all patients groups are as well positioned as these AIDS activists. If I remember rightly, this is a point mentioned by Steven Epstein. There’s a history of networks which these AIDS activists drew on which not all patient groups have. Further, just as astronomy is an area people care about, so is medicine. Not all research has the same emotional drive.

And what’s missing from Stilgoe’s list? Well, we could talk about science blogging, science-themed political activism (e.g. over homeopathy, or funding, as in photo above), the role of charities or, more abstractly, whether citizen science projects allow professionals to take advantage of hobbyists. Maybe these are things for a comments thread.

Instead, I want to talk about Opal Air Laboratories (OPAL), a network of community ecology projects. Like Galaxy Zoo, OPAL involves science which has a history of amateur involvement, and has been designed to include tasks people can readily do without much training (go on, send them your photos of worms). What makes OPAL so fascinating though, is that it’s also an example of a research project which has receiving from the National Lottery. Why? Because it turns out that public engagement with science can help foster a sense of social inclusion as well as good science. When I spoke to OPAL’s director last year, she told me they run projects getting ex-offenders involved in ecological research, helping them feel connected to their natural and social surroundings in the process. In some respects, such work could be described as science as a form of social work (apparently the Eden Project run similar projects with Willesden schoolkids). It’s worth noting that the more developed aspects of OPAL spends time training it’s volunteers. Yes, you get work from people for free, but you also have to invest heavily in order to do this. This kind of community engagement is hard work in itself, relying on the fulltime expertise of people who do this for a living (and, I’d personally say, should maybe be given more stable “public” funding than Lottery grants).

None of this is to necessarily disagree with Jack’s initial post, I just think it’s worth having a longer conversation about some of the details and problems involved and drawing on the ideas and knowledge of others.

So please, do take some time to comment.

EDIT: spinning off from this post (or rather, the comment thread) I wrote a piece on science and “the big society” for Research Fortnight. It’s paywalled, but most UK universities have institutional access.

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29 thoughts on “Science, public engagement and ‘The Big Society’

  1. alicerosebell Post author

    I’ll start things off with a point I decided was probably too dull for the post itself…

    In his post Jack talks about the Beacons and implies they are like science shops. I wouldn’t describe them as such, but then the Beacons are hard to describe.

    Which got me thinking – maybe it’s time to have a conversation about what exactly the Beacons do, how well, and why? (and perhaps also why, so far on in the project, we still don’t really know how to talk about them? Maybe that’s ok, the project was always meant to be diverse and try new things – I’m just raising it as a topic).

    Reply
  2. Tas

    I think that although the funding bodies, in particular the Wellcome Trust, have done tremendously well in recent years by promoting the public engagement agenda with ordinary researchers, there remains a tremendous disconnect between professional scientists and the public. There is [now] plenty of talk about engagement among academics yet few actually bother to involve themselves in the activities that are arranged. We seem to have a split community, one which is involved in engagement activities and [most] others who do the science but cannot either find the time or willingness to be involved. Hopefully this will change.

    Although most research does not have the ‘pulling power’ of Galaxy Zoo, there should be no shortage of people willing to get out there to communicate their enthusiasm. I worked in the relatively ‘sexy’ area of angiogenesis. It was quite easy to describe the importance of blood vessels and of anti-angiogenic drugs against cancer. It is somewhat harder to discuss why a little known gene in some obscure pond weed is actually worth studying. But combine that with some ecological ‘social’ work then that is a powerful tool for engagement.

    Random outbursts and insane mutterings on twitter: @MT_UKPMC

    Reply
    1. alicerosebell Post author

      yes, I suppose I was conflating ‘citizen science’ and ‘public engagement’ in that post, but arguably they are very different – maybe citizen science relies upon an already engaged public (and I’d say that needs loads of funding for professionals, though I admit I would say that seeing I work in the field…)

      Reply
  3. Tim Jones

    First off, I agree it’s most odd the Royal Society blog isn’t really a blog at all – with no comments allowed.

    I’ve read JS’s piece, and am in broad agreement in so far as I think the science agenda is not the preserve of scientists alone.

    Yet I find the jump from science to ‘citizen scientist’ interesting, as if there’s no middle ground.

    I don’t comment or offer opinion outside my experience; but I’ve worked variously with scientists, engineers (technologists, call them what you will), financiers, and manufacturing people – often on the same team. And it’s the relationship between these groups of individuals I’d like to see examined and re-jigged in our society – AS WELL AS the relationship between experts (scientists, engineers, whatever) and some increasingly meaningless category labelled ‘citizen’ (or lay public etc).

    I guess I sense confusion (as a member of said ‘pubic’ on any particular science-related issue) as to who I should be interfacing with and understanding to make my input re any science agenda. It’s certainly not the scientist in isolation (via New Scientist, some blog, or whatever).

    I want to engage with the underlying issue/task/ethical dilemma/societal objective, not just the scientist who might have some contribution, alongside others, to make. Task/project /process over discipline please.

    Reply
    1. alice

      Re: “increasingly meaningless category labelled ‘citizen’” – good point to flag up, in fact the woman who runs OPAL hates the term.

      And on the agreeing with point about “science agenda is not the preserve of scientists alone” – I agree with that too, and really like the points Jack pulls out re governance.

      Reply
  4. Sophia Collins

    Like you Alice, I’m perplexed by the description of the Beacons as science shops. In the rest of the piece I think he does use some nice (if over-used) examples. But I’m left wondering how much Big Society Science differs from two-way engagement with science, which we’ve been talking about for a while?
    Is Jack just re-framing that idea in the new terminology in order to make its value clearer to the coalition? If I understand it right, Big Society is about saying, the public sector can’t afford to do things it used to do, so communities need to step in and do things themselves. So what would be Big Society Science, how would it differ from two-way engagement, and how will it work?
    The only example which seems much more Big Society than two-way engagement, to me, is the last one, with the parents who drove research into their child’s rare disease. And I’m not sure how generalisable that is.
    I do like your (and his) conservation and ecology examples – I think that’s a field ripe for citizen involvement, and seems to me a perfect example of what Big Society Science might be – as volunteers are stepping in to do what paid scientists might otherwise do. Many people care very much about conservation, and know loads about the natural world, so this can work. I’m always surprised that the Big Garden Birdwatch isn’t referred to when people talk about citizen science. Or similar mass ecology data gathering projects.
    Jack’s point number 5, with the example of AIDS patients, seems to me to be very much two-way engagement, but not Big Society Science. It’s not really taking something off the hands of the public sector (except in as much as it saves money, by potentially creating a better targetted research agenda), but it is including the public as stakeholders in decision-making.
    Fitting perfectly into the Big Society idea would be things like citizen micro-finance science funding (I saw a scheme like this a bit ago, but can’t find the link now), but Jack doesn’t mention this.
    Ultimately, the Big Society is about saving the public sector money, which citizen science does, and engagement can. But sometimes, to set up projects in the first place takes money, and where is that going to come from? A new way of doing things can’t be created overnight. Is government going to set up seed-funding grants for people to pilot new approaches? Is the Royal Society? I can think of lots of possible projects that would do some of the things Jack talks about, but I bet you the only body who might fund most of them would be the saintly Wellcome Trust.

    Reply
    1. alice

      Ta Sophia –

      Yes, microfunding is interesting – there was a piece in Nature about it recently I think…?

      As for your point that “to set up projects in the first place takes money, and where is that going to come from?” (pause while we all cross ourselves at mention of Wellcome) – I think Kieron Flanagan put it well with his tweet-comment “In science as elsewhere, the big society can’t be done on the cheap”.

      And I think you are right to tease out differences between two way science and Big Society Science (just as Tas, above, teases out differences beteen public engagement and citizen science). Oh joy, another for the list of overlapping sci com jargon terms… :)

      Reply
  5. Jack Stilgoe

    Until such time as the Royal Society blog opens up, huge thanks Alice for providing us with a discursive space. And thanks for taking an interest. I take the point that you and @jonwturney make about the Beacons. They are step one on the road towards genuine Science Shops. And @kieronflanagan makes an important point about the extrapolation of medical cases towards science in general. Medicine is a special case of public engagement with science. Indeed, a patient’s encounter with a doctor is for most people their most frequent and most meaningful engagement with expert knowledge. The most disruptive institutional innovation in public engagement that I know of is the Alzheimer’s Society’s QRD programme (which we described briefly in The Public Value of Science (http://www.demos.co.uk/publications/publicvalueofscience), where patients and carers help set research agendas, review proposals and monitor studies.

    I wouldn’t agree with @kieronflanagan that there was nothing other areas of science can learn from medicine. But I agree with him that the Big Society, in the case of science, doesn’t save the state any money. The new conversations suggested by Big Society science may in fact demand additional cash.

    Reply
    1. alice

      Agree re med being special case but that other areas can also learn from it – the SCOPE work on biomedical researchers is maybe a good example here – oddly offline at the moment.

      Still not sure I’d describe the Beacons as “step one on the road towards genuine Science Shops” – but then as I said, hard to tell still.

      More to the point, are Science Shops really what we should still be aiming for? Hasn’t the world changed a bit since that idea was developed?

      Reply
  6. Jack Stilgoe

    Sophia, I didn’t read your comments before replying. the science-and-society swamp is already knee-deep with over-used terms and obfuscation, but I would say that we need to draw a distinction between means and ends. Some see two-way engagement (is there any other type?)/dialogue/whatever as an end in itself. I would argue that it is a means to an end, and that end may be new ways of producing scientific knowledge (which might be termed citizen science, big society science or whatever you like) or, more likely, new ways of governing science.

    Reply
    1. jon turney

      I haven’t paid much attention to the beacons since I was briefly on the panel to select them… but I don’t recall getting the impression they were ever intended to much resemble science shops. The first step on the road to science shops (still an admirable concept in my view) would be to have a legislative requirement for universities to allow public involvement in research agendas, as was the case in the Netherlands when they first appeared there. The public engagement agenda here seems, well, a bit different from that. It is still mainly about legitimation isn’t it?
      BTW, we may not need new terms, but the Economist calls one of the things being discussed here “crowdsourced science”. http://econ.st/crwFV7

      Reply
    2. Sophia Collins

      Hi Jack. I’d possibly count myself in the camp of seeing two-way engagement as an end in itself, and I’m not sure I’d characterise it as ‘a new way of producing scientific knowledge’. Although I can see that’s a valid description. But for me the crux of it is negotiating a new relationship between ‘science’ and others, and I think everything else flows from that.
      And I take your point that ‘two-way engagement’ is tautological, but people still often use the term ‘engagement’ as if it means the same thing as outreach, so I was wanting to be clear that that wasn’t what I meant.

      Reply
  7. Kieron Flanagan

    Very rich discussion here, and thanks to Jack for prompting it and to Alice for taking up the challenge and creating the space.

    Jack – not sure that I said there is nothing we can learn from biomedical experience – or if I did then it wasn’t quite what I intended to say. But we should be very careful in extrapolating, as I think Alice argues very well above.

    Sophia – microfunding is very interesting, and I’m sure will become significant – of course, much biomedical research (e.g. through CRUK) is effectively already ‘microfunded’.

    Alice – Thanks for quoting me! I’m not sure we should dismiss the “science shop” idea completely. Though it may hide some assumptions about power relations between ‘citizen’ and ‘expert’ at it’s core it is about an exchange – I think the idea that someone with a problem can come to an ‘expert’ for help, and in return that expert gets to learn something about the problem context. How far this was borne out in experience I don’t really know as I haven’t studied them – but I like the principle and it seems to me that some of the proposals discussed at recent IAS “Beyond Blogging” event were basically updated science shops.

    Reply
  8. Chris

    Thanks for the – as usual – interesting post, and excellent comments. Just a quick note to correct a possible misconception about my dearly beloved Galaxy Zoo. While I agree that there’s a long and noble tradition of amateur observations, our research shows that the people taking part in our online projects aren’t amateur astronomers already. They may well be already interested in science, of course, and indeed interested in astronomy, but these aren’t people who were already active participants.

    I think the broader role of citizen science projects like ours is to provide examples, places where people can sample being an active participant in science. For the magic to work, the experience has to be authentic and that’s impossible in most fields. But I’m not sure this is any different to the way that, say, science writing works. Fields such as astronomy or evolutionary biology are well represented on the bookshelves, but you have to struggle to read deeply about, say, condensed matter physics at a popular level. I’m not sure that matters particularly if the goal is better understanding of science in general, any more than healthy eating campaigners care whether I cook Italian or Indian healthy food.

    In short – it is more important that two way engagement is authentic than comprehensive. But looking back over the discussion I suspect we all agreed on that anyway.

    Reply
    1. alicerosebell Post author

      Ah, didn’t realise that detail on Galaxy Zoo participants – useful. My point was also that the area of science is perhaps more amenable to participation of non-experts because of it’s history – works both ways. Would love to see that research!

      By saying citizen science projects are places to “sample being an active participant in science” that does suggest that its role is to learn about science and enjoy science in some way, rather than contribute to the direction of that science? (i.e. you’d admit it’s not a very active role…?) It’d be quite different from, for example, the AIDS research case. I don’t mean that as a criticism at all – I’m just checking the differences within what I see is a very broad category.

      Reply
  9. Richard Jones

    I don’t feel the need to subscribe to the view that the “Big Society” is a marvellous idea. Lots of things that need to happen in a modern, industrial society need large scale organisations to make them happen, and simply cannot take place by the self-organisation of small groups of public spirited enthusiasts. Building power stations and the National Grid, creating mobile phone networks, and running hospitals come to mind. (I also recall that Chairman Mao was at one time fond of the idea of every village having its own little blast furnace in the Great Leap Forward, an experiment in the Big Society that didn’t turn out very well). There are exceptions, some interesting and important, but much the scientific enterprise is always going to fall into this category. But this doesn’t mean that (all of) these large scale, highly organised enterprises don’t need to be subject to strong democratic control.

    I don’t necessarily think it’s helpful to confuse the very necessary process of opening up the scientific enterprise to more influence by non-scientists, with this idea of devolving responsibility. I don’t want to devolve responsibility for science to citizens, I want to equip citizens to have more control over what science gets done. This isn’t easy, of course, for all kinds of reasons, but this is what I’d see as a major goal of public engagement.

    Reply
    1. alicerosebell Post author

      I don’t think either this post or Jack’s was subscribing to the Big Society – more playing with the ideas (in the same way you were from the looks of it – Big Science/ Big Society, etc).

      As for the confusing “opening up the scientific enterprise to more influence by non-scientists” with “devolving responsibility” – that’s an interesting distinction, possibly very important. I wonder if like other ones mentioned above (e.g. between citizen science and engagement) it is applicable in all cases, or is understood in the same way in all cases? Or, for that matter that devolving responsibility is necessarily undesirable in comparison to the goal of opening up science (in all cases).

      Mmm, will have to have a think about it…

      Reply
  10. Chris

    Alice – I almost agree, I think. We are very different from the AIDS research case. I would agree that most Galaxy Zoo participants are far from leading in research (although some are pushing us in new directions, and we’re building toward having that happen more). My point was more that there are a limited number of small research areas – whether AIDS or cosmology – where it’s possible to construct a space in which the ‘citizen scientist’ can lead, but that that’s ok…there is no benefit from insisting that depth of engagement be consistent across all of science as long as the understanding derived from deep engagement in one area can be applied more generally.

    Reply
  11. Jack Stilgoe

    Richard Jones has got at what I was trying to say about governance. I probably should have framed the BS as a social innovation agenda rather than one of social responsibility (it is a slippery concept that means very different things depending on who’s asking). While citizen science, in its various forms, remains marginal, the governance of science and innovation is the big challenge.

    Various experiments in public dialogue have zeroed in on the questions of responsibility in governance. My sense is that science is an area in which responsibility is highly decentralised. I remember one public dialogue exercise (in which Richard was a participant) that asked the question of who was responsible for the creation of the atomic bomb. In this case, a number of different groups (politicians, the scientists involved, the wider scientific community, technologists, research funders and regulators) could all claim (or deny) responsibility).

    The conclusion of such discussions is often a sense of public alienation, with accompanying demands for clearer governance. Here, citizens invite the state to take more responsibility for innovation rather than devolve it either to scientists or the public. This is not to say that scientists themselves can’t seize the social responsibility agenda, as Martin Rees discussed in his Reith lectures this year and as the social responsibility in science movement (Rotblat etc and most recently Scientists for Global Responsibilty) have advocated. Anyway, we could go round in circles. But I’m enjoying the chat.

    Reply
  12. Hilary Sutcliffe

    Agree with Richard/Jack on the governance point and would like to add my usual hobby horse, that when science hits the road, so to speak, it is usually in the hands of companies who are usually absent from this debate – something we are trying to rectify. There seems to be plenty of attention and funding on the upstream end of engagement and virtually no attention and money on the downstream end or on the company/society relationship. This is obviously a plea for cash from me, but it is also a genuine point that often seems to be overlooked, but may scupper much of the good work done upstream.

    In addition, I also worry about the Big Society in terms of putting more power and cash in the hands of unelected, unaccountable, possibly even unhinged individual or groups with their own agenda, which may very often be in the public good, but could equally not be. That said there is some fascinating stuff going on in that area. The RSA’s Citizen Power Peterborough http://www.thersa.org/projects/citizen-power is doing some interesting research and is worth a look in the non-science arena.

    Reply
  13. Athene Donald

    Many years ago I was involved with one of the original Foresight Panels (this must have been in the early 90′s), and specifically the Food and Drink one. It had representatives ranging from the Farmers’ Union and the Consumer Association, through the big retailers, to manufacturers and practicing scientists like myself. Although I didn’t see it this way at the time, in many ways I think such a panel is an example of involving (a few) ‘citizens’ – as I’m sure the consumer rep saw herself – in influencing science policy. It was an illuminating experience for me, and I would hope for the others too. It helped me see how things I took for granted were alien to others: the comments from the Farmers’ Union guy about what was the point of computers sticks in the mind. But one would hope it also helped in reverse for the farmer to understand why computers really might be beneficial in his office. In the context of Richard’s statement of ‘equip[ping] citizens to have more control over what science gets done’ it might have been a good example, but only if there had been a genuine cascade from the few who were on the panel to their constituents and back again, and I don’t know if that happened.

    I suspect there are few fields akin to the Galaxy Zoo where many individuals can get directly involved hands on; I cannot see the Big Bird Watch as (yet)amounting to something similar, as although the input from the public is crucial it is one-off with no feedback/iteration to bring in a greater appreciation of eg ecology, climate change or whatever. Perhaps the RSPB could be encouraged to broaden the science strand for the public? But any attempts to create large initiatives to increase public engagement inevitably have one crucial factor in common with Cameron’s Big Society – asking people to do a lot out of love for the task, with little or no money.

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  14. ceoamrc

    So have only caught up with this fascinating discussion prompted by Jack and Alice – thank you.

    The Big Society is a concept which I still find troubling. On the one hand its beauty lies in its elasticity and the fact that we are being asked to define what it means for ourselves. On the other, it is a cover for a Government’s desire to roll-back from ideas of collectivisim – indeed, in this respect it is highly challenging if one thinks through its implications for care provision as opposed to science.

    I tend to agree that patient and public engagement and involvement in medical research is a special case in that people’s relationship with it is more immediate. Also that they are able to interpret its benefits in a more straightforward manner in terms of their health and wellbeing and that of their family and friends – it is what drives people to charity donation boxes.

    Essentially I feel that the barriers to engagement and involvement really come down to a clash between two worlds – that of science which is strong on hierarchy, and that of the consumer in which rights, accountability, transparency and similar notions are uppermost.

    If I am frank I worry less about how this is panning out at a grassroots level where both scientists and the public increasingly seem able to partner well and in a mutually beneficial way, than the continuing resistance to it at a governance and leadership level across science. If the last few months have taught us anything it is that the stronger the partnership the more influential science will be.

    Reply
  15. Bruce Etherington

    Sorry to be a liitle late in contributing the perspective of (one of) the Beacon, I was in Vienna last week at a workshop looking at the EU PLACES project which is trying to create cities of scientific culture, which may provide some interesting arguments to the discussions above as they develop over the next four years (more of this in a following comment).

    The first thing to say is that the Beacons themselves are not science shops, nor are they necessarily one step on the road to them. They are about creating an environment within a pilot set of universities that encourages academics and students to undertake more and higher quality public engagement.

    One of the main values of our Beacon is that we do not prioritise any particular method of public engagement rather we are trying to get groups and departments to look at the range of methods available, what skills and topics they have in house and, most importantly, who their audiences should be. Once they know this, then they can work out the best way to engage the audiences that are most important to them.

    If a group of academics (or even an entire insitution) was to decide that a science shop route was best for them, then great! But another set might feel that with their current stage of development for public engagement, then a lecture series marketed in a way to attract an audience that is not solely made up of departmental colleagues could alse be a good first step.

    The Beacons have been difficult to define in part because of the differences in approaches between them and the differences in their makeup. The six Beacons range from single university partnerships (UCL and UEA) through partnerships between universities (Manchester, Beacon North East, and Beltane) to a psuedo-Coordinating centre for Wales. We have two core partner universities (Cardiff and Glamorgan) and a specific remit to work with the other universities in Wales to support their work in public engagement as much as possible. All the Beacons have other non university partners too.

    The second reason that many others do not know much about the work of the Beacons is that we (all the universities in involved) have spent much of the previous two years or so setting up new things to support public engagement and we are only know at a point where we are beginning to see the effects of these. We are all beginning to share these findings with others and will significantly increase the amount of work on this over the next year. For example, The Beacon for Wales is re-writing its website (www.engagingwales.org) to show some of the changes that our work has achieved. UEA is creating a series of case studies (http://www.uea.ac.uk/ssf/cue-east/casestudies) and Manchester Beacon is this week holding a Summit to share their learning beyond ( http://beaconsummit10.eventbrite.com/).

    I know that all the Beacon directors/managers are keen to share what we have learnt and to learn from others about what their institutions have been doing, so please get in touch with us if you have any questions.

    Reply
  16. Bruce Etherington

    PLACES is a new EU funded project which stands for Platform for Local Authorities And Communicators Engaged in Science and is attempting to establish and develop the concept of a European City of Scientific Culture. It is a partnership between three European Networks (European Network of Science Centres and Museums, European Regions Research and Innovation Networks, European Science Events Association) and the Observatory of Science Communication at the Pompeu Fabra University. The project summary can be found here: http://www.occ.upf.edu/img/imatges_cms/places_summary.pdf

    Perhaps the two most important points for the context of this discussion are:

    1) That the concept of a City of Scientific Culture requires long term strategic links between the science communication community of a city and the city’s political/administrative structures through the development and implementation of a local action plan
    2) That the project suggests that the best way of encouraging a greater public engagement is through local controversial issues.

    The other interesting element was that when it came to evaluating whether a city had a scientific culture or not that the best way would be to measure the interactions between the institutions involved. Whether this is a good idea or not, it may go some way to the issue that ceoamrc highlighted in their last paragraph.

    Reply
  17. Pingback: Science in the Big Society « Simon Denegri's Blog

  18. Thomas Ehrich

    I attended a talk once where the speaker declared that post-graduate science education in our country is world-class, while elementary and even undergraduate education is abysmal. The result was that we had a “high priesthood” of science in which the researchers themselves speak a language that is completely foreign to those “lay citizens” (by which I mean those who do not have a post-graduate science degree). The speaker was describing the American educational system, but from the articles and the comments it looks like you have similar issues in Britain.

    In any event, the dual language serves no one well: I interpret Tim Jones’s post to mean that even professional scientific researchers are the “lay public” outside of their own sphere (I’m a geneticist by training, but my knowledge of microbiology, for example, is rudimentary at best — to say nothing of astronomy). Moreover, it can only dampen public enthusiasm (and support) for scientific research. Sitting in the ivory tower may make the academic feel powerful, but in reality it only makes the position more tenuous — the Catholic Church was right to disregard the naysayers and translate the Bible from Greek into Latin so that more people could read it, and modern researchers would be well-served to follow this example.

    And as an unrelated aside, many of us on this side of the pond are following your Big Society experiment closely, hoping for some guidance in helping us break out of our own partisan gridlock.

    Reply
  19. Pingback: Science, citizens and everything else « through the looking glass

  20. truepers.com

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