“Do your pupils have an energy gap?”

The Big Bang Fair, a big science and engineering event for schoolkids was held in Birmingham last month. Led by Engineering UK and supported by various government departments, charities, learned societies and businesses, it’s an annual event that’s been going for a while. They seem to have taken down the list of 2012 sponsors, but you can see a list of the 2011 ones in this leaflet (pdf), which included BAE Systems, Shell, EDF Energy and Sellafield Ltd.

Seeing as some of these firms are perhaps only too expert in making extremely big bangs, it’s upset a few people. Check out the BAE wikipedia entry, ‘products’ subheading if you don’t get why.

Anne Schulthess from CND happened to be at another education show in Birmingham that week and spotting the Big Bang, dropped in. She shared some photos, noting “basically it’s the arms fair for children. With a bit of environmental destruction thrown in for good measure”. Back in 2009, Scientists for Global Responsibility and the Campaign Against the Arms Trade condemned BAE’s role in the event (SGR/CAAT press release, reproduced on my old blog). I’d be tempted to suggest one of these groups try to set up a stall at the fair next year but even if Engineering UK let them, the £20,000 to £100,000 pricetag might well be out of the budget of a small NGO.

Industrial involvement in science education is nothing new. Take, for example, these adverts I found in some old copies of the National Association for Environmental Education’s magazine (c. 1978):

The Science Museum have a fair bit of history here: from the BNFL sponsored atomic gallery in the 1980s to Shell sponsorship of their climate gallery in 2010 (see also this 2008 freedom of information request on Shell and BP funding). I used to work on their Energy gallery, and it’d be depressing to watch visitors clock the BP logo, laugh and walk away.

I worry when I see reports that the Smithsonian were so pleased to have secured a sponsor that was ok with the idea of evolution that they let a bit of not very scientific attitude to climate change in (e.g. see ThinkProgress, 2010). I also worry when I hear about teaching resources designed to stress the uncertainty of climate change (e.g. see Guardian, 2012). I can see why groups like Liberate Tate focus on the corporate sponsorship of art and Greenpeace scale the National Gallery, but I worry slightly more about the involvement of the oil industry in exhibitions where their work is an actual topic in the content.

We should be careful of simply assuming corporate sponsorship means they have influence on content. Science Museum staff claim editorial independence from any of their sponsors. Just as, I noticed, the Guardian stresses Greenpeace had no say over editorial content of John Vidal’s report on industrial fishing in West Africa, even though the NGO paid his travel costs to Senegal. We should also recognise that there is a lot of scientific expertise in industry, just as Greenpeace give Vidal access to places he wouldn’t otherwise see. Science isn’t just a matter of what goes on in ivory towers, so perhaps it’s only right that such groups involved. Plus, seeing as people don’t seem to want to pay fees or taxes for publicly funded science communication, maybe it’s only sensible the Science Museum et al ask groups who’ve made a lot of money out of science and technology give something back. We can’t just rely on moneybags of the Wellcome Trust (which has its own complex economic history anyway).

As I’ve argued before, if businesses are going to have involvement in science education, I want to see what they think, warts and all. If groups like the Science Museum really have editorial control, they should take industrial sponsorship only if the company involved will also (a) give them their expertise, and (b) be happy for said expertise to be put under some scrutiny. Rather than retreat behind claims to scientific objectivity, science communication should wear it’s political fights on its sleeve, show science’s various institutional connections for what they really are. These sorts of debates are part of science in society and should be offered up and opened up for broader public discussion, appreciation and scrutiny.

I’ve worked with a load of instituions in science communication, from Girl Guiding UK to the Royal Society, with a fair bit of industrial sponsorship thrown in at times too. This included stints at CND, Mind and the Science Museum while I was still in my teens. For that reason, I don’t think we should be scared about opening up debate on the politics of science at educational events aimed at schoolkids like the Big Bang Fair. I coped with these issues and think others can too. We should show them BAE, but make sure they get a group like SGR along to help offer other sides too. We should trust young people more when it comes to the messiness of science in society.

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2 thoughts on ““Do your pupils have an energy gap?”

  1. David McGloin (@DundeePhysics)

    Interesting article. We should definitely be able to trust young people to be able to make up their own minds about the validity of the application of industrial science. These are some of the most interesting questions when it comes to how we make use of our technological and scientific skills to answer important societal challenges. And as with most interesting stuff the answers are not black and white. While a member of CND might decry the sponsors of the Big Bang Fair as arms dealers and environmental destroyers, I’m quite pleased that I had gas to heat the water for my shower this morning, that there was some petrol in my car to get me to work and that we extracted some oil to help make the plastic keys I’m typing on. As a former Dstl employee I can also state that that most of the arms companies make a wide variety of high tech kit that helps protect our armed services personnel, as well as the public at large. Such companies over offer a wide variety of really interesting science and engineering jobs. With full information and discussion you can make informed choices and how the practices of such companies fit within your own moral compass. I doubt the companies will come off any worse for engaging in such a process.

    Reply
  2. medical biller

    “While a member of CND might decry the sponsors of the Big Bang Fair as arms dealers and environmental destroyers, I’m quite pleased that I had gas to heat the water for my shower this morning, that there was some petrol in my car to get me to work and that we extracted some oil to help make the plastic keys I’m typing on. As a former Dstl employee I can also state that that most of the arms companies make a wide variety of high tech kit that helps protect our armed services personnel, as well as the public at large.”

    @David, good input on the subject. I agree, there’s always to sides to a story and that there’s always good that comes out from some bad things. I guess we should focus on the lesser evils because everything has both good and evil in it. To see the companies sponsoring something good is an indication that it ain’t all bad. And as David said, some of these companies provide us with something good that is more tangible (like the gas in the car and the security).

    Reply

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