Category Archives: engagement

Science and hobbies

What I did on my holiday

Sitting with some science on Brighton beach.

I co-run a regular event with the Biochemical Society exploring science online. Last week, we had one on science and hobbies, a combination that doesn’t need the web to come about, but is arguably facilitated by it. I know the word ‘hobby’ seemed a bit off-puttingly folksy for some, but I wanted to capture the difference between doing or talking about science for a living, and doing/ talking about science in one’s spare time. Fully aware that this divide isn’t clear cut, I thought the topic would generate debate. I think it did. You can listen to a podcast of the full event, but here are my three ‘take home’ questions from the debate.

What counts as value in citizen science? One of the audience members gave the example of a crowd-sourced citizen research project run by their university, where they realised that it would have been cheaper just to employ a single professional to do the work, largely because it all had to be checked by an expert anyway. One response was that this argument relies largely on the idea that the outcome being funded is purely research. If it is engagement too (and you count citizen involvement as engagement, not just free labour), then maybe it’s a false comparison.

Do we need to consider the ethics of citizen science? In many ways, this follows on from above. If a citizen research project could have just employed a professional academic, are they robbing someone of a job? One of the reasons science became professionalised was to allow people who were not independently wealthy make a living from it. We have seen similar tensions around journalism and music. We might equally ask whether citizen science projects like those run by the Zooniverse simply exploit their members for free labour (this piece on research and the Mechanical Turk is interesting). On the other side, however, it was argued why not let the public volunteer to give something to science, especially if by giving some of their time rather than just money via taxes, they learn something about the science and built relationships with each other and the scientific community in the process? Further, maybe such citizen research frees up a postdoc to do something more interesting, especially if greater public engagement leads to public support for science meaning they find it easier to keep public funding and therefore jobs in science (big ‘if’ though…). I don’t think we settled on answers either way here, but they are all good questions to keep asking. I also think we should find further ethical questions on this topic.

Does doing science as a hobby encourage or discourage social engagement? Again, this is complex question. While discussing garage-based biohackers, it was argued that this removes science from its broader social context. Not only the large networks of professional science, but what many of them are working for; it’s science for the individual, not a public good. Is hobbiest science anti-social? I thought this point was really interesting, and reminded me of Jack Stilgoe’s thoughtful post on science and the Big Society, where he stressed science as a ‘team sport’. On the other hand, a chance to have some individual relationship with science could be an invite to communities both within and around science. Indeed, the word communities was mentioned a lot. This is partly because it’s buzzword de jour in science communication, but it also reflects the ways in which many hobbies connect people to others with a similar interest (see also David Gauntlett’s ‘Making is Connecting’). As one of the attendees of the event said to me the following day, maybe instead of ‘hobbies’ we could have thought of ‘science and alternative social networks’. I also think it’s really significant that OPAL is part funded by the lottery because it works with deprived groups: it is science for social work, as well as research and public all the various possible meanings and uses of ‘public engagement with science’.

As usual at these events, we ended with more questions than answers. I’d love to hear any more thoughts on this – do leave a comment if you have further ideas, questions or even answers.

Fair’s fair

What questions would the public choose to invest scientific time and resources in, if given the chance to shape research policy? This is an old and largely unanswered question. Indeed, it is one that many members of the scientific community go out of their way to avoid testing.

Ben Goldacre touched on it a couple of weeks ago, in his Bad Science column, where he repeated an idea that’s been around for a while – that each year, a very small proportion of the research budget should be spent on whatever the public vote for. Goldacre mentioned this idea because he wanted to argue that at least some of the money would go on useful research. Still he was also fast to quip that ‘Most of it would go on MMR and homeopathy, of course’.

But we don’t really know what the public would fund. That’s the beauty of the experiment: we’d give ourselves a chance to find out.

We’d also give publicly funded science a chance to enrich its scope of inspiration, and make itself more clearly accountable to the communities which fund it. Researchers often say they should be to be left to research what is “interesting” without public, or at least political, interference (see about any reference to the Haldane Principle…). Ok. But we need to appreciate that any idea of “interesting” is socially constructed. I don’t say that to undermine the point necessarily. We’ve put 100s of years of effort into constructing a world of science which trains people to have a keen sense of “interesting”. But I see it as an ongoing process, open to development and, potentially, open to input from a broader social network.

I was thinking about this issue while at the Google Science Fair last week, in particular the broad range of sources of inspriation the finalists and drawn upon, and have a post about it on the Guardian Science blog. There, I suggest children sit in a sort of mid-way space between science and ‘the public’, and that this is is something we might try to replicate in at least some parts of grown up science:

It is perhaps best to think of schoolchildren as holding a liminal position with respect to science and the rest of society. They are not quite inside the scientific community or squarely outside it either. They are both science and “the public”, and they are neither of these things [...] what can we do to further this sort of liminality in grownup science? How can we extend the social spheres of our professional scientists, especially those who define the research agenda, so they might draw inspiration more effectively from the diversity of publics that fund them?

When thinking about the question of how the public might shape research policy, I think this sense of liminality is key. To me, this is better than a straight public vote, which just seems a bit blunt. I much prefer a model of co-production which aims towards mutual learning between science and the public so they can build something better than either alone would be able to dream up.

Afterall, a question that on first glance looks like a call to homeopathy or MMR might well contain a nugget of a more scientifically credible challenge for public health, if only given a bit of discussion to help bring that point out.

Towards a multigenerational debate about science

Last week, I was supposed to be one of the speakers at the World Conference of Science Journalists, part of a session on reaching younger audiences. For various reasons (some including ambulances…) I didn’t actually get to give my talk. This post is a linked-up version of what I would have said. The images are screengrabs from an old website, Planet Jemma, which is discussed near the end.

One of the rare bits of research on young people and online science media was conducted back in 2004 by some communication researchers in Florida, published as Attracting Teen Surfers to Science Web Sites in the Public Understanding of Science journal. I know it’s old work, but it’s their attitude I’m interested in here, not the primary data. They concluded that attracting teens to science websites can be difficult because when teenagers do go online, they do so for social interaction and entertainment, not to be educated. They seem to be a little disturbed by this, or at least see it as a problem to be managed.

I don’t think they should be disturbed though. I think they should be excited.

Let me give some background. In recent years, much of the discussion about the public communication of science and technology has focused on what we might broadly see as a shift from a top-down model to a more distributive approach; models which stress the need for scientists to listen to the public, and the role of public-to-public communication in the construction of ideas about science. Many science communication professionals now see their job as facilitating conversations, not providing ready-made polished stories (see this post for more on that).

It is rare, however, that we see this approach followed through when it comes to work with young people. The idea of ‘discovery learning’ was briefly popular in the late 20th century (put kids in a classroom with a load of science kit, let them discover it for themselves). However, as many educational researchers pointed out, this is rather naive: it only works if we actually believe scientific research comes from such uncomplicated, quick interaction with physical entities. In reality, science teachers accommodated students’ results that did not fit the expected outcome. They were demonstrations, not experiments; activities wrapped up in a rhetoric of discovery. Additionally, when young people are asked to debate science policy issues or ethics in class – as we see increasingly English science curriculum – this is seen as a rehearsal for democratic engagement in later life; the kids aren’t going to be listened to as kids.

This shift from providing polished stories to facilitating conversations isn’t unique to science communication. Developments in media technology and cultures surrounding these have led to changes in the way journalists consider the people formally known as the audience; changes I do not need to repeat here. There is also a specific debate within children’s media about the history and politics of adult-to-child narration. It should be remembered that so call-ed ‘children’s media’ is usually given to young people, not produced by them. Even writers aiming at a ‘child-centered’ approach will draw on memories of their childhood which may well be out of date and framed by adult worries. David Buckingham, riffing off Jacqueline Rose, talks about a form of generational drag; adults acting as if they were children, based on an adult conception of what a child is.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with sharing science across generations. Indeed, we might think of science as a generational activity, and the lengthy time frames of science is something I think we need to acknowledge. But we should also be aware of when exactly younger people are asked to speak rather than being spoken for, how much freedom they have, and how often they are listened to.

I will now briefly introduce a few examples of UK science communication websites aimed at young people, before offering two conclutions.

First up: SciCast. Here, children are invited to make short films about science and share them. There is a competition for the best ones every year, and they have a big Oscars-style awards do (finalists announced last week). There are some gems on the site: do go and have look. Let’s not pretend it is unmediated kid-to-kid communication though. Kids are drawing on the ideas of adult scientists, some of which are long dead too. They are also using adult-made media technology, and I’m sure some videos were lead by parents or teachers. It’s also a competition, judged by adults, so kids work to their idea of adult expectations. But I don’t think it pretends to be adult free either. Indeed, the project invites adult professionals to leave feedback, and gives feedback itself, because they see this as a productive part of the process.

Secondly: I’m A Scientist Get Me Out of Here. Scientists are put in zones with four others, each zone is matched to a set of schools. The scientists introduce themselves with a profile, and then the school students ask them questions. It runs for a bit over a week, and adopts the loose structure of reality TV show; the scientists get voted off daily so they compete to give good answers. Here the kids do not produce content, but rather lead it with their questions (and the content is sometimes slightly scrappy forum post answers from scientists, not carefully constructed literary prose). The questions are diverse – about the scientists as people as well as factual – as are the scientists who are everyday working researchers rather than the super-star presenters you might see on TV, and the project is proud of the way it communicates a sense of how science really works. Another key point to stress about I’m a Scientist is that the questions are not always resolved: a lot of scientists simply reply with ‘I don’t know’ (see this post and comment thread for some discussion, as well as this video made by one of the contestants).

SciCast and I’m a Scientist are unusual though. Most science media for young people is made for them, not by them. Moreover, although some may offer forms of interaction, it is worth questioning whether this is interactivity or, more simply, ‘activity’. So here’s my third example: Energy Ninjas, a science computer game developed for use on gallery at the Science Museum, which you can also play online. It has a loose narrative, though you have some control over the order. You move around a city, pick a site to enter and watch the Energy Ninjas chastise people for their carbon consumption. Where you choose to click will have some impact on your route through the game, but it won’t impact on the structure of the game itself, or even change the outcome of any loose story it contains. What you as player choose to click on certainly doesn’t get fed into science, or science policy.  It’s reasonably standard as the genre of these mini-science games go. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but we should be aware of the limits of user involvement here.

Finally: Planet Jemma. It’s from 2003 and not online anymore (edit: a demo version is now up), but I think it’s fascinating and so worth sharing with you, so I’ve included some screengrabs the developers had archived, and there are some reviews online (this is interesting, and do see the comment thread includes response from developer). There’s also a Guardian article about it. This tells a story of Jemma a physics student in her early months at university, though emails sent to you as if you were an old friend from back home. You learn a bit of the science she is learning, but also about her life at university. The emails you get relate to where you’ve clicked on an associated website which includes videos and photo stories. Think of it as database-driven personalised narrative. This is a very good example of adult writers aping kid-to-kid discussion (see earlier point about ‘generational drag’). However, I should stress this was 2003. I’m sure the developers would have loved to have brought more of the actual teenage audience into making the story rather than just being the recipients and characters in it, something which is simply easier to do now. I’d love to see a project of this level of imagination and narrative complexity run today, but with the various technological and cultural resources we now have available.

Conclusion one: We should be honest about generational issues at play here. Don’t pretend to be providing a child’s voice when it’s an adult’s one, be aware of how adults are framing, possibly curtailing, children’s interactions with science (and why – they may have reasons for doing so). We should also be honest about the age of scientific content discussed with and by young people. I don’t think there is anything necessarily wrong with young people talking about old ideas, or using old ways to demonstrate them (in some ways, it’s quite exciting that people back in the 18thC did similar tricks to demonstrate science that we o today), but I do think we should be honest about this long history, even aim to explicitly pull it out. Moreover, rather than looking at communication patterns as just top-down or side-to-side, maybe we need to think about co-constructed multi-generational media; both in the construction of content, and its audiences.

Conclusion two: there are a host of projects getting kids to work with scientists, even to be involved in the scientific research. Why not get kids doing science journalism, with science journalists, too? Why not get science journalists doing ‘outreach’? Yes, there is SciCast and some projects to get schoolkids scienceblogging. My mother told be me about a science radio project in North London in the ’80s. But why not more of this? Moreover, why not include the more probing critical work of professional journalism? Kids can do more than explainers. I think this would have a number of educational benefits. Moreover, just as scientists doing outreach is sometimes (cynically) seen as serving the scientific community as a form of promotion for their profession, maybe is science journalism is under threat as a profession, maybe doing outreach could help promote youselves? And, just as scientists often say they learn a lot from working with young people, maybe science journalists could learn something too.

You want to reach young audiences? Stop thinking about them as ‘audiences’, and involve them.

Has Public Engagement become too institutionalised?

I was at a conference recently and a colleague raised an interesting question: today, where do the socially concerned scientists go? In the 1960s and 1970s, there was Pugwash or the Union of Concerned Scientists. What now?

I could think of several such scientists, though they didn’t fit the same model as the 1970s. Yes, I know Pugwash and the UCS still exist but I’d bet a good chunk of even the odd sub-sect of the world that read this blog haven’t heard of them. The nature of a socially engaged scientist seems to have changed somewhat since the 1970s. Some of my students made a great video a few years back dramatising this (screengrab above, watch in full here); with scientists from the 1950, 1970, 1990 and 2010 all arguing over the ways they feel they should address the public.

A key change has been the rise of this thing called ‘public engagement’. Now if you want to take your work outside the confines of the Ivory Tower, you can sign up to an engagement project. As I’ve written in a piece in the latest edition of Research Fortnight (paywalled, but most UK universities have a campus subscription, try this link), the rise of public engagement I something I largely welcome, but I also think it’s worth noting how institutionalised it has become, and wonder if this institutionalisation compromises the independence of academics in their ability to embed themselves in society. Public engagement as it’s framed in UK policy discourse can become a range of different activities; some more ‘impact‘-ful than others. A stall playing with balloons at a science fair is a lot easier than kicking up controversy over GMOs. It may also be more easily accountable.

In many respects, I like that the engagement institutions exist; that the government encourages researchers to do it, including support on how to do it. As I try to stress in Research Fortnight, the move away from top-down approaches to more discursive ones that stress mutual listening and learning between science and society (which many of the engagement institutions advocate) is not only one I personally approve of but, itself, a form of application of academic work from Science and Technology Studies.

One might argue, of course, that as soon as a researcher takes their work into society, they compromise their independence; that a search for objective truth requires a certain degree of intellectual dis-engagement. I think this would be simplistic, even if I do think we should question what the last 10-ish years of ‘engagement’ policy has brought us. So, I don’t agree with the Research Fortnight editorial’s take that ‘the scale and volume of engagement may be reaching the point where it threatens academic independence’. It’s not the size of engagement that’s the problem.

That video by my ex-students ends with the 2010 scientist with her head in her hands; feeling the weight of history and all the various expectations accrued upon her. I sympathise. She doesn’t have any answers and neither do I. The Research Fortnight ends with a question. As they don’t have a comments box for answers, I’ll repeat it here: how can we keep the political voice of academics independent, while supporting the idea that such a voice is part of their job, and ensuring that they in turn listen to other voices too?

Can we?

Avoiding the magic fact machine

It was Universities Week last week – a campaign to highlight the impact of higher education institutions on UK individuals, communities, culture and businesses.

One of the projects rolled out for the event was the web-based ‘FactShare Generator‘. If you happen to like car-crash science communication, go and have a play. Otherwise, I don’t want to dwell on it. It is suffice to say UNIVERSITIES ARE NOT BLOODY MAGIC FACT MACHINES, and that it made me angry enough to write a piece for Comment is Free, where I tried to take the more positive track of celebrating a project I do like: I’m a Scientist Get Me Out of Here.

UCLA picture of a man made of stone, in a university. It is SYMBOLIC.

I’m a Scientist probably sounds terrible. It’s not. It pitches teenagers’ questions against groups of scientists (amazingly diverse, cheeky, surreal questions too). Importantly, the contestants aren’t the super-star scientists you see on TV. They are everyday workers, and because the questions are not just factual queries, but about the scientists’ lives, the project provides a sense of science on a day-to-day level. Most of all, it’s striking how often scientists reply with “I don’t know”. It’s not in a dismissive way. If anything, it’s said with excitement. Not knowing is a source of inspiration for a lot of scientists.

This point about being able to say “I don’t know” is, I think, really important, and I was pleased to see it pulled out in the comment thread. However, also in the comments Scott Keir posed a challenge:

What I haven’t seen on I’m a Scientist yet (though I will keep looking), are the researchers answering a question and then saying, “and what do you think?” In some ways, that’s a similar model to the magic fact machine – the researchers have the answers. So contestants, if you’re reading this, please try asking what the questioner and other students reading it think too. I’m prepared to bet that sometimes, it’s the students that will have the better answers.

I know a few of contestants took on this challenge (see also this response from one of the mods). Still, it’s a good challenge, and a continual one.

I’d add a smaller challenge of my own: contestants should try to be imaginative in the resources they send students to with links. Or find ways of encouraging students to find resources for themselves. There’s a lot of linking to Wikipedia. When I worked on a science website for schoolkids back in 2001-3, I’d always challenge myself to link to something other than the BBC. I knew that if someone was interested and googled, they’d find and trust the BBC link anyway. As a writer, I wanted to be able to give them something else. Obviously, I link to the BBC if it was a really good page worth sharing, but I always have a good dig first. I now instigate the same personal rule with Wikipedia.

The challenges raised by I’m a Scientist aren’t just for the contestants though. Reading through some of the blogposts written by contestants – Tom Crick, posted yesterday, Paula Salgado and Stephen Curry from last year –  I’m struck by how much work it involves. This is on top of all the other things they have to do as professional scientists. They are all also keen to say quite how much they’ve learnt and how much they feel they’ve contributed. There’s a great comment under Tom’s post from another contestant, saying how much she learns from the other scientists in her zone, and I love the bit in Paula’s piece about how emotionally invested she became in the experience, and why. So, yet again, the question is how can we find (more) ways to make this sort of work part of a scientist’s job, not just an add-on?

Moreover, what other projects can we run that open up universities to outside questions? What other projects might be able replicate the sort of discursive work I’m a Scientist (at its best) provides, but for people other than schoolkids? What other projects might invite the public to learn from universities, and also allow universities to learn from the experience too? Brightclub? Cafe Scientifique? Something a bit more subversive…?

Whether you have an answer, or just another question, do let me know what you think.

KABOOM: Exploding ‘impact’

Picture: social researcher number one.

This is a drawing of a social researcher. I don’t mean a researcher who studies social relations. I mean this is a researcher who is social; one that’s connects to other people, very simply by citing other researchers.

(Yes, sociology-spotters, it’s ‘inspired’ by Bruno Latour. It’s a poor reinterpretation of an early diagram in Science in Action. I’m currently an ocean away from my desk, and don’t have the specific reference to hand).

A few months ago, I attended the launch of the Royal Society’s survey of the global scientific landscape, a report entitled Knowledge, Networks and Nations. Looking at all the Royal Society’s pretty pictures of international networks, I remember be struck by quite how much of a social enterprise science is, and that in many respects this is its great strength. The idea that science might be socially constructed is often taken as a criticism of science, an attempt at undermining it even. But it doesn’t have to be.

(This isn’t to deny science’s interaction with the natural world. Indeed, I’ve often thought many concerns over social constructivism are down to a confusion between science and nature. But that’s a larger philosophical debate/ bunfight, possibly also involving Latourian diagrams scrawled on bits of scrap paper).

I was reminded of this sense of the sociality of science during all the recent blather about ‘impact’. It is jargon, and rather ill-defined at that. As Richard Jones neatly put it, this thing called impact isn’t an actual thing at all, but rather a word that’s been adopted to stand for a number of overlapping imperatives. To put it as plainly as possible, publishing a research paper is only half the job (credit: I stole that line from David Dobbs). The government wants to make sure that the researchers they fund do a full job, even though they are aware that the other half of this work might take a range of forms, so they’re trying to find ways of measuring a thing called impact. This is hard. We could count citations in academic literature, or patent applications, or measure column inches of mass-media coverage. I suppose we could count mentions of Brian Cox on twitter too. I don’t think any of these are quite going to cut it, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be cleverer about how we do try to discern impact. As Steve Fuller recently argued, there is no reason why metrics have to be stupid. A recent AHRC report (pdf) covered many of these issues too.

Back to the social researcher thing. Here’s another picture. The first was supposed to show the social relations involved in making academic work. This one is of the social relations involved in sharing it too, and is as influenced by Lewenstein (via Gregory) as it is Latour.

 Picture: social researcher number two.

We might take first diagram as a critique of the rhetoric of a scientific paper; a way of showing off expertise to keep others out. Equally though, it is simply representative of the ways in which people with academic training draw on a body of other peoples’ work and are helped in their thinking (and give credit with a traceable trial for that thinking). I’m an academic. I have have read a lot and like to reference things. There are 533 sources cited in my PhD (I know because, after I submitted the thing, I ran a ‘guess the weight of my bibliography’ contest on my knitblog). I’ve also learned loads over the years from my students, friends, teachers, colleagues, family, ex-boyfriends, blog commentators, etc. I am a mass of other peoples’ ideas, even if I choose between them and add my own perceptions, misunderstandings and connections. It’s standing on the shoulders of giants stuff, or a matter of science as a team sport.

(The first of those analogies comes via a folk history of Newton, the latter one I’ve taken from Jack Stilgoe. Just as I’ve already drawn on Latour, Dobbs, Jones, Fuller, Gregory… see what I mean?).

This is really important when it comes to thinking about impact. James Sumner wrote a great post earlier this year where he stressed how much time he spent talking about other peoples’ research. Sumner meant this in terms of the specific issues of humanities academics doing public engagement, but I think it applies much more broadly. As Jack Stilgoe wrote earlier this week, innovation studies tell us that economic benefits comes from networking and policy making is similarly built on networks of trust.

So, when Stilgoe also says we need to rethink impact as ‘people, not papers’, I feel the same unease I have about calls to fund ‘people, not projects‘: science is done by groups, not individuals. It’s the tomb of the unknown warrior, to steal another good line, this time from Martin Rees (see second quote here). I guess if we want some tidy alliteration, it’s about keeping our scientists social. Let’s explode the idea of impact, not just to think of it as something more than in an economic or academic sense, but as something accrued, done and most successfully achieved through networks. I don’t mean networks in the Machiavellian sense sometimes associated with Latour, but simply in terms of people helping each other out. I want to sit in the Royal Society looking at pretty pictures that the networked journey of research, not just its networked production (or better, the ways networks or production and dissemination are and can be interlaced).

As ever, the comment thread is open for your thoughts. Or, if you’re London based and want to be sociable about the impact debate, do come along to our event at Imperial on the 5th

Social scientists and public accountability

This was originally published on social science space. I’m happy to admit it is a piece of rhetoric, designed to make a point. If you are interested in debating this more, I’m on the panel for a Guardian Higher Education livechat on research communication later today (or use the comments below, as ever).

Every now and again I see someone argue that the models for public engagement and impact built for natural sciences are all very well, but can’t possibly apply to us in the social sciences or humanities.

Whilst I have some sympathy, some of this amounts to sticking slightly snobby scholarly fingers in pairs of already too-deaf ears and going ‘yada yada yada, I can’t hear you’ at political realities knocking on the doors of lovingly constructed ivory towers.

Ideas of public engagement and impact are, in themselves, not a bad thing. I’m all for cynicism about particular definitions of these terms sometimes offered to us (cough – Big Society fuss – cough). But we should take these offerings fairly too, and accept that organizations like the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement are there to help us be better academics.

The scientific community woke up to demonstrate their worth around the mid 1980s. They then started a long and painful process of realising that they can’t simply shout ‘BUT YOU SHOULD LISTEN TO ME I AM VERY CLEVER’ (and ‘while you’re at it, leave me alone to get on with my work in peace’), gradually realising they needed to get imaginative about explaining not only their work, but themselves. Moreover, they realized that they need to listen to the public too. This doesn’t necessarily amount to being told what to study, it just means listening (this might be useful as background). It may seem like an imposition, but those who bother are reaping the benefits.

Of course, you could study whatever you want to, in exactly the way you choose, and only bother to have the cosiest of chats about it. You can do that in your spare time. Want independence? Go, join the hobbyists. Me, I’m a public sector professional, and as such, I take pride in the ways in which I may cultivate an independent voice, but do so within a network of constraints provided by public service. Listening to outside voices is not a threat to my professionalism; it’s an expression of it.

I don’t want to sound entirely unsympathetic, and I admit I’m being deliberately provocative. I know many people in the social sciences aren’t nearly so blinkered. I also know from personal experience than communicating our scholarship can be bloody difficult. Yeah, everyone loves a nice historical story – a little ‘factette’ about Newton inventing the catflap for example – but what about the more complex offerings from professional historical research, the less convenient ideas, the less appealing detail?

A scientist friend puts a fart joke in his explanation of methane and get congratulated for being so down to earth. I seethe with envy. Part of my research involves unraveling the cultures and politics of fart jokes in popular science. When I try to explain this work, I sound like a spoilsport.

Most people feel uncomfortable talking about the abstract entities of science. Traditionally scientists have seen this as their great challenge, but in some ways they have it easy. Everyone’s got an opinion on the research objects of social sciences and humanities, and this is precisely what makes sharing our expertise so hard. But we shouldn’t loose sense of how it can be an advantage. We should listen to all these opinions, and then work out how to challenge them, how we can offer something more. We have these opinions for a living, we have taken time to have a proper look and good, deep think about it. What new stuff have we dug up? Moreover, as someone who worries about these issues for a living, surely we want to have our ideas and evidence extended, our assumptions poked at, our ideas used?

We are paid to do our research. Teaching a small set of kids privileged enough to go to university, or publishing in esoteric journals only a couple of people will read does not cut it. Moreover, it doesn’t challenge our ideas enough to make the sort of high quality work we should be producing. Earn public trust by showing off your worth. You may well learn something in the process too.

You don’t have to do what you are told, what’d be the point of you if you did? But for goodness sake take those bloody fingers out of your ears. Me, I’m a professional scholar, not a hobbyist. That’s why I try to stretch my work outside of the academy, and why I think you should too.

Science and craft

Mendel's peas
Mendel’s pea, by some of last year’s science communication MSc students

There seems to be more and more events happening which I can only describe as science-craft. I thought I’d write about it, and did a post for the Guardian Science blog.

There are overlaps here with sci-art projects, just as there are overlaps (sometimes problematic ones) between arts and crafts more generally. However, I think science craft events have the potential to involve new and different communities which sci-art doesn’t necessary reach, and to be more participatory in their whole project set up too.

There is the question of what you participate for exactly: what are you making? At danger of repeating myself, science communication isn’t all about baking a cake shaped like a neuron. In particular, I worry that the fluffier ends of sci-craft might act as a distraction from the production of more politically controversial outcomes.

Still, we shouldn’t loose sight of the use of these more playful products too. Or rather, we shouldn’t ignore the power of the social interactions which surround their production. My knitting friends often laugh at me for being a ‘process knitter’. I’ll happily take a piece apart and re-knit it, several times. Finishing is nice. But, for me, the fun’s in the doing. Similarly, I suspect much of the worth of public engagement happens in the process rather than the outcome. The various collaborative processes often involved in crafting can provide a space for people to talk through and think through ideas together. As I end the piece for the Guardian:

At a knitting evening held at Hunterian Museum a few years back, I ended up sitting next to a homeopath. As well as swapping tips on the best way to bind off for socks, we discussed our own research projects, including the ways in which they might be seen to clash, and some of the items of the history of surgery that surrounded us. Other people listened and joined in, before we all moved on to complaining about estate agents. It was polite, humorous and thoughtful. It was also pleasingly mundane; something that we’d all do well to remember a lot of science is.

To give another example, I spotted this video of a neuroscientist, Zarinah Agnew,  making a giant sandcastle. She told me she wants to do it again, but as a workshop rather than a film. I like this idea, because the time spent making the sandcastle allows space for social interaction which simply watching the film might inspire, but won’t necessarily do in itself.

Not all public engagement can or should have an obvious political or scientific outcome. Whether you want to open up the governance of science or increase the public understanding of science, you are unlikely to get anywhere without quite a bit of cultural change first. Playing with a bit of yarn might seem unambitious, but arguably the social interaction and reflection that comes with it can help us get there. Or this social interaction might lead us somewhere else entirely.

Science Top Trumps

This is a picture of my small collection of science-themed Top Trumps. It’s one of those things you only remember you own when you are moving house (I have just packed up my possessions to store while I spend two months in North America*).

my science-y top trumps colection

Top Trumps, if you haven’t heard of it, is a card game. Each set of cards is themed. In the picture above you can see chemistry, dinosaurs and scientific careers, but they’re more likely to be characters in a TV show, cars or footballers (yes, there is a Royal Wedding set…). Each card will have a set of values relating to that theme (e.g. height, weight). You play in rounds. Someone picks a category, and the player with the card with the highest value in that category wins the round. Popular in the 1970s and 80s in the UK, they were relaunched about ten years ago. As one might expect, there’s a detailed Wikipedia entry. Or there’s the official site, Planet Top Trumps.

I’ve written about the dinosaur set before. As I said then, it reminded me a bit of Buckingham & Scanlon’s comparison the way dinosaurs are used in non-fiction publishing with Pokémon (it’s all about collecting and exchanging facts, with the odd semi-fantastic monster thrown in).

dino top trumps

Each round of Top Trumps is very quick, but this doesn’t leave much time for considering the context of the values assigned, and we did query the scientific basis for some of these too. The ‘dinoman’ card is especially weird (I’m not the only person to have spotted this. There is a facebook appreciation page).

That old post about these was passed around a few bits of the internet, and as a result I was sent a pack of Dr Hal’s Chemistry Top Trumps. The ‘values’ here are atomic weight, danger factor, usefulness factor, melting point and year of discovery. Each card comes with a picture and a few sentences of ‘elementary facts’. I played this with some friends recently, and like the dinosaurs set, we wondered why we had to assume the biggest number is best, and there was some debate over whether it should be the biggest amount from 0 (either 0 degrees for temperature, of 0 years before common era in terms of discovery date) that won.

chemistry top trumps

Still, even our grumbles were, arguably, forms of learning about chemistry, and I do think I gained some feel for the elements as we sifted through them in the course of the game.

About a year ago I picked up a set of science career trumps card at the Science Museum shop. As a procrastination from packing I was reflecting on the chemistry pack anyway, I had a bit of a shuffle and a read.

Science careers top trumps.

Each card is carries the logo of an organsation connected to the job, and along with the values (travel, communication , numeracy, computer and technical) there are illustrations and a blurb. Here’s a picture of a few more. I was a bit surprised that the Association of British Science Writers say a qualification in a scientific subject is essential for a career in science journalism (I’m a member of the ABSW. I don’t have any scientific qualifications).

Science careers top trumps.

Playing the careers one, I really felt this was a blunt way of learning. I could see how the processes of the game could help bring some familiarity with the materials (and, as with the chemical elements, reminded me of ones I forgot I knew about), and I could imagine kids going ‘I want to be a…’ or ‘ha, I wouldn’t be a…’ off the back of one card ‘trumping’ another. Still, for me, it’s no substitute for something like the I’m A Scientist project, which connects young people to professional scientists. I’m not sure we should play games with careers. Maybe I’m being oversensitive.

I should probably note that the I’m a Scientist team do also produce debate packs structured through cards as another thread of their work. These aren’t Top Trumps though, they aren’t so competitive and don’t try to assign these odd numerical values to everything. The aim of the card-playing aspect of these packs is to prompt and help structure discussion (it’s worth looking up Democs if you are interested), which I suspect is the key way people learn from the chemistry or careers sets too.

I’d be interested to know if any science teachers have used Top Trumps though, and what the students thought.

I'm a Scientist cards

* I’ll be in the USA and Canada from the 18th of April. I’m mainly going to be in DC (at American University, School of Communication) but with some time in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Toronto and Ottawa while I’m in that part of the world.

What’s this public ‘engagement’ with science thing then?

This is a linked-up blog-version of a talk I gave for Imperial’s grad school. It’s all basic stuff, but I hope it’s useful.

A few months ago, a colleague asked for my ‘top ten tips for public engagement’. My first response was a bit curt, I only had three:

  • There is no such thing as ‘the public’.
  • What on earth is ‘engagement’ supposed to mean?
  • I’m not entirely convinced by this ‘science’ word either.

I was taking the mickey, but there is a serious point here. If I really have to reduce all the things I have learnt about the public communication of science, then I’d argue it’s the specifics that matter.  ‘The public’, ‘engagement’, ‘science’ or ‘scientists’ are just simplifications we’ve made up to make the big wide complicated world easier to understand. These terms are still real and meaningful, but at the very least, they’re open to a bit of playful reinterpretation.


Considering the ‘public’ and ‘scientists’.

There are various studies of public opinion with respect to science – this paper and this report are both worth reading if you are interested (some more links here). Most people, especially British people, on the whole seem to quite like and trust scientists. Still, the people that are less enamored by science still matter, and it’s wrong to lump them together, or assume they all have the same reasons for feeling whatever disconnect with science they do. Similarly, we shouldn’t assume that much uniformity within the group that say they do like science.

Most critical work in science communication emphasises the multiplicity of ‘the public’, as the National Coordinating Center for Public Engagement (NCCPE) puts it, ‘everyone is a member of the public’, and yet everyone is different; ‘Thinking of the public as an undifferentiated whole is unlikely to help develop any kind of purposeful, responsive and respectful engagement’.

As the NCCPE goes on, one commonly used tactic is to talk about publics rather than the singular public. Another is to take my first ‘top tip’ and say there is no such thing as the public. Much as I think it’s a statement worth making, I don’t think you should take it too seriously.

  • Firstly, the term public is used, and is made real by this use. If you are interested in this, there’s a nice paper by Mike Micheals where he talks about Publics in Particular and Publics in General (or ‘PiPs’ and ‘PiGs’) and the different ways in which different ideas of ‘the public’ or ‘a public’ get used with respect to science.
  • Secondly, this sense of ‘the general public’ can be useful. People in science communication are often told to target their audiences. Work out who you want to talk to and learn about them so you know how to talk to them. This is important. But it can also be very limiting. Knowing your audience is great, but who says you want to be limited to who you know? If you aim for an imaginary ‘general public’ you force yourself not to assume much knowledge or particular interest, and therefore open it up to more people. It acts as a sort of heuristic.

Writing for a broad and vague sense of ‘the general public’ can make everything a bit bland though. It’d be boring if all science communication was like this. Within the big field of science communication, there can be both narrow and broad aimed work. You can try to know your target audiences as best as possible whilst also being open to new ones you had no idea existed/ cared. It depends on your project.

I’m similarly sceptical about lumping this whole ‘science’ thing together (and in particular, lumping together ‘scientists). Science is big and complex, its ideas about itself vary and change over time. Maybe it should be pluralised to sciences, like publics. Or again, maybe we could just talk about specific people, ideas and approaches. Leave loose talk about ‘science’ to philosophers and advertising executives, and instead focus on sharing what you have particular expertise in, be honest about what you don’t know and think about all the new things you might learn from engaging in a bit of broader discussion about your work.

All of this is why some of the most powerful engagement work happens face to face – rather than writing something and delivering it to an audience – as scientists and ‘publics’ (whoever any of these people actually are) can gradually learn what it is about each other; discover what they do and do not have in common, and discursively find ways to connect.


What’s this ‘engagement’ thing about then?

A recent UK government report (pdf, p20) described public engagement with science and technology as ‘an umbrella term’, encompassing a range of activities from science festivals, to the news media, public debates or policy consultations. If one was being unkind, one could say ‘umbrella term’ is a polite way of saying so many people are using the word, it’s started to loose any coherent meaning. However, the report goes on to stress that ‘any good engagement activity should involve aspects of listening and interaction’, and this is key.

With the stress on listening and interaction, they are deliberately distancing themselves from more top-down approaches, which are seen as a bit old fashioned. As I’ve written before, there is a story many people in science communication tell about their professional past, is as used to believe in the deficit model but have now seen the light and are gradually moving towards greater and greater degrees of dialogic enlightenment.

In reality, nothing’s that linear, but the short version of this long and complex story is that in 1985 Walter Bodmer wrote a report for the Royal Society calling for a greater Public Understanding of Science (PUS). Although the role of this has been argued over since (e.g.), it seemed to formalise a feeling that the public needed to be onside with science, and that this was largely the public’s fault (they were ignorant, too easily led by the media… it was anything other than science’s fault).

Critics of a PUS approach, such as sociologist Brian Wynne (famous for his study of sheep farmers), dubbed their attitude to the public ‘the deficit model’, arguing it unrealistically black-boxed science and the public and naively imagined knowledge should (and could) simply flow from the former to the latter. There’s a basic media studies critique to be made: people don’t simply believe what you tell them, especially if you set up a patronising structure which defines them as stupid.  There are also epistemological problems; by many definitions, it is ‘unscientific’ to assume science has all the answers ready to pass on to the rest of the world. A new view emerged, stressing a more contextual approach to the public’s reactions, use and knowledge of science. Post ‘BSE crisis‘, a series of publications stressed the need for greater openness and transparency, with a special focus on the need to be careful when it comes to communicating risk. The 2000 House of Lords report on Science and Society is the most important of these, known for formalising in a ‘new mood for dialogue’ which took on the sociological critiques of the deficit model.


Where now?

The legacy of the 80s and 90s leaves us with two key models for thinking about the public communication of science (although in terms of actually doing such work, things are always more complex):

  • The Deficit Model. This assumes the public are deficit in scientific knowledge and need to be better informed. It is patronizing and unrealistic about the public, the media and science. This is generally hated by the professional science communication community. So much so, people mention it at conferences and you can head people going “booo”, as if they were at a pantomime.
  • Dialogue. Rooted in sociological ideas as well as a lot of work by geographers. It acknowledges the scientific worth (as well as democratic and rhetorical necessity) of listening to non-scientists, as well as the contingency and continental changing nature of science. It is discursive rather than conclusive, and arguably has limited political impact.

… and there’s not been much new in thinking since then. I wish there was (if only because I’m personally a bit bored with people banging on about the deficit model). There is the notion of ‘upstream’ engagement, but that’s got its problems too as a model, and is a it old too.

Perhaps we don’t need new ideas though; we just need to put them into practise. I’d also say that I think there have been shifts in practise, and in many respects the most exciting innovations come at a very local level. It’s the specifics that matter. Often, it’s the specifics that are the most interesting too.


Conclusion

In an attempt end on a positive point, I’ll finish by forcing myself to take that ‘top tips’ idea seriously, and I’ll even stretch as far as five.

  • Don’t be silly about ‘the public’. Remember: knowing your audience and targeting specific groups can be very powerful, but so can the serendipitous connections made by packaging your work as accessibly as audience as possible.
  • Communication is something you take part in, it’s not something you deliver. If you spend as much time listening as you do talking not only are you more likely to find yourself listened to, but you might well learn something inspiring.
  • Don’t be try to be an advocate for the whole of science, but don’t let yourself be limited by its boundaries either. You don’t have to brand something ‘science’, think instead about the object of your study, or perhaps a specific method or approach. What is it exactly you want to share precisely?
  • There is a long history to debates over science and society. This means there are small pots of ideas, people and money which are worth being aware of and tapping into. Don’t be limited by this history, and be prepared to see public communication work as part as (and funded as part as…) your research.
  • There is nothing wrong with a bit of ambition, but be realistic. This means keeping in mind the limitations of your project, including pragmatic concerns like money, time, your professional image and the weather. You are unlikely to change the world. You may not even change any minds, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile, you may well have helped move towards a bit of world/ mind changing. These things take time. None of them are easy.

If you have any more top tips, or want to disagree with any of mine, please do add them in the comments.

I’ve also put together a list of links to further resources. EDIT added here before posterous closese:


A few useful resources for scientists interested in Public Engagement with Science (very UK focused):