Category Archives: engagement

Social scientists and trust in science

I’ll be talking at a Social Science Week event next Monday which asks how social scientists and government might work together to strengthen public trust in scientific evidence?

Times Higher Magazine are partnering, and asked me to write a short piece on the topic for this week’s edition. I briefly ask why social scientists would want to be “used” in such a way, as well as what exactly they might provide:

It is clear that scientists simply saying that they know best is not enough for social or political action – take vaccines, climate change, nutrition, drugs policy (pharmaceutical or otherwise), energy, badger culling, or even – to be retro for a moment – mad cow disease, for example. To have impact, the public must believe the science, not just have it delivered to them. Belief is a social process, and this is where experts on the social can have a powerful role to play.

I wanted to stress that some of us have been at this a while (see this short bibliography, and this overview/ introduction might also be useful). Moreover, the role of social scientists doing such work isn’t just to work out the most efficient method by which science might be passed on to the public. Social researchers working in this areas will take a good long hard look at science as well as this thing we call ‘the public’, and sometimes they will deliver up uncomfortable messages. They are not PR officers, and this is precisely what makes them so powerful (not that there is necessarily anything wrong with science PR…). If science wants public trust, it will have to earn it, and it may have to change itself a bit in the process, or at least be willing to listen to what others have to say (it might also learn and improve from this too…).

Still, a form of this argument could be applied back to social scientists too, who are perhaps not always as trusted as they could be themselves. Perhaps the social researchers should take a leaf out of the natural scientists’ book and try to improve their image slightly. As I conclude:

So my message to social scientists is: ask not just what you can do for science, but also what scientists might do for you. I’d invite any natural scientists listening in to see social critique as a useful part of scientific work too. Everyone in the academy should challenge themselves to consider how the many threads of scholarship can best work together to serve the public good.

I believe the event on Monday is fully booked, but apparently it’ll be recorded in some way (EDIT 10/11: here it is, on YouTube). I’ll probably say something similar to the Times Higher piece, but if you’d like to help me refine my views do please comment here – I’m very open to changing my mind on this.

Who speaks for the trees?

Kapoor landscape Anish Kapoor sculpture in Kensington Gardens earlier this year.

I want to use this post to argue for the idea of the communication of science as a sort of public advocacy for natural objects.

That probably sounds more complex than it should. In many ways, all I mean is that I think we can think of people who share scientific ideas as telling stories about nature. I think hearing stories about nature is important. Science looks at things we wouldn’t otherwise see, and in ways we wouldn’t normally try; it shows us something new about the world. As some sociologists of science might put it, science’s networks of ideas, machines, methods and prior knowledge ‘transcribe’ new views of nature for us. Science uncovers stuff. That’s why we invest in it. These new views can also be politically important, or personally useful. Glaciers make for a good example. Or the impact of particular drugs on bits of our bodies.

Take glaciers: I’ve never touched or smelt one. I’ve seen them, but only ever mediated through photographs or film. I trust that they exist, though maybe that’s terribly credulous of me. I also trust things like the BBC’s Frozen Planet or Nature News’ special on the Arctic (though maybe less unquestioningly). I also appreciate them because I think it’s important to know about these big, cold, possibly-slightly-melty objects so many miles away from me because I also believe that I inhabit a world within which they also exist and am willing to believe that my actions may have an impact on them and they, one day, may impact upon me too. I like that reports like this keep me informed with information, but also because they remind me to think about objects like glaciers because, honestly, I’m a busy girl-about-town liable to get distracted by a passing pigeon/ NHS policy/ knitting patten. So, when Suzanne Goldenberg writes something like ‘It’s an odd sensation to watch a glacier die‘ she speaks up for the existence of the glacier and reminds me to think about it. Writers about more abstract science bring even less tangible natural objects to attention, as well as telling us about them: holes in the ozone layer, neurons, genes, quasicrystals. In a way, they bring them into public existence.

(People who communicate social science do similar work too, showing us stuff I suppose is there right in front of us, but without experts to take time, methods and sometimes even equipment to study, we wouldn’t necessarily notice. Isotype‘s visualizations of society en mass, as opposed to via individual perception, provide some good examples of this).

This might sound like a rather old fashioned view of science writing. Maybe it is. But it’s not born from a desire to go back to a golden age. The slightly clunky phrase ‘public advocacy of natural objects’ is deliberate, as I don’t come to this innocently assuming that science just tells you stuff to listen to. I am aware of the layers of belief involved here, and the degrees of uncertainty. I also think coping with a bit of belief and uncertainty is necessary to understand, predict and cope with life in the complex world we inhabit. I think science provides a point of view on the world which for all it’s faults aims to be the best which humans have, and can be a view worth sharing. As such, we might see some aspects of science communication as a form of public argument. It’s rhetoric (and that’s ok). I’d expect an advocate to go in ready to debate, ready to answer and provoke questions, not simply present a view, and to say a bit about how they know, as well as what. Maybe ‘advocate’ is the wrong word though: too political, more the role for campaigners? (Or maybe science communication should accept a campaigning role?).

I should probably say something as to why I’d bother even suggesting this idea in the first place. For a while, I’ve been a bit frustrated by rather dichotomous way many people tend to think about science communication: deficit or dialogue (read this ‘where now’ bit in this post if you want to know what that jargon means). I don’t want to argue against the critique of the deficit model or necessarily against public dialogue, much of which I see as A Good Thing. Neither do I want to retreat to an idea that before we have public engagement we must have public understanding (quite the opposite, if anything). I just think it’s limiting as a way of thinking. It also feels a bit like a 20th Century fight, and that we shouldn’t always be trying to foster debate about science.

(and yes, I have read Latour’s ‘From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern‘. I appreciate much of the above is not new)

Anyway, happy to admit this is a half-baked idea dreamt up on a bus ride to the pub which is probably totally wrong-headed. I’d love to hear what other people think though, I’m interested to know if I’m wrong in an interesting way.

Involving kids in research

I have a piece in the last week’s Research Fortnight on the ways young people might contribute to research, as opposed to simply being asked to sit back and listen to ideas being delivered to them; a challenge to think of under-18s as more than what I have previously described as ‘in waiting’ for adult interactions with science and technology.

It’s very much behind the Research Fortnight paywall, but many UK research institutions have subscriptions so try this link, hit ‘campus access’ and see what happens. Or, to provide some summary for those who can’t read it, I partly inspired by my visit to the Google Science Fair (see also my pieces for the Guardian on this, in March and July) but also the news that the Researchers in Residence scheme will end, which I see as a chance to re-evaluate what we think young peoples’ interactions with science are for.

People often see projects like Researchers in Residence as a chance to showcase scientific careers, but I suspect such work is most important for the young people who don’t end up working in science and engineering. As I’ve argued before, schools are so important because it’s the only time when everyone is exposed to science, and exposed to it together. Before we go about the ever-so-modern business of specialisation, school is a time where we can build shared experiences and so sow the seeds for trust between those who grow up to be scientists (or historians, or any other specialist) and everyone else. Similarly, that’s how we can see researchers working with schools: a chance to build relationships between science and the rest of society.

Above and beyond that issue though, I think more people should try applying a more ‘post-PUS’ approach science education. By this I mean an interactive approach which doesn’t just see young people as receptacle for science, but a resource, one you might have conversations with and draw ideas, critique and inspiration from.

It’s all too easy to over-romanticise youth and science; to argue that science may be endowed by some sort of mystical power of the child. Still, as with any engagement project, connections between young people and scientists help bring the latter out of their professional bubble. We should be wary of loose assumptions that youth necessarily provides a strikingly different perspective, but young people may well bring useful and often missing perspectives to both science and science policy. Arguably, the high investment they have in the future could have implications for the discussion of both scientific projects that run over long periods of time, as well as environmental issues.

As with adults’ contribution to science, collaboration is probably the best model here. It’s not a matter of kids simply telling scientists what to do, or doing science all on their own, but people working together. The overall Google winner had used resources in her local university, others had read scientific papers. Ideas are rarely plucked out of the air. I also mention the Blackawton Bees paper and the new Decipher my Data project (it’s not just super-stars I met at Google).

As I concluded the Research Fortnight piecethe end of Researchers in Residence doesn’t just have to be an opportunity for hand-wringing over cuts. It can be a chance to tap into the potential power of multigenerational science, not just in terms of building a science of the future, but the ways in which young people may be a resource for science and science policy today. It’s a chance to build more sustainable relationships between science and the rest of society. The next question is how? Personally, I suggest we start by asking the young people themselves, but I’d be interested to know what others think.

Edited to add (14th Sept): The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee have published their report into practical experiments in school science lessons and science field trips. You can make your own mind up about whether or not you think this report takes an appropriately imaginative attitude to young people’s relationships with science. See also an old rant on media coverage of science education policy.

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?