Category Archives: events

Science, citizens and everything else

I have a post over on Research Blogs about the Science and Citizen conference last week. The event was a bit of a birthday party for the House of Lords’ 2000 Science and Society report. It might seem ridiculous to run an international conference to toast a decade-old select committee report. It is. It’s also a sign of how influential the report has become.

The report is credited with formalising a model for science in society which stresses the benefits of an interactive two-way relationship between science and the public. In doing so, they also kicked off a whole movement for  Public Engagement with Science (PEST). This is often contrasted with “the deficit model”: assuming the public are deficit in scientific knowledge, to be should be spoken (down) to rather than having a useful conversation with. This “deficit model” is often associated with the Public Understanding of Science (PUS) movement of the 1980’s and 1990’s and pretty much the bogey-man of UK science communication (and, arguably, just as mythical).

Way too much time is spent worrying about being seen to do PEST and not PUS, when in reality the public communication of science is much more diverse than that. Plus, we shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking all that much changed in 2000. A lot of “PEST” work is actually quite “PUS”-y (or something else entirely).

Moreover, great as many of the ideas of PEST embodied in the Lords report are, we should be open to the possibility that there are problems with them too. As I argue in the Research Blogs post, by calling witnesses like Brian Wynne, the Lords Report brought a sociological critique of late 20th century science communication into policy discourse. We couldn’t say the same for a similar critique of 21st century science communication. Criticising PEST needn’t be a defense of PUS (or simply a reactionary inability to cope with the challenge of PEST). It’s a critique of current work with an eye on making it better. The engagement community is at least ten years old. It’s time it got less defensive and got a bit more self-critical.

I’ve tried asking critical questions before, I tend not to get much of a reply.

With an eye on future models for science communication, I have a piece in Research Fortnight last week on science and “the big society” (paywalled, though most UK universities have a subscription) – see also some earlier discussion on this blogpost and comment thread. I’m quite sceptical about a lot of the big society chatter. But there is scope, perhaps, for some new thinking about science communication to grow out of it. Or, perhaps just a chance for some quite old thought on opening up the governance of science to be used for more than just their rhetoric.

Of course, “the big society” could just be another bit of political terminology on which people pin a multitude of agendas whilst pretending they agree with each other. Or it could turn out to inspire a load of people to run street parties under the auspices of doing something meaningful for democratic involvement. Not that “engagement” was either of those two things at all. <whistles>

EDIT: Simon Denegri agrees.

Uncertainty (again)

I’m blogging from the Science and Citizenship Conference. It’s being held partly to mark a ten year anniversary of the Lord’s report on Science and Society. Much of the programme was based on workshops considering key theme’s in the report. I took part on one about uncertainty and risk, and thought it was worth sharing my notes.

We started off with four key questions. Is it a new problem? To what extent are journalists to blame? To what extent are scientists to blame? What can we do to make it better? What can we all do to improve things?

We passed back and forth through various reasons why the issues of risk and uncertainty might be new, and then in turn why they are not. For example, I played the annoying “I once did a history of technology course” card that many of the fears about online media could be seen at the introduction of public libraries (the printing press, paperbacks…). Instead, I suggested maybe we have a growing intensification of activity and awareness around issues of rick and uncertainty.

In many ways, the things were were saying reflected ideas Ulrich Beck discussed in terms of ideas of the Risk Society, decades ago. As I grumbled a few months ago, the debate is an old one. That said, one of the reasons why Beck makes for an interesting example is his discussion of an increasing awareness not only of uncertainty, but the various contexts behind such uncertainty (which in turn can make us more uncertain as we seek new certainties, part of Beck’s notion that “modernity has become its own theme”).

We all seemed to agree that there was a lot of uncertainty in science and that this should be discussed openly with non scientists. We went through the various reasons why we might blame the media or scientists for not communicating such uncertainty, before critiquing ourselves to then defend both groups. For a while we seemed to pour blame on the education system, arguing that school science needs to think more about how to best prepare future-publics (rather than just training future-scientists). Though I agree school-science is important and could be improved, playing who’s to blame isn’t especially productive and  I’m not sure it’s realistic to pile too many expectations on the shoulders of an education system.

One participant mentioned a line from David Willetts – that in a society which is fragmented and uncertain, scientific evidence gives you something you can all agree on – and argued that this actually puts a huge pressure on science. It’s easy to say “yay, the science minister likes science”, but the scientific community should think about what they are are being offered here. When talking about who might be to blame, it was suggested that science holds some responsibility for being seduced into a political and media system where they are asked for certainty. That science from WW2 onwards might have seemed over-confident, but if so, it was because it sold a confidence back to people who (unfairly) asked it of them. It was also suggested that sensitivity over climate change denial is making things worse, with people defensive over the authority of science denying uncertainty. Again, it’s worth asking who’s hands are the scientific community playing to if they try to claim undeniable certainty?

(I don’t know, maybe climate change is another issue with it’s own context, and maybe working in a context with “merchants of doubt” means it’s necessary).

I’ve heard Willetts use that line too. As I argued at the time, in some respects this is a lovely thought. The big and scary postmodern world brought together with the warm glow of science. I just don’t think science tends to work like that. The very “scientific way of thinking” Willetts is prizing here is, itself, fractured and contestable. Indeed, the delivery of evidence can often be the beginning of a debate. I don’t think this is a criticism science, if anything it’s a celebration: the capacity for debate and sense that there is always a possible black swan around the corner is one of the things I like about science.

And solutions? There were the arguments about education. Perhaps predictably, “dialogue between journalists, scientists, members of the public and politicians” was mentioned, though, again predictably, we didn’t seem to have time to talk about how. Other suggestions included more standup maths shows, and citizen cyber-science. There was also some discussion of the advantages of citizen science projects in helping people feel ownership of science in some way – so science doesn’t seem like a project done by “those other people”. An interesting point was made with respect to work in Kenya; that science is sometimes seen as a Western thing and it’s been important to communicate that science can be African too. As one participant put it, this is perhaps “engagement through a sense of appropriation”.

For me this boiled down to another key word in that Lords report – trust. As Demos said back in 2004, an emphasis on risk and uncertainty is arguably a consequence of engagement happening too late in the process. If you want to build trust, you have to start early.

Engaging audiences: rethinking “difference”

Steam power

I’m blogging from the Co-Curation and the Public History of Science & Technology conference at the Science Museum (picture is of an exhibit)

Saturday’s programme started with a “provocation” (or keynote talk) entitled “New Ways to engage people” from Andrew Pekarik of the Smithsonian’s Office of Policy and Analysis.

Pekarik is an exceedingly smooth speaker. He rolled off lines about the need to not only “see difference” in audiences but also “be that difference”: to embody such difference within the curatiorial team. To “See it, be it, and then use it too”. To use this difference in content, but also use it in determining display. Moreover, they need to follow this all up by testing the difference. That such testing should be about checking a team’s work, but also a way to identify new differences. As Pekarik concluded, this should become a continual cycle; one that is more important than any step individually.

All lovely sounding stuff, but what do we mean by “difference” here? What of the many possible differences are they looking for?

Answer: between “people people”, “object people” and those who are more “ideas people”. Pekarik noted most curators aren’t really “people people”, they are drawn to the job precisely because they like books and objects, and talked enthusiastically about a process of bringing in “people people” from other areas of the museum. For me, such a categorisation of “people, object or ideas” “people” didn’t ring true. Moreover, it seemed like a distraction from more important differences (class, ethnicity, gender, age).

A couple of senior Science Museum staff picked up on this in questions. One suggested that these three categories are just a 1st step which ends with 2.7 million forms of difference (i.e. as in 2.7 unique visitors). Another flagged up the difference between those who like hands-on experiences at museum. She also raised concern over Pekarik’s starting point of asking people about their most meaningful museum experience. What about people who never have museum experiences? How do you capture those who don’t already like you?

We didn’t have time for my question, but I wanted to ask whether he was still worried about class, race, age, gender, etc. Would he, for example, think about putting children in a curatorial board? I don’t necessarily mean to argue that we should categorise difference in such a way. Indeed, we might argue that limiting ourselves through these sorts of (equally reductive?) audience categories. Maybe another way of conceiving of diversity of audience is useful. It’s also worth underlining points several people made on twitter: however we choose to think about difference, identity (a) is always fluid and multiplicitous and (b) can be changed by the experience of visiting a museum (indeed, people might go to museums to be changed).

I’m sure that interesting work has come out of Pekarik’s sense of difference, and I love his point about the need to consider this as an ongoing process. Still, I worried that it’s a bit too abstract, a bit too devoid of social context (though maybe he’d say I’m just being too much of a “people person”…). Personally, I felt more comfortable with the notion of “community curation” discussed later by Karen Fort from the National Museum of the American Indian. I suspect this sort of approach captures the social and cultural diversity museums I’m worrying about and, in the process, will probably end up covering the differences Pekarik was playing with too. Similarly,  we heard about some very open and exploratory ways of involving audiences today – Denver Community Museum, Wellcome’s Things and London ReCut – I suspect there are all sorts of “differences” captured by these too. Also relevant, I think, was Nina Simon’s challenge to think about how a busy museum could, in a web2.0 sense, help make a museum better (not just break exhibits). Projects like these seemed like genuine attempts to involve more viewpoints than just those already held by a museum. In contrast, Pekarik seemed to be working from a point of view where the museum retained the power to frame and articulate its audiences.

Maybe he’s right to though. Maybe we want museums to talk to their idea of us rather than integrate audiences in the very fabric of their production. Maybe I’m just stuck in the 1980s with a focus on Big Social Issues like class. Or, maybe when it comes to communication projects, we need to think about what we have in common rather than what sets us apart; areas of similarity, not difference. (Maybe that’s just another distraction).

ADDED 25/10. At the end of the final day, Elizabeth Anionwu from the Dana Centre’s African-Caribbean Focus Group argued she shouldn’t have to be there: the  museum shouldn’t have to go to a special focus group for that sort of perspective, it should it be part of conversations happening already. It should be woven into the infrastructure of the museum.

I couldn’t agree more. I heard the line “but the Science Museum is this great big oil tanker of an institution, it takes ages to change” three times over the course of the weekend. I also heard complaints that I heard 10 years ago when I first started working there. And complaints about problems from the 80s I only learnt about in my history of science degree. It’s time to decommission that bloody oil tanker. The museum is, at least in part, its staff. The crowdsourced grass-roots innovative bottom-up change people were banging on about at the conference applies within the institution too. Don’t like it? Do something.

The known unknowns

I’m blogging from Cambridge; at the “Challenging Models in the Face of Uncertainty” conference. The focus is unknowns: be they known, unknown, guessed, forecast, imagined or experienced. I’ve heard Donald Rumsfield quoted rather a lot. There has also been  the odd reference how stupid we all are, the problems of a God’s-eye-view and, least we forget, black swans.

at conference

This morning started with a talk from Johan Rockström on his Planetary Boundaries framework. He quoted Ban Ki-moon line, that “Our foot is stuck on the accelerator and we are heading towards an abyss”, adding that we are accelerating as if we were on a clear highway, driving in easy daylight conditions when, really Rockström argued, we’re on a dirt track, in the middle of the night. What science can/ should do, he suggested, is turn the headlights on en route to this abyss. Rockström’s talk was very clear, with some neat little twists on diagrams and the odd metaphorical flourish.

Steve Rayner, in the audience, picked up on this and asked Rockström to reflect on his own ways of signaling authority when transforming his work into a talk for non-expert audiences. Rockström’s response was largely to list names of colleagues and more detailed work. In other words, Rockström didn’t answer Rayner’s question: he simply re-articulated the symbols of authority he’d been asked to reflect upon. Rayner wasn’t suggesting Rockström didn’t have an empirical basis to his work (or that his work was wrong), just that when communicating this work outside of science, Rockström inevitably relies upon rhetoric, and it’d be useful for him to reflect on this role as a rhetorician. But he didn’t, and this was just left as a question.

The second talk was from Melissa Leach. She emphasised the multiple narratives surrounding the sorts of issues discussed at this conference, be they connected to climate change, the spread of disease, GMOs, ash-clouds, nanotechnology, or some other novel technology. She argued that we have a tendency to close down or re-articulate narratives of ignorance, ambiguity, uncertainty and surprise and instead move to ones of “risk”. The sense of control and order risk-framed narratives provide is sometimes very helpful, but it can also be deluded, and shut down possible pathways to useful action. Leach argued that we must open up politics to pay due attention to multiple narratives; to question dominance and authority, to increase the ideas and evidence available to us.

Ok, but how do you do this? For example, we might argue that the internet provides a great opportunity for the presentation of such a multiplicity of narratives and, moreover, an opportunity for such narratives to productively learn from/ change each other. At times it does just that. And yet, science blogging can also be deeply tribal, climate blogging especially so (and, I’d argue, considering its history, understandably so).

This evening, was a public lecture from Lord Krebs, on the complex interface between evidence, policy-making and uncertainty. He outlined three key tensions in this interface, each illustrated with examples. 1) Scientists disagree with each other, e.g. over bystander effect and pesticides. 2) Scientists sometimes just don’t know, even when they develop elaborate experiments to find out, e.g. with badger culling. 3) Sometimes it doesn’t matter what the science says, the politicians will be swayed by other issues, e.g. alcohol. I enjoyed Krebs’ talk. He had some really neat examples and there were some good discussion in the Q&A. Still, I left uninspired and unenlightened.

Lord Krebs talks badgers

Today, I’ve heard a lot of very old and (to me at least) very familiar talk about issues in science communication. I’ve seen a bit of new data and collected some new jargon, but I’m yet to come across any new ideas. I’ve been told that people believe what they want to believe, that science and the perception of it is culturally embedded, that the so-called experts are often as misleading and as likely to mislead as the so-called public, that science and politics make uneasy bedfellows and, of course, that it’s all terribly, terribly complicated.

But I knew that. I knew that ten years ago. I want something new.

Maybe I’m being unfair on this conference. I admit I’m tired and in need of a holiday. Also,  interdisciplinary events are always very difficult to pull off, and it is only half way through.

Maybe tomorrow will surprise me.

Taking science journalism “upstream”

row of boatsToday I spoke at Science Online London as part of a plenary panel session curated by David Dobbs and also featuring Martin Robbins and Ed Yong on “Rebooting” (aka the future of) science journalism. This is the typed-up version of my talk, along with links and extra bits of context.

As the academic on the panel (not to mention the only one that isn’t, shhhh, in any way a journalist) I thought I’d focus on an idea: an invite to take things “upstream”.

That probably sounds dirtier than it should.

The term “upstream” is (a) a metaphor and (b) jargon. Both of which I apologise for. The concept has been incredibly influential in the engagement end of science communication work. Science communicators use it all the time, they even tell each other off when they’re “not upstream enough”. But has never really carried through to journalism.

In essence, it’s an argument for showing more of science in the making, not just waiting for publication of “ready-made” peer-reviewed papers.

Imagine science as a river.  Upstream, we have the early stages of communication about some area of science: meetings, literature reviews or general lab gossip. Gradually these ideas are worked through, and the communicative output flows downstream towards the peer-reviewed and published journal article and perhaps, via a press release and maybe even a press conference, some mass media reporting. Let’s not get too carried away with this metaphor though, or we’ll just end up with boring stories about scientists going rafting (it also relies on what is, arguably, an over-linear model of science, but that’s a whole other argument).

The term “upstream engagement” has various antecedents, but really stems from a (2004) report from think-tank Demos, See Through Science, by James Wilsdon and Rebbecca Willis. They argued that science communication initiatives had become over-dominated by questions of risk, which they felt, was too late in the process. The March 2006 POST note (pdf) provides a good example of the difference between early and late (upstream and downstream) engagement, drawing on reactions to GMOs. It refers to a 1994 consensus conference funded by the BBSRC and held at the Science Museum anticipated issues surrounding genetic modification (GM) of plants and involved publics at an early stage. In comparison, they argue that the 2003 GM Nation project, although government-funded and promised to take up recommendations, it was “too little, too late” (POST, 2006: 2). GM Nation asked people to respond to what had been delivered to them, whereas the 1994 event had given people access and, simply, insight into what might be delivered.

Wilsdon and Willis were heavily influenced by Stephen Hilgartner’s (2000) book about US science policy, Science on Stage, and echoing this they have a lot of fun with theatrical metaphors:

The task of upstream engagement is to remove some of the structures that divide the back-stage from the front-stage. It seeks to make visible the invisible, to expose to public scrutiny the values, visions and assumptions that usually lie hidden. In the theatre of science and technology, the time has come to dismantle the proscenium arch and begin performing in the round (Wilsdon & Willis, 2004: 24)

I should note, the idea has its critics, e.g. Dick Taverne’s letter to Nature or, somewhat more thoughtfully, William Cullerne Bown. Still, these are exceptions. Listening to some of David Willetts’ statements on public engagement, I suspect he is a fan of working upstream (or is at least has been briefed by someone who read that POSTnote).

Perhaps it’s not a surprise that journalists haven’t really taken it up though. The idea of upstream engagement is to fix problems in the relationships between science and society. The government like this, clearly, so write POSTnotes and fund things like ScienceWise, but it’s not the business of journalism to deal with it. They just want to sell papers. They have their own rules to play with (c.f. Andy Williams’ reference to news values in the recent Times Higher piece on science writing).

But I think upstream science journalism offers something sell-able. It’s based on theatre after all. It swaps that cliché of “scientists have found” for “scientists are doing”. It focuses on “scientists find interesting”, “scientists wonder” or “scientists are excited by”. Actually, I’d hope it looses the sloppy generalisation of “scientists” and instead introduce researchers with rather less anonymity. That’s part of the point. It lets the audience look science right in the eye and see it in all its glory (beauty and wonder; warts and all).

I suspect people are waiting to respond with the criticism that it is irresponsible to report work that isn’t peer-reviewed (ooo and here it ista Evan).  Although I have sympathy this issue, I’d also say it’s a lazy stick with which beat science journalists with, not to mention somewhat supportive of the publishing industry. But upstream science journalism can be done responsibly, and without tripping over patents or embargoes. Remember, the focus is more on the people, their ideas, worries and enthusiasms, not the results. Moreover, I  still want a place for “downstream” science reporting. The publication of a major paper is a news event worth covering. I’m not dismissing a creative, articulate, probing and context-bringing write-up of peer-reviewed research in the slightest. Done well, it can be a beautiful and important thing. There is also, I think, a lot to be said for what we might call “really, really far downstream” reporting: maybe we need more about what happens to science after publication. Science journalism should follow scientists all the way through society (yes, that is a Latour reference and yes I have read Amsterdamska’s review).

I also think science journalism would be served well by taking itself upstream, not only working to show how science is made, but making its own workings more visible too. Upstream engagement was, after all, designed to deal with a crisis in trust. Perhaps a bit more upstream communication would help  science journalists to gain trust from their audiences, and from the scientific community. This would include openness, but also involving their audiences (upstream, and meaningfully, not only letting them comment at the end of the process).

I don’t think this call to move upstream offers something drastically new. I use it as a nice phrase to, I hope, encourage and focus attention in this area. I think it is already being done, and new media is making more feasible (and showing there is a market for). As Vincent Kiernan argued during last year’s WCSJ’s fight over embargoes, new media mitigates against what John Rennie called “Big paper of the week syndrome”, the reliance on cycles of “pseudo-news” about what happens to have been published in one of the larger journals (see also the embargowatch blog for fascinating tracking of these tensions).

My favourite example has to be this video of the ICHEP conference hosted on the Guardian. I’ve also noticed recently that Times health correspondent David Rose uses twitter not just to post links to finished pieces, but as news comes in. It’s also worth mentioning the interactive way Mark Henderson has used his twitter account in conjunction with the Times’ Eureka blog (especially during the election), as well as others who favour the “DVD extras” approach to blogging alongside traditional journalism. Further, the Guardian’s science storytracker gives insight into the evolution of a story, and it was interesting to see the the Guardian’s health team use their Datastore during the death rates investigation. In terms of “really far downstream” (in a good way) science journalism, I think Gaia Vince’s blog is a nice example.

This death rates points us towards a possible pitfall: Ben Goldacre’s criticism of their stats, and more to the point, that such open data needs to come with “open methodology” too. As I said at the time, however, precisely because it is so complex, an approach which is iteratively discursive (rather than momentarily confrontational) is perhaps the most likely to succeed. There are also, in the business of journalism, matters of competition to be remembered: the worry of being scooped (perhaps beautifully demonstrated by this story). As with be careful of embargoes and patents (competition issues in science), I think it’s a matter of being careful, being clever and being imaginative. Maybe the tweeting of political journalists during the election is a nice example?

This sort of upstream work can be pretty niche. A nice example of that being exchange between Evan Harris and Jon Butterworth over “if” you wanted to know about supersymmetry. But that’s why it can work online, because you can find those niche markets (e.g. first comment on Jon’s post). We might similarly argue that it doesn’t provide news, but again the web might be of here, as people come to content at different times and through a range of routes: I think blogging has already started to blur boundaries between feature and news piece when it comes to science writing.

The niche point does, however, point us towards the best argument against upstream science journalism: that it’d would be boring. Maybe that scientists go rafting feature was a bit dull. But people write dull pieces based on research papers all the time. If a science journalist thinks scientists at work is boring, then I think they are in the wrong job. Similarly, if they think the ideas and knowledge of their readers is boring, I suspect they’re increasingly find they are in the wrong job.

I don’t think moving science journalism upstream will solve all its problems. Neither do I think the concept offers something drastically new: it’s already happening. Still, thinking about upstream as a one of the many possible new forms for science journalism might focus attention in a fruitful direction. Or maybe it’s a ridiculous mis-application of what is a slightly aging and rather self-indulgent idea in the first place. Tell me your thoughts.

EDIT (September 2010): You can see a video of the session.

EDIT (March 2011): I have been amazed by the way the online science writing community have taken to this – e.g. a mention in David Rowan’s speech on How to Save Science Journalism and, especially, the the newly launched PLoS blog Science Upstream.

Science on teh internets: an interview with Drs Mendel & Riesch

Having run a series of short interviews with UK-based science bloggers, I’ve also talked to a couple of colleagues who are developing research on the ‘bad science’ blogging community.


Jon Mendel is a geographer at Dundee with a background in studying networks, virtual war and security. Interested in how new media are functioning or not functioning in the case of science blogs and in the role and efficacy of networked forms here.

Hauke Riesch researches public understanding/engagement/involvement/awareness/whatever of science and risk at Cambridge, having previously written a PhD on philosophy in popular science books. Among other things. Next to everything social to do with risk and new technologies, he is interested in how scientists think about science, how they communicate it, and how they think about communicating it.

Firstly, can you give us some idea of the methodology you applied to your study?

We drew on our participation in and observation of the development of this community, from its establishment through to some of the interesting activism episodes in which the community participated.

We used an e-mail qualitative survey: we emailed a list of questions to established members of the community on their blogging activities and their thoughts about science blogging in general and this community in particular.

The paper you presented at the Science and Public conference started by noting there is a lot of hope surrounding science blogging – what do you think those hopes are?

Blogging in general has attracted a lot of hope about how it can democratise the public sphere: anyone can in principle get themselves and their ideas heard and the small army of potential fact-checkers and arguers can shed light on issues where we would previously have relied on a small and overworked group of professional journalists. However there may be barriers inherent within the very concept of blogging that prevent this – there is just so much out there that important contributions can easily be drowned out. These goals are quite neatly summarised and evaluated by Sunstein who concludes that they have not been realised at least to the extent that had been hoped.

In the context of blogging about science, similar hopes are often expressed: some argue that blogging can give individual scientists a voice for their views and opinions and therefore enable them to contribute directly to the national conversations about science and science policy. Related to that, science blogging is often seen as a way for scientists to free themselves from demands of publishers or journalists and others who usually control the flow of information between science and public, so that they can communicate their science directly to the public and allow the public to engage more easily with them. These ideas are also often linked to the free-access movement: Scientists are encouraged to blog directly about their science because ultimately the public pays for it and has a right to know about what science finds. Science blogging does give more people an outlet to write about science – allowing lots of good material to be placed online, though also lots which is less good.

The science bloggers with whom we have discussed our research are also interested in science blogging as offering opportunities for activism, engagement and the development of communities. Bloggers are seeking to use science blogging to engage with and challenge the main-stream media and various other actors.

What do you think are the limitations of these hopes?

As has been noted by some of the bloggers in this community, blogs have relatively small audiences compared to many mainstream media outlets. Blogs can also be left communicating with a relatively narrow audience, such as those already highly interested in science (although whether this is a problem is debatable: Racing Post isn’t seen as a failure because of its relatively narrow audience). As things stand, we do not see convincing evidence that science blogs offer a replacement for the mainstream media – although they can be a useful supplement, partner and challenge to it (and some of the bloggers in this community would challenge the distinction between blogs and the mainstream media). Talk of the ‘dead tree press’ etc. seems, in this context, highly premature.

The efficacy of science blogs’ activism is also unclear. Bloggers have been involved in some notable successes – for example, the Singh-BCA libel case – and have been able to organise effectively in order to offer strong challenges to much better-resourced opponents. On the other hand, some have questioned whether initiatives such as #scivote have been effective (and there are interesting links here between ‘science activism’ and people’s broader political goals – some people are less than happy about having the Conservatives in government). We tried to intervene ourselves with regards to aspects of BIS’s Science: So What? So Everything initiative (see e.g. coverage in Times Higher and a piece on the Times’ science blog) but we now have FOIA responses which show how little impact academics and bloggers had with regards to some problematic aspects of the campaign. We are not sure what solutions there might be here.

We should emphasise that there is a fairly high degree of self-reflection in the community we studied and that bloggers are often quite critical themselves about the limitations of certain practices. We would want to avoid judging the successes/failures of this community in relation to overly-utopian hopes largely generated from outside of the community: there have been some notable achievements, although a small community of science bloggers seems unlikely to turn the science media into a ‘dead tree press’ in the immediate future.

Can you tell us a bit about who the sorts of people who blog about science are, or at least what the backgrounds and motivations of the bloggers you studied are?

We lack the knowledge to answer about people who blog about science generally: this is a large area that we haven’t studied in enough depth, and many prominent bloggers are also anonymous. There is generally something of a lack of research on science blogs.

The community we studied has established norms on writing about science which emphasise accuracy, reliance on evidence and ‘letting the facts speak for themselves’. In addition, there is a focus on getting things done: science blogging within the community is not just about writing, but also about campaigning on related causes – this activist element may be a distinguishing feature of this community of science bloggers. There is also an interesting approach to ideas of authority here: ideas of individual authority are largely rejected, but writing instead takes on a
kind of authority through being embedded in a network of blogs, comments, links and research.

Sneaky extra question I asked all the bloggers I interviewed: do you have a favourite blog? If so, what is it? (doesn’t have to be a science one).

Mindhacks is excellent for its discussion of a broad range of mind/brain/society-related issues, while Jack of Kent’s blog has been a very interesting piece of activism and is an excellent explanation of complex legal issues for laypersons. David Campbell’s blog has some good, detailed discussion of issues around politics, geography and multimedia (including some excellent essays on new media/social media). It has also been great to see the development of the ‘bad science’ blogging community and of the blogs associated with it.

UK science blogger interview: Imran Khan

Imran Khan is the Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), the UK’s leading advocate for science and engineering policy. CaSE are supported by members from academia, industry, learned societies, and charities.

Imran himself comes from a background of science communication and policy, having written for the Guardian, New Scientist and World Health Organisation, produced for the BBC and the BMJ, and researched in the House of Commons. He holds degrees from the University of Oxford and Imperial College.

As part of its work, CaSE runs The Science Vote blog. It was originally called CaSE Notes, but was renamed and came to prominence during the 2010 General Election, when it had over 10,000 individual readers.

Do you have a specific audience (or set of audiences) in mind when you blog?

The blog has a deliberately niche audience and content, focusing solely on science and engineering policy; whether that be funding, education, the role of Government and Parliament, or related issues. As well as CaSE staff, guest bloggers include science policy professionals, politicians, and working scientists and engineers.

The Science Vote exists to help us achieve our aims of being a voice for the science and engineering community, so our intended audience is fairly specific. The issues we cover are fairly geeky; the intricacies of science funding, speculation on which politicians are interested in the importance of science and engineering, and reviews of science policy events, for instance. We also tend to go into a lot of detail in terms of what we write.

That means that you often not only have to care about the issues we write on, but also be fairly au fait with the background in order to engage with the content. We’re quite happy with that model, particularly as it lets us bring in extremely well-informed guest bloggers who don’t necessarily have journalistic tendencies.

The S Word blog at NewScientist.com does a brilliant job of exposing the big issues in science policy to a wider scientific audience, and obviously I contribute to that when I can. In comparison, The Science Vote is designed to be a resource for the science policy community and a tool for CaSE, rather than a clarion call.

Do you think there is an increasing appetite for coverage of policy issues in the science blogosphere?

Our readership definitely shot up during the election. Since then, it’s dropped off, but is still far higher than anything we had before.

I think all the activity – everything from real-world science hustings to #scivote tweets – got people to twig that that you can’t take science and engineering out of politics, or vice versa. If you do, we’ll just get sidelined.

So now you have people who were already active in the science blogosphere extending their interest to science policy, because they’re passionate about science and therefore recognise the importance of decent science policy.

And it’s encouraging that activity levels now are fairly high. Before the election you had a fairly characterful set of Science spokesmen for the three big parties, and you also had the looming election, so science policy was bound to get a lot of attention.

Whereas now it looks like the Lib Dems won’t have a formal science spokesman, and Labour don’t have theirs yet. But in autumn we’ll learn what the science budget will look like, as well as who Willetts’ Labour shadow will be, so I’d imagine you’ll see even more of an appetite later in the year.

Are there people or institutions in science policy you’d like to see start a blog? (and/ or topics you think should be covered more?)

I think it’d be very interesting to see a blog which takes a close look at the use and misuse of science in politics. Some debate in Parliament is excellent. But some of it is frighteningly bad, particularly when it betrays a lack of some very basic understanding of the nature of evidence. But I think you’d need to be fairly closely linked to Parliament to be able to keep an eye on what’s going on there.

One of the subjects which our blog tries to raise the profile of is diversity in STEM. It’s an appalling statistic that only one in ten engineering graduates are women, and we have similar problems with socio-economic and ethnic diversity. I think most of us would agree that there’s a ‘universality’ about science that means it can bridge divides, but in many respects we’re failing to. Though I’m not sure a dedicated ‘diversity blog’ is what I’m arguing for; diversity in STEM shouldn’t be a balkanised issue, but one which you can weave into different aspects of science policy.

Finally, back to that #scivote hashtag. In terms of political campaigning around science, do you think microblogging (i.e. twitter) is more important than standard blogging, or that they play different/ supporting roles?

There’s always a danger when you do anything via twitter that you think “Great, that’s ticked off then”, forgetting you’re only dealing with a subset of the community. And although tweeting is useful in getting the word out and discussion, you can’t really do policy analysis and argument in 140 characters. So you do need the standard blogging to underpin it.

Sneaky extra question: can you tell us your favourite blog(s)?

My favourite blogs are badscience, the S word, SciDevNet, engadget, mindhacks, kottke.org, cynical-c, and strange maps. Plus a special mention for the Little Atoms podcast, even though it’s not a blog.

This is one of a series of four interviews with UK-based science bloggers. You can find links to all the interviews (and more) here.

See also my list of (UK) science policy blogs on posterous.