Category Archives: guardian

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.

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.

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.

The google-ifcation of the science fair

I’m one of the judges for Google’s Global Science Fair, something I’m rather excited about.

I’ve always been a bit jealous of American kids and their culture of science fairs. As I put in a post for the Guardian’s science blog last week, there has been a fair bit of talk over the death of the science fair in the US recently, but Google’s entry into the scene promises to bring a degree of geeky glamour. Big and spectacular, this is a souped-up science fair for an online world of interconnected knowledge creation and interconnected knowledge sharing (though we might also raise a sceptical eyebrow at the project too).

For me, the most important part of the google-ification of the science fair is the knowledge-sharing; that you enter by building a website and so open it up for others to see. Science fairs have always been about communicating your project as well as doing it (indeed, we might argue this is true of science in general). In many ways, they exist as events where people can get together to share science. They are focused on the work of young people, but no child is an island, and science fairs involve family, friends, teachers and other community members too. They are social events.

Science teacher Alom Shaha wrote recently, secondary school students routinely produce original works of art, music, poems, stories and plays, why not ask them to make some science too? We should be wary of loose comparisons between subjects, but in many respects Shaha makes a key point. Not only do we ask children to make art, music and writing, we get them to share such work in concerts and displays. Through this we share an understanding and experience of such culture across generations. We should share, applaud, critique (grumble about … ) and collaboratively enjoy cultures of science too.

The international scope of the Google fair means we can’t all pour into one town hall, but I hope that the same technology that allows this event to happen will also encourage people to share its entries as widely as possible. So, keep your eyes on Google’s Science Fair blog, and I promise to post from the finals at Google HQ in July.

In the meantime, in the spirit of sharing kids’ experiences of and with science, I can seriously recommend the I’m A Scientist twitter account at the moment (or just keep a look on the latest questions bit on their website).

The ‘institutional’ discrimination of science

door handles for anatomy building at UCLPic: male and female door handles at UCL’s Medwar building (old anatomy building)

The Guardian asked me what I thought about a paper published in PNAS last week on the causes of women’s under-representation in science. This was my response.

For a more detailed overview of the paper, head to Gwyneth Dickey Zakaib’s piece in Nature (and be sure to read the scepticism of the comments too). Or the paper is open access, you can read it for yourself from the link above. Zakaib’s introduction summarises the paper’s major point very neatly:

Goodbye glass ceiling; so long old-boys club. The metaphor that best describes the challenge facing women in science today is the invisible web. Its multiple strands — some social, some biological, some institutional — can make it significantly harder for female researchers to achieve as much, as fast, as their male counterparts.

The authors argue that the under-representation of women in areas of science is not so much due to direct discrimination when women apply for grants or new jobs/ submit a paper, but more a matter of women opting out of the career-race to care for children, follow a partner or look after older relatives. We should not read this as blaming women who simply cannot hack it in science, or for choosing home over a devotion to science. Such women as often highly devoted to their scientific work, and could well still flourish in research careers if only the structure of such jobs allowed. As the paper concludes, universities could offer more flexible career development policies (part-time contracts, for example).

In the Guardian piece I dubbed this an ‘institutional’ form of sexism. This was the headline, so it’s the one everyone’s gone with, and not everyone understood. This is probably my fault, for which I apologise. I was in some respects echoing ‘institutional racism‘, an idea we have been familiar with in the UK since the 1999 Macpherson Report and refers to a sort of unwitting prejudice or ignorance which leads to disadvantage, often on the part of organisational systems as much as individual attitudes. The phrase has its own problems (not least: ‘er… just call it racism’) and I’m not a huge fan of conflating race and gender discrimination. Still, I thought it might help capture a point here, especially as I also wanted to fold in some points Athene Donald pulled out of last year’s Athena Survey on how women saw and were prepared for promotion procedures.

I’m keen to stress that such a culture/ structure for scientific careers can also put many men off the field, and that many women succeed across science. Gender can be a ready tool with which to play ‘spot the lack of diversity’, but it can be a rather blunt one too and there are many other questions to ask here (Imran Khan puts this better than I can though see also his notes on last summer’s A-level results).

Why does science get away with this? Simply: it is incredibly competitive. This some surprises people used to hearing about the relative paucity of science graduates, but this recent piece from the Economist on the ‘glut’ of PhD students and post-docs may help give some clue as to why. Universities and other scientist-employers of scientists don’t need to go through the hassle of offering part-time posts (something that’d benefit science in so many more ways that simply helping women to develop careers) because they’ll easily fill the full-time ones.

Please note, this isn’t about asking less of our scientists. It is about building more flexible frameworks for movement through scientific careers. If anything, it’s about being ambitious enough to question the status quo; to think about how we could make science better. Personally, I don’t understand why people don’t question it more.

Simple scribes


This week, the Guardian’s science blog published Tim Radford’s Manifesto for the Simple Scribe. It’s a lovely set of tips for better writing which has been passed around the UK science writing community since it was first written in the mid-1990s.

I was really sceptical it’d appeal to a broader audience. I was wrong. As soon as it was posted, it spread quickly on twitter and facebook; spread with warmth and across the globe. I’ve seen tweets about it in several different languages. It’s currently the most-read piece on the Guardian science pages, even beating the story about the astronaut falling off his bicycle.

Ian Sample asked a great question when he shared a link to the manifesto: this was written last century, what would you change? This is my attempt at starting an answer. I’d be interested to know what others think.


Interaction

Martin Robbins suggested twitter ‘nukes’ point one (that you’ll never meet your reader). I think Robbins is right to draw our attention to a change in read/ writer relationships, but I’m not sure nuke is quite the word. It’s only a small percentage of readers a writer is likely to interact with.  The loud ones, the bored, the ones with an axe to grind or, more positively, those that feel some relationship with the author or community of other commentators. Yes, it’s easier to do this and twitter lets you talk to them. You can also watch people sharing your work, using sites like topsy.com. This is more than was available a few years ago, but it’s no where near comprehensive. It’s also a development of structures for relationships with readers that were already in place: It’s worth remembering that Radford was letters editor before he moved to the science desk.

The manifesto was published on the run-up to a Q&A with Radford we held at Imperial on wednesday. A member of the audience there asked him how he felt about readers comments when his writing ends up on the web. Radford said he’d found himself ‘depressed, but also profoundly impressed’ by these.  On the one side there were those commentators  who react to some key word like ‘climate’ and ignore what you’ve written, ranting off about something else entirely. But then he had also witnessed experts on a topic find each other through comments and develop ideas mentioned in a piece, making something new from their interaction. I thought it was fascinating that both of these examples were a matter of readers interacting really without the need for the writer.

Maybe that’s a function of an old-media writer, one that is slightly unaccustomed to building a relationship with readers through comment threads. I suspect a similar list written today would include some tips on how to work productively with the people formerly known as the audience.  But I also think it’s partly a matter of working for a mass-media brand, and there are practical difference between the crowded space of the Guardian and a cozy personal blog. I’m not entirely sure it’s appropriate, or possible, to expect one to try to be the other. I know I teach differently in a large lecture theatre, compared to a small seminar room (or a meeting in my office with one or two students). I’m not sure we can expect writers to meet their readers, especially when writing online, as texts may become all the more open. Or at least we can’t expect them to meet all of them. To allow the illusionary interactive feel of twitter con us into thinking we have would be silly. 


Linking

The manifesto doesn’t really talk about linking, a point made critically in the blog’s comments. If anything Radford makes a point of stressing linearity for clear writing (though he does mention putting ‘twiddly bits’ in, see point 10). I think linking is part of the art of being a writer in the 21st century. I think it is something writers have to think carefully about, take time over, will get better at over time, and will develop their own distinctive style for. I suspect it is a skill which the wise old writers of the future will be keen to share tips about, and in that respect this manifesto shows itself up as a bit 20th century.


Long tails

For me, the biggest difference between today and the 1990s is the way the online communication means it easier to get away with writing for rather niche audiences (a small percentage of the WHOLE INTERNET still being a fair quantity). Much of this manifesto reads like tips for sharing science to as broad an audience as possible. It’s classic mass-media communication. Today, a writer for the Guardian might want to speak to as many people as possible, but the many bloggers who will have lapped up Radford’s advice won’t necessarily feel the same way.

I suppose niche writing has always existed though, just as I think there is an ongoing market for writing which aims to share a piece of science with as many people in the world as possible. Indeed, one might argue that because niche communication now increasingly happens in relatively public spaces of the web, there is a need to make it digestible to diverse audiences. Similarly, we might argue that as science becomes increasingly specialised, all science should be easier to understand outside the small community of peers which produced it (and that goes for the composition of journal articles as much as anything else).

Another question we might ask is whether this desire to talk share science with a mass audience ever really held true, even back in the 1990s? When I posted a link to it on twitter, I did so with the quote: ‘No one will ever complain because you have made something too easy to understand’. Mariette DiChristina, the editor in chief of Scientific American, re-posted this with the comment ‘Except some SciAm readers, who will!’. She has a point. I’ve heard complaints along these lines too. Indeed, we could see some in the comments to Radford’s piece, many incorrectly conflating ‘easy to understand’ with patronising the audience. I suppose it’s a slightly utopian statement in some respects, a challenge (see also point 4, on journalism never being self-important).


Finally

And that, in the end, is my answer to Sample’s question. Yes, these tips are a decade and a half old, but it’s a manifesto. As such, it’s a statement of desire born out of an awareness of what is understood as some key problems. It is a statement of hope, not matters of fact. Our tools for science writing may have changed slightly, and I do think this has an impact on what we expect of it, as well as the relationships between scientists, writers and readers. But I don’t think our ideals for science writing have really changed that much.

The mysterious colour blue

walking into the atmosphere gallery
I have a piece on the Guardian’s Notes and Theories science blog today on the Science Museum’s new gallery on climate science, Atmosphere.

As with the whole of the Wellcome Wing it sits within, Atmosphere is very blue. There isn’t a huge amount more I can say about the place, but here are some photos from my phone while I was visiting. I do think the gallery is exceedingly pretty, but I did leave feeling none the wiser (note: by “wiser” I mean I left without new questions to ask, as well as without new answers).

back wall of wellcome wing
That Atmosphere provided more of an aesthetic experience than an education one isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Maybe one of the ways in which museums work is by being slightly abstractly and beautifully inspiring, to encourage to you go away and learn more elsewhere, or simply reflect on what you already know. That said, I didn’t feel all that inspired either. Maybe I’m not the target audience.

In the Guardian post I posed some of the questions I think the museum must have faced in developing this gallery:

Should museums aim to teach their audiences, or offer space for self-directed learning and debate?

Should publicly funded science communication avoid taking sides on controversial topics, or work as advocates for a scientific view?

Should climate science present a united front to the public, or reflect diversity and uncertainties within the scientific community?

I could probably also add: “Should museums provide largely written content, or simply connect you to books/ websites elsewhere and concentrate on making use of space and objects?” I don’t have any definitive answers to these questions, but maybe you have a opinion on them?

ceiling of atmosphere gallery

entrance of atmosphere gallery

Children, adults and climate change media

retro moment! (Blue Peter Green Book)

The picture above is of the BBC Blue Peter Green Book. Published in 1990, following the introduction of a Blue Peter green badge in 1988. Sponsored by Sainsbury’s, it also has a forward by Lord Sainsbury, who went on to become science minister for the Labour Government. I have a copy of this book* which I have used when teaching children and the green movement, and dusted it off my bookshelf last week when I had an email from Leo Hickman at the Guardian asking me asking about the new Green Santa show from cITV (trailer here).

Go read Hickman’s piece about this on the Guardian Environment blog, which uses the Green Santa programme to talk about the ‘volatile cocktail’ of combining children and climate change in some breadth. I’m quoted in the piece and added some notes in the comments thread, but thought it was collecting these thoughts here too.

Hickman suggests Green Santa could be the first time children’s TV in the UK has explicitly constructed an entire series around the issue of anthropogenic global warming. Maybe. There is  Captain Planet, but that’s American. I have some memory of a whole series of Nina and the Neurons on climate change issues last year (?) There’s also Uncle Jack from the early 1990s, but I can’t remember the details of (any?) science in this. Blue Peter‘s move to green issues in the late 1980s is worth noting, even if it was only a part of their content. There really was a bit of a wave of this around the early ’90s (great book on the subject by David Gauntlett).

Indeed, I wonder if the slightly ironic tone of the Green Santa trailer reflects the way in which a climate message has become a well-trodden ground in children’s media. It’s one of the ways I find Green Santa‘s tone very different from the more earnest Captain Planet (which because of the fictional element, we might otherwise compare it to). Chris Ryan’s Code Red series and Saci Lloyd’s Carbon Diaries as. These both start with protagonists bored by green stuff which is largely seen as a boring old worry of their parents and then, through their involvement in a new crisis, they can re-discover the issue for their own generation.

I also wonder about the role of nostalgia here. I think EDF Energy’s “it’s not easy being green” advert (‘made entirely of recycled clips’) is really interesting, especially as the girl speaking in it must be at least 30 by now. Nostalgia has run through the green movement since its origins, but this is generally nostalgia for some sort of (imaginary?) pre-modern age before we starting polluting everything. Nostalgia for something that is quite explicitly modern (even ‘late modern’) such as advertising or earlier iterations of an organised green movement is slightly different. Re-prints of children’s green books from previous generations are also significant here (e.g. 2009 version of the Lorax, below) suggesting a multi-generational culture at work here.

A potentially key difference about the 21st century examples: I’ve read some media analysis from the 1990s cynically arguing that directing environmental campaigns at children is just a way of putting the issue off for another generation to deal with. Today, I think increasingly we see children targeted as a way to get adults to think about global warming. The Observer ran a magazine cover story last year on children pestering their parents on environmental issues. We might argue that the DECC’s Bedtime Stories campaign is indicative of this adults-via-kids approach too (albeit an allusion to kids, rather than aiming at kids directly). According to the DECC, this was based on research on how to appeal to adults (though we might ask questions about this).

I’d love someone (me, given time and resources) to do some deeper research into this. The ethics, sociology and psychology of kids and climate change, including thinking about the role of children and childhood in adults’ lives. All fascinating stuff.

* I don’t, however, have a Blue Peter badge, green or otherwise. Yes, this is something I’m slightly bitter about.

The lorax loves trees