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.