Tag Archives: campaigning

Science policy and social media

Up and Atom

ANNOUNCEMENT: I’m part of a new blog network at the Guardian, “Political Science“. I’ll keep this for more personal/ niche content though. My first post there considers the way the public (or forms of publicity) are used to help reform science in the All Trails campaign. It’s based on a short talk I gave at the STEPS conference at Sussex this week, the full text of which follows.

The Royal Institution is up for sale. There are many interesting things about the fuss this has caused. One of which is that Harry Kroto has taken to twitter. It seems like that’s what happens when scientists get angry these days.

Social media is increasingly playing a role in science policy campaigns: All Trials Registered, All Results Reported (or the more 140c friendly alltrails), the anti-anti-GM “Don’t Destroy Research” and Science is Vital being just a few notable examples.

It’s an interesting development which as scholars of the field we should look at in more detail. From a more normative point of view, we might also welcome it as a sign of a greater openness in lobbying around science; making it more scrutinizable, more accountable and possibly more able to learn from a broader, more diverse, set of perspectives. Still, there are questions to ask and criticisms to make. Just because there are small moments of openness doesn’t mean that the majority of power brokering in science is still, if not outright secret, rather esoteric. Openness can be rhetorically applied and we need to think about that. Moreover, hashtags have histories and hierarchies as much as anything else; there are cultures and contingencies to consider here, as any campaign located in a specific social context. (Arguably, one of the reasons we’ve seen it in the UK is the relatively grassroots structure of our sceptics movement, and the experience of Libel Reform is important too.) It’s also worth reflecting on the ways in which ideas of the public and publicity are being used here and how this is similar and different from the rhetorical use of, for example, public polling data or protests putting bodies out in the street.

It’s not exactly new. I dug out my notes for a talk I gave on the topic at 2010  Science Online London conference (read text version and comment thread on blogpost I wrote at the time). There had been a lot of social media activity around the election, largely coalescing around the twitter hashtag “scivote”. I stressed that, as a hashtag, offered a connection; a folksonomical collective and dynamic socially constructed way of classifying. It connected people to events, information, ideas, debates and, quite simply, other people. It let individuals develop knowledge and interest and fostered community. You weren’t just the one person in the lab who was feeling a bit grumpy about the government, you were part of something larger. You didn’t have to feel weird about being a bit political. Still, none these connections happened entirely online and we  have to remember how much of a role much less public work happens around these online campaigns. The Science is Vital campaign, for example, gradually gathered expertise and steam from a few tweets and blogpost, but it also built on the infrastructure, contacts, profile and expertise of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (amongst others). That’s not to say Science Is Vital had no impact, it arguably let the more traditional lobbyists express a constituency that cared about these issues. That’s powerful political rhetoric.

It’s striking that although many of the online science policy campaigns have a grassroots-y feel to the, they are promoting rather traditional top-down expressions of scientific expertise and reflecting, if not emphasizing preexisting power networks. In one of the various obits of the Rio +20 talks this summer, John Vidal claimed the end fossil fuel subsidies and save the Arctic campaigns were “eye-catching global bottom-up initiatives”. They weren’t.

(When someone says “bottom up” always ask “whose bottom?”)

These campaigns were more about enumerating the actors of public relations than diffusing political power. They expressed a public, they didn’t try to involve them. And I think that’s how we can the recent scientific community based campaigns too; they don’t seem to have any particular interest in finding new opinions, just show there are people who have the same opinion as them. They didn’t want new questions, just more people to sign up to their answers. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – we can have public campaigns as well as public debate – as long as we recognise what we are looking at.

That said, I think it’s fair to say that both Libel reform and Science is Vital picked up a lot of expertise along with the more passive clickativist support: Lawyers, lobbyists, designers, programmers. In that respect it’s a different from the slicker professionalised projects we’ve seen from environmental campaigners.

It also strikes me that All Trials is especially interesting because it’s about publicizing absence of evidence and saying a bit of the medical science is broken. It’s being open about problems, albeit in a rather tightly framed way. And I think there’s a lot of potential there. I’m just not sure I’ve seen it realised yet.

There’s a nuclear missile on the roof above a vintage clothes shop on the Holloway Road…

There’s a nuclear missile on the roof above a vintage clothes shop on the Holloway Road. You have to look carefully, but it’s there. It’s that egg-like object in the photo above. Or at least that’s the top of it, the red thing next to it is the base.

No, it’s nothing to do with our upcoming sports extravaganza. It’s been there for years. It’s also bloody heavy, though it’s well over a decade since I handled the thing. It’s not a real nuclear missile. It’s a model. It belongs to CND, whose offices are also above said vintage clothes shop. They have an inflatable one these days, but the “missile” used to tour round the country every summer as a way of taking military technology to the people. Or at least it took a talking point for discussing such objects, in absence of the real thing. It’s not like the MoD are going to let CND play with an actual one.

The Holloway Road missile is only one in a cast of mockups of technological or natural objects used by campaigners. There was the whale the World Wildlife Fund drove down the Thames in February, or Greenpeace’s “polar bears” that sprung up in cities across the world last week. I walked by some orangoutangs outside on Tottenham Court Rd a few weeks ago too, protesting about deforestation. Environmental activist orangoutangs, it turns out, wear sandals (it was really hot that day). My favourite is probably Water Aid’s giant river crafted from 100s of blue squares posted by an international network of knitters; a wooly petition which ended up draped over the National Theatre.

Those are all clear, explicit fakes. They’re not mermen. They’re not designed to con. They are not even trick-then-reveal projects like the Yes Men Arctic Ready site or the OFT fat melting pads. Such overt fabrications are openly designed to expose those bits of the world which are too far away, too dangerous, too secret or too unruly to be experienced directly by most of us. They’re a moment of spectacular, a slight subversion of the world designed to draw attention and inspire learning or action. They are falsehoods in a way, but there to express something people feel very strongly is important and true. They bring a bit of reality to us by being unreal.

It’s not just activists who engage in such subverted realism. It’s a quite routine part of the public communication of science, technology and the environment. Metaphor or analogy in text, CGI or filming “under controlled conditions” for a documentary. I think museums provide the best examples though. Museums of science and technology often have to find inventive ways to fit the large, dangerous or simply abstract things they curate into a glass case: Einstein’s chalkboard, Galileo’s finger, Florence Nightengale’s moccasins, models of boats, a bowl from Hiroshima. My favourite example of this has to be the Science Museum’s DNA model. They wanted to display the model from the iconic 1953 Watson and Crick picture. Except the people in the lab had taken the model apart to reuse after the photo was staged. The museum dug out the old pieces from the back of a cupboard, dusted them down and rebuilt the model. It is a mockup, albeit an official one, unveiled by Watson himself, but a mockup nonetheless.

When it comes to the bits of the world natural history museums want to encase, once living things are often pickled, stuffed or rebuilt from fossils (though they model too, from the Crystal Palace dinosaurs to modern animatronic models or IMAX movies) . With the recent death of “Lonesome George” the Galapagos giant tortoise, there’s been some interesting debate over what to do with his body. Henry Nicholls argues we shouldn’t stuff George, writing a thoughtful piece about the politics of preserving other iconic animals (though I wondered why he didn’t mention Jeremy Bentham). In contrast, Paolo Viscardi stresses museums’ role as research institutions as well as public communication, saying George should be preserved for science. Both pieces are worth reading. Incidentally, Viscardi works at the Horinman, which is where the merman I linked to earlier resides, and also contains the most amazing inaccurately overstuffed Walrus (one of the many museum exhibits which tweet a form of post-mortem anthropomorphic existence). I can also recommend this piece by Phillip Hoare on how to remember the whale that died in the Thames a few years ago, or the Brown Dog statue in Battersea‘s worth a visit.

I’m rambling. My point is that we all do a lot of fictional work to have non-fictional discussion and fabricate things in order to debate things we hold as truths. It’s normal, it’s necessary and to think otherwise is just a bit limiting. The trick is to consider which bit of reality we want to communicate, and stay as true to that as you can.

If anyone has any other examples of fabricated, refashioned or reconstructed aspects of science, technology or the natural world used for public communication, I’d love to hear them. Bet there’s loads of ageing science props hidden in store cupboards of museums, NGOs, schools and film studios the world over.

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?

Handcrafting political discourse

I visited Ottawa last weekend, for the Extending Expertise conference. Walking around the center of town on Sunday morning, I spotted this flyer for the Green Party.

green party flyer referencing twitter in Ottawa
Ottawa, May 1st 2011

I thought it was interesting not only because it referenced a Twitter hashtag, but that it left space to add a short message on the flyer itself too. It asked the person posting it not only to stick it up, but share a reason for doing so, and to hand-write that message.

It’s an interesting example of the way in which online participation is making a mark on offline. I also think reflects a slight change in political discourse, one that aims to include explicitly citizen voices – perhaps echoing some recent research suggesting news consumption in Canada is an increasingly social experience – and even explicitly handwritten contributions to response.

It reminded me of an electoral reform demo last summer, where campaigners brought branded but blank signs for people to compose their own messages. Or, at solidarity with Egypt rally in Trafalgar Square a few months back, that Amnesty brought a truck of wifi provision to encourage people to post to social networking sites. At one point at that rally, we were even asked to hold up our phones, clasped with our fingers arranged in a peace signs, as a statement of solidarity (sadly, it felt a bit like being in a TMobile advert).

I'm upset so I've made a sign!
London, November 10th 2010

Handcrafted political banners are nothing new, and I remember sorting through decades of handmade badges when I briefly helped out in CND archives as a teenager; loving the multiplicity of puns based on specialist professions (“taxidermists say stuff the bomb” is the classic, but there were less funny ones I can’t remember now).  Still, there seems to be an increased focus on handmade elements of political discourse in the last year or so.

Although when it comes to any shifts in style of British protest signs I’m tempted to blame Father Ted, the desire to humorously make and remake political discourse and then share with others is an international development. I’ve seen mainstream media collect images of protest signs in Egypt and Germany recently too (seriously, click on the German link, it’s lovely…). I’ve also seen photos of quite a few photos of handmade signs in the celebrations in DC and NYC after the news about Bin Laden, but I think this event overlaps with memorials of the dead (by which I mean 9/11 deaths, not Bin Laden’s), which there are different reasons and traditions for hand-crafted notices.

This banner isn't big enough...
London, March 26th 2011.

This reflects the way in which it’s easier for the media to capture and share such works but also that the protesters are capturing and sharing such handmade art with each other while on the demo on (hence Amnesty’s odd request for us to hold up our phones).

I’m reading David Gauntlett’s new book Making is Connecting at the moment (I’ll post a proper review when I’ve finished it). Part of the inspiration for the book is that he, as a professor of media studies, had noted a shift away from a slick ‘sit back and be told’ media culture, and towards a more handcrafted one of making and doing, and most of all, sharing (though which we get the connecting of the title). As he puts it in the introduction:

I’ve always liked making things, but they didn’t have an audience. With the Web, making writing, photos, drawings – and indeed websites themselves – available to the world was so easy. It was also rewarding, as people would see your stuff and then send nice comments ad links to their won. So I experienced the feeling that making is connecting for myself. (Gauntlett, 2011: 3)

I think current cultures of protest signage and these Canadian Green Party flyers are a good example of political campaigners getting in on this shift. If you are interested in reading more, I can also recommend the chapter entitled ‘Photoshop for Democracy’ in Henry Jenkins’, Convergence Culture.

green party flyer referencing twitter in Ottawa
Ottawa, May 1st 2011

Of course it’d be naive to simply say the odd hand written flyer, or even a highly skilled handquilted protest banner (or handcoded website) amounts to a sudden ability for the people to speak to power. The space left for comment on the green party flyer is really very small, and entirely framed by their branding.

Indeed, much of the Extending Expertise conference I was attending in Ottawa reflected on the problems of an apparent move from ready-made to DIY media: from sometimes petty clashes between professionals and amateurs, to more serious concerns over the potential skewing of public debate by clever use of apparently more open political debate, including the potential dis-empowerment of ‘publics’ by a too-cursory devaluing of professional expertise.

Grass roots is one thing, astroturfing is another. If you’ll excuse the extension of the metaphor, there’s also a difference between a carefully polished lawn seeded from a small selection of carefully cultivated varieties of grass, and a meadow full of more diverse flora and fauna. That’s not to say a focus on handmade parts of political discourse are necessarily a bad thing, just that we shouldn’t be naive about this.

EDITED TO ADD (10th May): I spotted this ‘Tiles for America’ wall in New York yesterday, and considering my reference above to memorials of 9/11, I thought it was worth adding. You can read a bit about the project here, (or some more of my photos here and here). In some respects, it reminded me of the wall of memorial at the Cross Bones cemetery in Southwark (photo at bottom) though in many ways it’s very different too. Anyone think of other examples?

tiles for america

tiles for america

New York City, May 10th 2011

Memorial gate, Crossbones

London, August 24th 2010

The academics are revolting

Crimes against humanities

On Monday, I wrote that it was starting to feel as if a debate on the future of higher education was finally starting to open up. Today, I have a post on Research Fortnight’s blog, Exquisite Life, about the way academics are (in their own way) starting to campaign on this issue.

I bashed out that post at the end of the day yesterday, and then went off to have a 3 hour meeting at UCL with a group of academic-activists (photos taken outside their History department). At the end of the meeting, we saw the news that MPs would vote on the raise tuition fees in England on 9 December. So, my conclusion that campus life seems to be moving little faster than usual at the moment might feel quite true over the next week.

I mention in the piece that I’d seen drafts of further letters to the press. Today, the Times published one from the Campaign for a Public University, signed by 165 academics, stressing  that students are not the only ones angry at the governments plans for education. You can read it here if you have access through the paywall (edit: now liberated). Though I don’t know if this tweet from Brian Cathcart proves my point about academic back-biting (sorry, I mean disagreement, critique and open debate) being a problem in terms of building a united front.

Edit: As well as all this essay writing, they are more and more seminars being organised too. Already spotted one at the LSE and another at Middlesex.

Research and Destroy

Something I didn’t have space for in the piece is the ways in which the students are utalising materials from their studies to better understand,  build and articulate their protests. I visited the UCL occupation on Monday, and spoke to a PhD student there, Aaron Peters:

They’re savvy in terms of conceptualizing the protest, which is a key point. I mean some of the books these kids are reading: Foucault, Derrida, Barthes… You see Lyotard, you see Deleuze, you see Guttari. You see the canon of critical theory and it’s 19 year old people, and they actually practicing it. They want to engage with it politically, in the streets. It’s no longer some sort of intellectual masturbation. It’s being used for something.

I didn’t use this on the Research Fortnight blog, because I thought a focus on academics was most appropriate on that post. However, it is a thread in the story worth bringing out, and I may well go back to it. There’s a lot more to be said about the way students are using their degrees in the protests and, perhaps, augmenting their eduction in the process. Above all, I think the student protests demonstrates quite how much students think, know and care about their degrees. If we do unlock a larger debate on the future of UK universities, it’s going to be very hard to students keep students out (not that I would have wanted to in the first place).

If you are in the area, I can recommended dropping in on the UCL occupation (before they get evicted). David Colquhoun has a post about his visit there, and there is a video on the Guardian. Or read about them directly on their blog.

Bredom is counter revolutionary

The nerds are on the march

A version of this post initially appeared on the Times’ Eureka blog


The ballad of Simon Singh and his altercation with the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) has been told many times before (for example). What I want to focus on here is the way the case inspired scientists, skeptics and bloggers to become involved in a movement to change the law. Or, to put it another way, how libel reform ‘got its geek on’.

Why was it that, sitting in the pub last April, when someone joked about the idea of a calendar of geeks, the first response was “yep, it could raise money for libel!” When did libel reform become the charity of choice for UK science?

The BCA vs Singh case provided a clarion call for those who care about science to start worrying about libel. As Singh himself notes in Greg Foots’ great video, this is not the only time someone’s found talking about science can lands them in court. Indeed, a new story about Peter Wilmshurst broke just after I sent this to the Times.

In many ways, the English libel laws go against a certain ideal of science: a need for free and open debate. It is an ideal shared by much of journalism. In the words of the Times science reporter Hannah Devlin: “English libel laws are undermining the basic tenants of science: that there isn’t any question you can’t ask and there isn’t any hypothesis that can’t be challenged. It is important that we can do these things in journalism as well as in the practise of science”.

Perhaps then, it is no surprise that scientists and science writers are so worried about the issue. Groups such as Sense About Science and the Association of British Science Writers joined the campaign, the latter organising a debate about science journalism and libel law at City University last year (watch the video). Events like this helped promote feelings many in science and science writing felt already, got them talking to one another and helped to foster a sense of a movement.

There was also the work of intersecting ‘geek’ communities of skeptics and bloggers, both with their own history of commitment to ideals of free debate. As Ben Goldacre wrote last April, the scale of online activism during the BCA vs Singh case, often from skeptics,  was “unprecedented”, a point echoed by Nick Cohen, proclaiming after a visit to a skeptics meeting that “the nerds are on the march”. Still, as David Allen Green says, we should maintain perspective. We shouldn’t reduce the story of BCA vs Singh to simply a triumph of the geeks, many other characters, groups and events played their role too.

For me, the key point is the way the libel reform movement has folded into the relationship between science and politics. In the run up to the 2010 election, it was noticeable how libel reform was often packaged alongside science issues. So much so, that when the Guardian asked each of the main parties questions relating to the ‘science vote’, they included libel but not education. That the Guardian should suffer what might be seen as somewhat of a lack of perspective here is testament to how important the cause has become to the UK scientific community.

When that pub idea of a Geek Calendar somehow became real and we held a photoshoot with Evan Harris in quad of the British Medical Association, he echoed the same comments he made in judging the Times’ Eureka 100, declaring Singh his “geek hero”. As Harris put it, Singh’s case has not only “turned geeks on to libel reform”, his articulate handling of the events has helped cultivate political expression in the UK scientific community. Indeed, Singh spoke alongside Harris at the recent Science is Vital rally.

That may be one of the legacies of ‘geekifying’ the libel reform movement. It is not just that scientists, technophiles and skeptics played a role in lobbying for change in the law, but that the campaign itself has played a role in the broader politicisation of UK science. Crucially, the libel reform movement demonstrates a politicisation of science that cares deeply about their work relates to the world outside the laboratory, and are ready to work with a range of people and institutions in trying to achieve its aims.

A lot has been made of what geeks have done for libel reform. Maybe in years to come we’ll also think of what libel reform gave the geeks. Either way, there’s still some distance to go yet.

Do sign the libel reform petition. You can also buy a Geek Calendar online (or, for a limited time, at the Wellcome Collection bookshop).

A brief postscript on nomenclature: I’ve never really liked the word geek. I find it a bit affectatious. Still, it captures a range of characters well enough and many do self-identify using the term. As I tried to say in the Guardian last week, the recent ‘reclaiming’ of geek and nerd perhaps reflects a sense of 21st century celebration of niche interests, something I think is probably a good thing, or at least an inevitable part of social life in late modernity.

On laughter and ridicule

I have a post about science and humour as part of the the Guardian’s science blogging festival. Go read, and have a look at some of the other blogposts while you are there.

The interactions between science and comedy is something I’ve thought about quite a bit. I did some work on humour in popular science discourse as part of my PhD. I’ve given papers about it at the LSE and University of Manchester. Somewhere on my hard-drive have a draft journal article (email me at college if you’re interested in the bibliography).

As I say in the Guardian post, I think we need to remember the ways in which humour reflects communities of shared understanding. A premise of a joke could be thought of as the basis of a question: do you understand it, do you agree with it? If so, laugh. If not, you scowl/ are left confused. The processes of making, sharing and accepting jokes is both divisive and inclusive, bringing people together as well as demonstrating where they don’t connect. I don’t think we can escape this; we just need to be aware of it.

On this topic, I can recommend the first chapter of Giselinde Kuipers’ book (pdf). The whole book is good, but that’s the free bit. Also, this study of jokes told amongst mathematicians (pdf) makes a great example of jokes within a science-ish community.

The piece is also an invitation  to take a critical approach to humour. To stand up proudly sour-faced in front of a joke you disagree with. In this I am partly following Micheal Billig’s approach to humour. Billig argues we must go against an unthinking celebration of humour: “The critic has to examine the idea that the world might be changed by warm-heartedness, lots of hugging and a little more laughter” (Billig, 2004: 11). In doing so, “We might appear anti-humour, but there are worse crimes” (Billig, 2004: 9). It’s a  bit like a call to remain sceptical of humour. Personally I think an anti-humour approach is slightly grim, I’d rather celebrate jokes I like than just beat down the ones I don’t, which is why I included (admittedly awful) jokes in that post, and why I asked for examples of favourite jokes at the end. But I do also think we should retain some scepticism over comedy.

Jokes are a way of expressing opinion, and we don’t all agree on everything. A good laugh can be brilliant. So can a clever joke. It can make you happy and it can make you think. It can also be deeply offensive and make you cry. Just because it’s a joke doesn’t excuse the latter two reactions.

… and yes I have seen this xkcd and I do think it’s funny (because I recognise it), but I’m really not saying this to be superior. I hope that’s clear because the main reason I care about this issue is that I’d love an escape from one-upmanship when it comes to public debate about science and technology.