Tag Archives: events

Climate, fuel and social justice

Science for PEOPLE 70s socialist science magazine

Some old copies of Science for People – the magazine of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science – landed on my desk a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been lost down archives of the 1970s radical science movement ever since. The following comes from the editorial in issue 25 in 1974.

Energy supply is seen as a purely technical problem to be solved by “experts” with a technical fix: nuclear fission and North Sea oil. These, we are told, will satisfy energy “demand” for the next twenty years. After that, we will only have plutonium waste and memories of the beauty of northwest Scotland. The most important questions are never asked: why will the “demand” for energy continue to grow? Do we really need so much energy? Technical answers will never solve the energy problem, since the problem, short or long term, is not technical but social and political. Cheap and abundant energy, chiefly oil, has been essential for the policy of sustained economic growth that has been pursued by all political parties (and the TUC) since the end of the Second World War. Economic growth has enabled the capitalist system to survive and evolve into its present interventionist, mildly social democratic form, by buying off and suppressing class conflict. The conditions which made it possible no longer hold: commodity prices have greatly increased, the international monetary system is in chaos, the balance of payments deficit is enormous, and oil is neither abundant nor cheap. Policies are polarising, the class structure of Britain is exposed and we must choose either authoritarian capitalism or socialism

I share it partly because aspects of it remind me of a debate on social justice and climate change I chaired last week as part of the Brighton Fringe (video below). The point about a choice between “authoritarian capitalism or socialism” was less overt, but there were aspects of a similar tension running through it, as was a sense that relying on simply technical answers would be foolish, because many of the speakers saw the problem as chiefly political. Or in some contrast, Myles Allen went full technofix in the Mail on Sunday over the weekend.

I don’t know if the similarities in these discourses say something depressing about lack of progress in energy policy or our ways of critiquing it. For all that I generally agree that issues of energy supply are political, not technical (and, moreover, the technical is political) it did feel like the scientific and technical issues were drowned out at that event. I also think that 21st century nuclear should be accessed on 21st century terms, not 1970s ones. Maybe I’m wrong about that though. You can watch for yourself.

Thanks to our panel (Thurstan Crockett, Jim Watson, Doug Parr and Kirsty Alexander) as well as Julia Day for putting it all together. Thanks also to Jon Agar for drawing this Science for People editorial to my attention.

Engagement with climate science

liable to flooding

I was a speaker at yesterday’s Royal Meteorological Society’s meeting on Communicating Climate Science. I was asked to talk about models of science communication in the light of their new report on climate science , the public and the media, in particular the shift from top-down to more discursive approaches. I also took the opportunity to question the applicability of these models a little. What follows is roughly a script of my talk, but with links.

I’ll start with a potted history of science communication, it’s the sort of history professionals tell themselves about themselves, so read with some caution, even though it’s pretty illustrative. Once upon a time, around the end of the mid 1980s, scientists in the UK and America (and a few other places, science is an international business after all) decided the public had stopped listening to science, and that this was dangerous. Science had grown immensely over the middle of the 20th century,  developing multiple strands and a mass of complex, specialist knowledge, but in doing so it had left many behind. There was a gap between what scientists knew and what the rest of the world understood. If only the public knew more science! And the media were better at delivering this information! Something. Must. Be. Done.

They kicked up all sorts of fuss and, in the UK, forming a sort of movement for the Public Understanding of Science (PUS), with a Royal Society report (“the Bodmer report”), a multi-institution committee (CoPUS), a journal, a set of courses, a load of general fuss and worry, etc etc. Soon after, however, a load of educationalists, historians and sociologists (many of whom had been working on this stuff for years) started pick holes in the more simplistic end of this argument, complaining that the PUS approach was not only ineffectual, but might be considered anti-democratic, even morally repugnant and non-scientific even too. They set up their own ‘critical PUS’ camp in opposition and pointed fingers at Bodmer et al for being a bit “deficit model” (i.e. seeing the problem as being a matter of a deficiency on the part of the public). The book “Misunderstanding Science” is the classic text of this sort of approach, but maybe not the easiest of reads.

There are three main problems with the deficit model:

  1. It’s unrealistic. You can’t black-box science, media and public. I mean, what does “the public” even mean? Moreover, we cannot imagine that the media will take this science and happily and simply pass it on to their readers who, in turn, will happily swallow it all. Such an idea is based on a really naïve ‘transmitter-receiver’ view of media effects (if you’ve never read David Gauntlett’s essay on what’s wrong with the media effects model, do).
  2. It’s patronising. It assumes the public are stupid and journalists are just information carriers, both of which is likely to alienate both groups.
  3. It’s limiting. Science policy issues aren’t just about the science. That doesn’t mean science shouldn’t have a role. A large one. But there are other things to be woven in too, and there are times when criticism of the scientific community is both entirely justified and highly productive (even if there are times where criticism is not only misplaced but dangerously over-emphasised). Journalists should ask questions and contextualize what scientists say. As should the public at large (and they should be asking questions and contextualising what the journalists say too).

These criticisms, along with the experience of GMOs and BSE, had a lot of impact in the UK. By 2000, the House of Lords report on Science and Society formally stated there was a “new mood for dialogue” replacing the older, slightly naive, top-down approach.

And that’s what the term “engagement” is meant to symbolise, for a lot of people: A shift from simplistic top-down approaches to a more nuanced one that appreciates not only that sharing science with the general public is a hard thing to do, but that public debate on science and technology is just that, a debate. The problem of science communication was now understood as not merely a matter of how to clearly transmit information, but how to have good, clever conversations about expertise in society. Changing scientific discourse as it travels into the public realm was not necessary seen as a distortion, but a matter of course. Scientists should listen as well as talk; communication is something you take part in, not simply deliver.

PUS and the deficit model became the bogeymen of UK sci com, with people actively booing references to it at conferences and snidely whispering criticism of unpopular colleagues as “a bit deficit”. Arguably, some people just took the language of this shift without actually understanding the ideas behind them though. There is a lot of science communication that talks as if it moved on from the deficit model but is really quite simply about shouting “but science is awesome” at the general public. Moreover, it sometimes looks like we’ve simply replaced the presumed deficit of knowledge with one of trust (i.e. the public don’t trust scientists enough, see Alan Irwin’s essay for this OU reader). Such a view often argues that scientists need to earn public trust, and might suggest discussion as a way to go about it, but it still based in a rather technocratic attitude that the world will be saved if only everyone just listened to the scientists.

Which brings me to this new report on the public, media and climate science. Because in places it seems, well, a bit deficit model, a bit preoccupied by getting the message across. It looks at context, and is meant to be rooted in what the public think and want, and many of its results are useful and interesting. But its central notion of communication, for me, seemed to be pretty linear and just a bit naive about how the media works. It’s all still about how we can give science to people, not how we might have conversations which connect science with a range of other topics. It says we need more “engagement”, but it’s not really what I’d call engagement.

But maybe they’re right to. Maybe we shouldn’t assume the public want to be engaged any more than that they don’t. We might also ask if a shift to debating science is dangerous when applied to climate, considering what is at stake and the keenness of some to ignore, even dismantle quite certain and useful science in this area. Maybe climate science simply doesn’t have the luxury to be so open? As Naomi Oreskes argued in an LA Times op-ed last January, perhaps we need leadership here. Debate just confuses people and delays action. Oreskes has thought about this. She is also coming from thoughtful empirical studies in the history and sociology of science understanding that sharing expertise isn’t simple. Just as Wynne et al said the deficit model is too simple, so can a simplistic call to engage.

As I’ve noted before, in some contrast to Oreskes, much of the discussion post-Rio+20 was that leaders had failed us, but there is hope in the grass roots activism of civil society. E.g. Mary Robinson. I like the rhetoric here, but I worry still. It’s the kind of world I want, but I’m not sure it’s possible, or it’s happening. To fuel my cynicism, in another obit for Rio+20, John Vidal cited “two-catching global bottom-up initiatives” – one the save the Arctic campaign, and another to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies – as having emerged at Rio and “reasons to be cheerful”. I call bollocks, at least about the bottom-up. These were projects that were launched at Rio, not ones that emerged. They are downstream invitations to passive engagement within a pre-set frame – sign a scroll, use a hashtag, follow a celebrity – more about enumerating the actors of PR than diffusing political power. Which isn’t to say there are wrong, but call a spade a spade.

Whenever I see any climate communication I feel an echo of Steve Yearley’s argument that the green movement enjoys the language of mass participation but only when it comes on their own terms (his essay here) and that similar critique can very easily be applied to the scientific community, or politicians, or industry, or anyone involved in the debate. So the question still remains, can we have open public engagement on climate change?

I don’t know.

“Do your pupils have an energy gap?”

The Big Bang Fair, a big science and engineering event for schoolkids was held in Birmingham last month. Led by Engineering UK and supported by various government departments, charities, learned societies and businesses, it’s an annual event that’s been going for a while. They seem to have taken down the list of 2012 sponsors, but you can see a list of the 2011 ones in this leaflet (pdf), which included BAE Systems, Shell, EDF Energy and Sellafield Ltd.

Seeing as some of these firms are perhaps only too expert in making extremely big bangs, it’s upset a few people. Check out the BAE wikipedia entry, ‘products’ subheading if you don’t get why.

Anne Schulthess from CND happened to be at another education show in Birmingham that week and spotting the Big Bang, dropped in. She shared some photos, noting “basically it’s the arms fair for children. With a bit of environmental destruction thrown in for good measure”. Back in 2009, Scientists for Global Responsibility and the Campaign Against the Arms Trade condemned BAE’s role in the event (SGR/CAAT press release, reproduced on my old blog). I’d be tempted to suggest one of these groups try to set up a stall at the fair next year but even if Engineering UK let them, the £20,000 to £100,000 pricetag might well be out of the budget of a small NGO.

Industrial involvement in science education is nothing new. Take, for example, these adverts I found in some old copies of the National Association for Environmental Education’s magazine (c. 1978):

The Science Museum have a fair bit of history here: from the BNFL sponsored atomic gallery in the 1980s to Shell sponsorship of their climate gallery in 2010 (see also this 2008 freedom of information request on Shell and BP funding). I used to work on their Energy gallery, and it’d be depressing to watch visitors clock the BP logo, laugh and walk away.

I worry when I see reports that the Smithsonian were so pleased to have secured a sponsor that was ok with the idea of evolution that they let a bit of not very scientific attitude to climate change in (e.g. see ThinkProgress, 2010). I also worry when I hear about teaching resources designed to stress the uncertainty of climate change (e.g. see Guardian, 2012). I can see why groups like Liberate Tate focus on the corporate sponsorship of art and Greenpeace scale the National Gallery, but I worry slightly more about the involvement of the oil industry in exhibitions where their work is an actual topic in the content.

We should be careful of simply assuming corporate sponsorship means they have influence on content. Science Museum staff claim editorial independence from any of their sponsors. Just as, I noticed, the Guardian stresses Greenpeace had no say over editorial content of John Vidal’s report on industrial fishing in West Africa, even though the NGO paid his travel costs to Senegal. We should also recognise that there is a lot of scientific expertise in industry, just as Greenpeace give Vidal access to places he wouldn’t otherwise see. Science isn’t just a matter of what goes on in ivory towers, so perhaps it’s only right that such groups involved. Plus, seeing as people don’t seem to want to pay fees or taxes for publicly funded science communication, maybe it’s only sensible the Science Museum et al ask groups who’ve made a lot of money out of science and technology give something back. We can’t just rely on moneybags of the Wellcome Trust (which has its own complex economic history anyway).

As I’ve argued before, if businesses are going to have involvement in science education, I want to see what they think, warts and all. If groups like the Science Museum really have editorial control, they should take industrial sponsorship only if the company involved will also (a) give them their expertise, and (b) be happy for said expertise to be put under some scrutiny. Rather than retreat behind claims to scientific objectivity, science communication should wear it’s political fights on its sleeve, show science’s various institutional connections for what they really are. These sorts of debates are part of science in society and should be offered up and opened up for broader public discussion, appreciation and scrutiny.

I’ve worked with a load of instituions in science communication, from Girl Guiding UK to the Royal Society, with a fair bit of industrial sponsorship thrown in at times too. This included stints at CND, Mind and the Science Museum while I was still in my teens. For that reason, I don’t think we should be scared about opening up debate on the politics of science at educational events aimed at schoolkids like the Big Bang Fair. I coped with these issues and think others can too. We should show them BAE, but make sure they get a group like SGR along to help offer other sides too. We should trust young people more when it comes to the messiness of science in society.

Being noisy about science

Here’s the podcast for an event on the sounds of science I chaired at Charles Darwin House last week.

The inspiration for the event was mainly just that I like making a noise. I also like listening to podcasts and I quite like science too. Moreover, I think that the noises made by and about science bring out some of the texture of scientific work, and let us reflect upon the stories we tell about science (things I think are worth doing).

Our panellists covered audio-storytelling about science from polished BBC documentaries about instruction manuals (really, it’s great: go listen) to slightly rawer clips of spaceships launching (listen, put the sound up and watch your room shake). We also had an oral history of engineering, podcasts on Swine Flu for doctors to listen to in the bath and a bit of electronic music fashioned from the sounds of Tottenham Court Road.

For me, the best bit came near the end when the audience started sharing memories of sounds made in the course of scientific work. Someone mentioned the way biochemists learn the art of recognising the right sound of a centrifuge when preparing cultures. One audience member mentioned the noise of telescopes (and you can hear this lovely Guardian podcast for some more on this), another shared her aural memories of working in anesthetics (there is a documentary in the sounds of surgery, I’m sure). A historian shared an amazing story about an artist he’d met who’d done some work on atomic weapon research sites, where she wasn’t allowed to take photos or write anything down but was (surprisingly?) allowed to record sounds. So she’d recorded the sound of the centrifuge which still gave a strong sense of place. I also remembered some stories of the history of atomic science, when it shifted from looking for particles to listening to traces of them, and young scientists would be employed because they had good ears rather than eyes and early radio enthusiasts had helped develop the technical kit required to do this research (this is only a sketchy memory of a talk from Jeff Hughes I once heard, sorry if I’ve got it wrong).

I’ve been listening out to sounds around me ever since; thinking about ones I take for granted, finding new ones.

EDITED TO ADD: via David Pantalony, on twitter, a great STS paper on listening to laboratories (pdf)

Sounds of Science

BBC Madia Vale Studios, before a recording last year.

It’s world radio day! I don’t know about you, but I’m celebrating. I love the radio.

I think I just like noise. Maybe it’s because my Dad was a musician. He usually worked from home, on what are probably best described as “musicians’ hours”, so there was a steady stream of odd bits of organised noise coming from his office. He was always very focused on the quality of sounds around him, taking personal offense to musac and swearing loudly every time the doorbell rang or a car horn beeped to interrupt the more controlled flow of noise around him. As an orchestrator, it was the particular sound any instrument made which interested him most, and he’d come home from a recording session full of stories of standing out the back of Abbey Road studios with percussionists hitting bin lids. I’m not a musician, but I seem to have picked up some of his obsession sound.

I thought I’d take the opportunity of world radio day to advertise an event I’m chairing at Charles Darwin House next month on the sounds of science. Do come! There will be beer and cake and interesting people talking about the noisiness of science. It’ll be great fun.

On the run up to this, I’ve been thinking about how I could share the noises of my research. I’m a humanities scholar so mainly just sit in an office on my own. There’s the sound of an email hitting my inbox I guess, or maybe the bell ringing from the tower outside my office at Imperial or people gossiping over a cigarette by the window I sit near at UCL. There is also a really cool whistling sound that happens on a windy day in the space between the engineering departements at Imperial. Some day I really must record that. Or the glass bridge at the Science Museum. It’s held up by piano strings so makes a slight sound as you walk across it. It’s usually too loud to hear in the museum, with all the visitors, but when I worked there I’d sometimes walk across it when the museum was closed, lean out to pluck a string and just listen. There are probably other noises around my work I don’t think about. I’m going to have to take time to think and listen.

I also thought I’d share my top five listens in terms of science and technology; the podcasts I feel my week isn’t complete if I haven’t heard.

  • BBC World Service Click – I’m not just saying this because the presenter has an office next door to mine at Imperial. The global perspective on technology it provides is simply fascinating. It’s something I don’t get from a lot of the other sci/tech media I consume, and really makes me think about technology in different ways. Like the Guardian tech podcast, I also find it invaluable as a briefing on media issues.
  • Radiolab – It’s hard to describe quite how brilliant RadioLab is. Very simply, it is storytelling about science at its best. It will make you cry and laugh out loud in the middle of the street and you won’t care that it makes you look a bit weird because you are simply so absorbed in it. It is that good. Really.
  • Guardian Science Weekly – There are a few science magazine radio shows out there, but this is my personal favorite. It updates me on the news and will add in the odd interesting feature and/ or interview too. There is a lovely chatty feel to it, a nice mix of humble and strident, and fun too. I’m also a huge fan of the Nature one, though it’s slightly more serious.
  • Peter Day’s World of Business – This is maybe an odd choice as the focus of this is business, but perhaps because of this I find that when it does cover sci/ tech issues it does in a way I won’t find elsewhere. Plus, I just love the presenter’s voice and they once did a whole show about the history of pencils.
  • In Our Time - Again, not always science, but rather the history of ideas, which often touches on science. The presenter can sometimes be a bit deferent to scientific expertise for my personal taste, but it’s usually a good clever chat about something interesting and often has Simon Schaffer on it (I’m happy to admit to being a huge Schaffer fangirl). The archive is prestigious.
So, what are your favourite science and technology themed podcasts? I’d love to know. Also, do you work in a lab? Does your machinery, building or colleages make interesting noises? Maybe you could record it on your phone or something and share it? (Audioboo is good for this). Share your science noises!