First a bit of background on this Science Vote thing (the content my talk is under the photo). I’m used having to sneak references to science policy in the back of my syllabi. This year, I was slightly taken aback to find undergraduates knocking on my office door asking for more lectures on science policy. They aren’t the only ones interested in the topic. Maybe it won’t last, but at the moment, talking about “policy” seems to be the hot new thing in UK science.
I find this weird. Or at least unfamiliar. It’s not surprising though; the background is easy to trace. Science-themed activism surrounding “bad science bloggers” and the developing UK skeptics scene is worth a mention, as well as concerns over cuts in public funding. Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that it is the possibility of cuts that truly makes scientists get political, and perhaps the true action is yet to be seen. Still, we can also add frustrations over libel law, the school curriculum, climategate, homeopathy, David Nutt, or any mixture of these issues (and more) under the umbrella of Science Vote issues.
There was also clearly a concerted effort to build a Science Vote network. In November, New Scientist launched its S-word blog, the “S” being the science they feel is too often unmentionable in UK politics. The following month, the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) set up a Science Vote blog. As the pre-election fervor heated up, there were a series of pre-election debates held between the three major science spokespeople (video of Royal Society for Chemistry’s one). Both the Guardian and the Times produced extensive science-themed election coverage. The movement grew, and I got used to seeing #scivote tag flow across twitter as people shared links.
My Science Online talk used the Science Vote campaign to think about the way a sort “brand” of science works in scientific campaigning and, more broadly, the advantages and disadvantages of talking to small niche groups. (note: by “brand” I really mean a symbolic impression of cohesion over what science equates to. I won’t go into theories of branding here, but this is an interesting book)
It is sometimes said that social media campaigns are merely talking to themselves. Were #scivote twitter-ers simply ranting in small self-curated bubbles of agreement?
Maybe, but it’s wrong to think niche (even exclusive) groups are always a bad thing. I would argue against simple pessimistic talk of echochambers. I think there is a role for small communities of agreement in political campaigning, they can act as seeds for larger movements Moreover, new media opens up possibilities for developing them. Indeed, to complain that bloggers, facebook users, tweeters et al are talking to limited audiences is, perhaps, to fall into a trap of attempting to ape the (outdated?) desires of mainstream media: that of aiming for a mass audience. The odd ambitious blogger may want to become a household name, but for many it is simply about meaning a lot to a few, and being able to reach and connect small specialist audiences (we might talk about the long tail if you want to use new media jargon).
I would argue that precisely because #scivote was a hashtag, it had a power to connect. It works as a link, clicking on it connected people to others who are using it. Yes, this was a matter of people who largely agreed with each other, but it helped connect individual grumbles to build a larger (albeit still small) movement. I soon noticed that if I used the hashtag during the election I’d get a spate of new followers: people were clearly tracking it. It allowed nascent on and off-line political mumblings to feel less isolated, it connected people to events, information, ideas, debates and, quite simply, other people. It let individuals develop knowledge and interest and fostered community. Events such as the RSC one helped demonstrate the power and number of science-interested voters, and allowed nascent online political mumblings feel a sense of real-space community. The Science Vote campaign, was, let’s face it, an extension of quite Westminster-based lobbying. Groups like CaSE wanted to show that there was a constituency that cared about these issues.
We should also be careful of assuming too much agreement within the Science Vote campaign. For me, the word science is a large part of the problem. It’s a shorthand. A necessary and useful one, but a gloss over the messy reality nonetheless. Like “the public”, “child” or “the meaning of life”, the word “science” often comes with scare-quotes, spoken in a tone of mock-drama because, we know what a fudge it is. (for an academic version of those last two sentences, try this book). It is worth remembering that the so-called Science Vote was, in many respects, an odd coalition of people and worries that just happened to collect together in UK science around this particular time.
My unease over a simplistic application of “brand science” was triggered especially strongly by The Times’ piece on candidates’ backgrounds and labelling “science friendly” (to their credit, the Times did add good bit of context in a postscript). The Guardian’s Litmus Test project maybe took a broader view of science, but it was still defined science in its own way, arguably somewhat skewed to the worries of the skeptics movement. Times Higher highlighted issues surrounding young and women researchers. Science, writing after the polls had closed, memorably brought the badgers. Some people found the badgers a bit weird, and their incredulity fueled a fair bit of post-election humour based upon the passing around of dancing badger cartoons. However, to others, it is a major issue.
Personally, I’m quite comfortable with such a diversity of ideas of what a science vote might equate to. Everyone has their own definition of science. That’s my point: there is no single idea or experience of science. Rather, it is multiple and differing, and to pretend otherwise is to suggest a coherence which personally I just don’t see in the UK science “community”. Indeed, there are times when I wonder if “coalition” not “community” is the word.
Perhaps the biggest problem with “brand science” is that it is too often an exclusive term, used to articulate the community’s boundaries to note who doesn’t belong, what can’t be called “scientific”. This sense of exclusivity might be useful to those working in “anti-quack” campaigns. It can also make it an appealing brand to people outside as well as helping foster a sense of community within in (i.e. a form of bonding). But, at the same time, I worry puts off those who don’t happen to feel a strong everyday affinity to science.
Too much of the Science Vote activity of the pre-election period was, for me, characterised by tribalism. Identifying “science friendly” MPs or labelling policy “anti science” felt like a simplistic game of goodies and baddies which belies the subtitles of science in British society. People are rarely simplistic enough to be “friends” or “enemies” of the whole of science. Rather, this big thing we call science hangs over all of us in a range of places and ways.
If science is to have a long-lasting and productive role in politics, the science lobby must be careful in their use of the “S” word and instead accommodate a diversity of interests, actors and ideas and demonstrate how specific areas of expertise are meaningful to British society at large. I think the Science Vote campaign had an impact on the politicisation of UK science (or at least it helped foster and articular an already murmuring politicisation). However, looking forward, it should be wary of letting a glossy banner of “science” obscure the diversity of people and detail of policies involved. It is often the specifics of science policy that matter. Specifics in all their complex diversity. Post election, it is time to go to show what the many different areas of science can mean to a broad range of people, across UK society.
At the end of the Q&A in the session, Imran made an interesting analogy between the Science Vote and the so-called “Pink Vote” or “Grey Vote”. There is no central orgainsing committee for these, and they are supposed to reflect huge and diverse communities who may well disagree with each other about the most effective way to deal with, respectively, gay or mature peoples’ votes (or with being described as either “pink” or “grey” for that matter). Yet the use of these terms reflect politicians at least thinking about taking these groups more seriously. Scientists who want a stronger voice might want to think about these other identity based political movements.