Scientists and the vote

Today at Science Online London I spoke in a session about”The Science Vote” alongside Evan Harris and Imran Khan.

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.

Science in Power

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.

14 thoughts on “Scientists and the vote

  1. http://twitter.com/WilliamCB

    The difference between #scivote and #scipolicy is the difference between advocacy and discussion. As a journalist, I’m obviously less comfortable with the advocacy bit. But there is a kind of nascent science movement that you’ve outlined, which can indeed be compared to pink or bgrey movements. That’s something new and important.

    One thing that should be considered is that science has special problems in creating such a movement. Even if there is no central organising committee, there is a lot of organising that goes on in any movement. Structures of power emerge, albeit informal at this stage. The movement comes under attack, it has to respond, discipline is required, mechanisms of mobilisation. A monolith emerges. This is natural for a political movement. But this is of course the antithesis of the reflective self-critical stance, full of doubts, that is (or ought to be) intrinsic to science. For example, only dogmatism to the point of ideology is ever going to get evidence-based policy really embedded in Whitehall.

    So, to put it at its most provocative, for science to acquire an effective supporting movement it will have to abandon the things which make it special.

    Reply
    1. alicerosebell Post author

      Thanks William – wish I could have articulated the points so well.

      I agree that the scivote/ scipolicy difference is largely one of advocacy and discussion, though I also think that the lobbyist groups would benefit from a bit more discussion/ reflection/ bigger picture.

      I also agree about the “special problems” of science. That’s my objection to the branding of science as whole – it seems dogmatic, which science isn’t. One could turn your “provocative” concluding point around to say science should abandon any attempt at a coherent supporting movement and instead always work on specific issues.

      That said, on the pink vote point, Imran made the point that a lot of gay people really hate what Stonewall say. Maybe science isn’t that special.

      Reply
      1. http://twitter.com/WilliamCB

        They might not like what Stonewall says, but on the other hand you don’t find bucketfuls of criticism of Stonewall from lesbian and gay people. Similarly, there’s an amazing amount of discipline over not outing people in the closet. That is the kind of self-censorship that is inimical to science, and which I would argue has undermined climate science.

        Reply
        1. alicerosebell Post author

          Without taking this analogy too far… I think you can find LGTB critique of Stonewall in by the bucket if you know where to look. Haven’t seem that much public criticism of CaSE though. Or maybe I’m looking in the wrong place. Whether that’s an outing issue or not I’m not sure. Very much agree re climate.

          Reply
  2. dunc

    *nods in agreement*

    Thank you for articulating a lot of this Alice. Whilst science in general seems to have grown in voice, the lack of a voice can be as true within a community as it can be for a whole community within society or politics. As an aside, whilst I can think of a lot of bloggers who talk about quantitive methods and epidemiology, I can’t think of many qualitative researchers who also blog and maybe that is one way of demonstrating the value of the work. I’d love to follow some good blogs discussing qualitative work if anyone can recommend some?

    A few interesting questions which follow on from this are: What are the shared goals of the science ‘community’? What would a politician who was after the science vote say or do? What would success look like?

    Reply
  3. Kieron Flanagan

    In the Twitter interchange between myself and @xmalik excerpted above I said that my problem with #scivote stemmed from the mixing up of a whole range of different issues of advocacy versus analysis so I agree very much with the comments of @WilliamCB. Of course it’s impossible to separate the rational (or irrational) self-interest of scientists in continuing and expanding the scientific enterprise from other considerations, but actively mixing advocacy and analysis at the same time clearly undermines credibility – especially where there are multiple and poorly-articulated goals to begin with. What is/was #scivote really about? Was/is it a campaign for more (or protected) basic research funding? For more investment in technology (a very different thing)? For better use of scientific expertise in policy making? For more ‘scientific literacy’ amongst policy makers or the wider population? Or even, as some seem to believe, the prelude to a full-blown war on the forces of ‘unreason’?
    In my view a key reason #scivote has been easy to dismiss is that it has tended to be a messy mixture of all these things. Even focusing in on the funding issue, which not surprisingly is on everyone’s minds right now, there is little coherence. Evidence about the importance of one thing (applied research and technological development) is used to justify another, different and only indirectly related thing (funding for basic research). In fact a common theme is that arguments begin with the importance of technological development but end with a call to protect basic research budgets. #scivote seems to have much less to say about applied research and development, research capacity, knowledge transfer and innovation. All this is likely to reinforce the perception amongst the target audience for these arguments that this is self-interested lobbying from a community that doesn’t really care that much about the economy. Surprisingly, #scivote also seems to have little to say about the intrinsic cultural value of science (the popularity of which is easily demonstrated) and about its wider educational value.

    Even when thoughtful, strong and coherent arguments are made (e.g. in some of the recent material put out by CaSE), there seems to be a compulsion to throw red herrings into the mix which ultimately make it easier to discount the whole argument. My favourite red herring is the synthetic outrage about the non-existent Treasury scientific advisor – as if that would make a difference to the spending review settlement. The repeated appearance of this particular red herring actually reinforces the impression of naked self-interest, appearing to reflect the instrumental thinking that a powerful scientist in the Treasury is the neatest solution to the challenge of persuading the Treasury to fund science. In reality of course it has been the Treasury which has pushed big increases in basic research funding over the past decade or so – whilst presiding over similar sized cuts in the more applied research budgets of individual government departments.

    [The other popular red herring is that country X, Y or Z spends more as a proportion of GDP on research than does the UK. The UK has a particular economic structure which may differ from country X or Y or even Z (our economy, rightly or wrongly, being dominated by service industries in which innovation is not primarily based on R&D) and an unusual pattern of spending on R&D (relatively little govt spending on very applied R&D coupled with a highly competitive and probably very ‘efficient’ system for funding basic research in universities). #scivote should be focused about what the UK could gain from more investment in S&T and R&D, not about bogus comparisons, which just reinforce the impression that the lobbying is done out of naked self-interest.]

    Reply
    1. alicerosebell Post author

      “just reinforce the impression that the lobbying is done out of naked self-interest”

      Indeed. I really can’t see how that impression is good PR. I nearly added links to the Jenkins piece about the RS 350 that prompted SpoofJenks as an example of how the science lobby can be viewed from the outside. I didn’t because (a) I couldn’t be bothered with any kneejerk reaction to Jenkins name (b) I agree Jenkins talks a lot of poo about science and, moreover (c) I don’t think Jenkins is representative of either “the public” at large or the groups CaSE were trying to influence. But the point that science looks quite different from the outside remains.

      (and I would add, this isn’t the public’s fault).

      Also your point about “synthetic outrage” on the Treasury. Might use that phrase to describe a fair few sub-headings in the various iterations of what the “science vote” might mean.

      Reply
  4. sylviamclain

    This is a refreshing view- there have recently (in my mind) been alot of complaints about the #scivote lack of cohesion.
    For my part, I am a research scientist and spend most of my time doing physics research, desperately writing grants for money, and all of the normal stuff. In this current environment this is getting more and more difficult and you have to be more and more productive. Whether you agree with this policy or not, we are not left with a big choice day to day.

    I blog, follow twitter, etc on top of this because I am interested in science policy and want to follow what people are thinking, it does provide a venue of some description and maybe it is lacking but I think over all it is a good thing – its better than nothing. For my part it has introduced me (indirectly) through others who are concerned about this, in different universities and I think that is important, at least it is to me.

    I think this needs to remain, challenging each other and discussion of issues is good, but I think perhaps though it is always good to be thinking about what to improve – I think #scivote and similar hashtags, blogs, etc are a good start. Its at least some kind of venue… and useful I think to me….

    Reply
  5. Kieron Flanagan

    I do agree with Alice and @sylviamclain about the connections made through these debates, so #scivote has been a social networking success – for me, very much so. My criticisms above are of #scivote as a ‘campaign’.

    Reply

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