Monthly Archives: November 2010

Unlocking the future of education

I’m just going to come out and say this: Sally Hunt made me cry.

Sally Hunt is General Secretary of the University and College Union (UCU) and the crying incident occurred during her speech at the NUS/ UCU anti-cuts demo a couple of weeks ago.
colourful banners in sunshine
I don’t normally stand in the street in the middle of the day, weeping. In my defense, it was only a few tears. I was also exceedingly tired, having staying up half the night, working. Plus, it had been a reasonably emotional build up to Hunt’s speech, walking from Trafalgar Square to Tate Britain with 50,000-ish other people in the blazing, cold November sunshine.

I should probably stress that from what I saw, it really was a peaceful protest. I saw a lot of anger – including the first Millbank window smash – but it wasn’t all destructive or negative anger. The emotion was running high, but this was as much a celebration of what is good about education as anything else. A rabble of people out to declare themselves and their worth. A large and diverse rabble too, which I felt showed a fair degree of altruism as well as the spread of impact of education on peoples lives.

Educate Don't Segregate
These protests feel very different from the ones in the late 1990s when the fees were re-introduced. I was still at school. A friend and I went on the big anti-fees demo in London. I say big, but there were probably only a few thousand there. The general feeling was that schoolkids weren’t organised or connected enough with the NUS to go, and current university students didn’t care because they wouldn’t have to pay. We shouted about education being for all and waved our signs. We didn’t think it would do much, but it made us feel better. Tourists asked us to pose for photos. They thought we were sweet to be out with out placards and balloons. I remember shrugging with a slight feeling of anti-climax as we got on the tube home.

Despite the introduction of fees, I did go on to university. I was lucky. My parents both went to university themselves: there was a cultural acceptance as well as financial support (though my younger brother is another story). I also worked before and throughout my time at university, something I think helped me understand and appreciate my education more, as well as simply pay for it. I got a degree, and another, and another (and another, and another…). All, in some way, studying issues of how academics connect to the rest of society. I also shared what I’d learnt, moving on to work as a lecturer.

So, university education is something I’ve experienced, studied and produced. It’s something I know about and care deeply about.

Protest gets to Parliment

That slightly embarrassing crying moment? It happened during Sally Hunt’s speech. She showed a student video against cuts, breathlessly declaring “this is why education is so important: it helps make people brilliant”. I heard her voice break, she was clearly trying not to cry. I thought about my students, my teachers, and all the other people that make up a university that I’d been lucky to work with. I thought about the p45 sitting on my desk. I noticed my cheeks were wet.

I didn’t just cry because I agreed with Hunt. I cried because she’s wrong too. People do work very hard in the university sector, and do amazing things, but the system as a whole needs to be better. Some argue that a rise in fees will put more power in the hands of the students. I’m all for student power, but I’m not so sure about this as an approach. I think it limits which students might have the chance at such power in the first place. Moreover, I think that this sort of model severely limits the scope of what a university might be able to provide its community.

Hunt’s shouts of “you say Tories, I say scum” also depressed me. It reminded me of a schooltrip to Winsdor when I was 14. We drove through Eton on the way back, and our teacher got us to lean out the windows of the bus to point and laugh at the students’ silly uniforms. The Eton kids probably thought we looked funny too. Our uniform included a bomber jacket and a baseball cap (Really. The running team and steel pan group had school-uniform shellsuits). The cultural gap between my old inner-city comp and Eton College is immense. It is one based on social injustices which make me sick. But getting one group to jeer at the other just makes things worse. And that makes me sicker.

Most of all, I felt like UK universities had wasted the last decade of relative financial comfort. Now crisis hits, we’re suddenly noticing how great we are (or rather great we could/ should be) whilst simultaneously being constrained by a lack of funds. I felt like privatization of the academy has been handed to us as the only way out and, annoyed at this, all we do was shout abuse as those who won’t listen.

So that was why I was standing outside Tate Britain, listening to Sally Hunt. Binded by the sunshine and my students’ brilliance. Chilled by the freezing cold and impending cuts. Crying.

after the demo (Victoria station, 7pm)

To end on a more positive note, in the last week, I’ve felt like the frustration has, at least partially, be unlocked. As David Mitchell put it in the Observer yesterday, the ongoing protests demonstrate a growing political will to reform our higher education system. A Campaign for the Public University has been launched, as was Humanities Matter and I’ve just heard about a similar Campaign for Social Sciences.. Today, the Telegraph has a letter from senior academics calling for a Public Commission of Enquiry, and the student occupations are going strong. More people want to talk about what we can do other than raising fees to improve universities. I’m starting to see the merest glimmer of hope.

Maybe I’m being ridiculously naive. What do you think?


Science and FOI

Adam Corner and I have a piece It’s on Freedom of Information and science in the Times Higher this week. In fact, we’re the cover story. You can read it online, though the THE’s art work for the piece is a treat, worth the price alone (and the layout in the THE always makes more sense in print). You can also see Phil Batty’s leader on the topic, stressing that the academy is in the truth business so should embrace FoI.

Adam specialises in how the public treat climate science (see his posts for the Guardian) and our focus is climate science. As he pitched the idea to me, when it came to “climategate” it was often said that science was “asleep at the wheel” when FoI came calling, but maybe we could turn that question around and instead ask, was FoI legislation ready for science?

The answer, as ever, seems to be somewhere in the middle. Or at least, if FoI wasn’t ready for science, then we can argue that some fault lies with the scientific institutions, who could have played a more active role in the consultations over FoI in the late 1990s (i.e. they could have helped make the legislation reflect their needs better).

One of our key points is that science is a lot more than just the sort of ‘information’ you might be able to ‘make free’. To quote our piece:

The sort of knowledge that can be easily extracted using FoI requests is far-reaching but also inherently limited to information that is explicit. Numbers, calculations, reference lists – and, of course, emails – can all be placed squarely in the public domain. With enough of this type of explicit information, some aspects of the scientific process can be recreated. If you have someone’s raw data, you know the calculations they made and you can see their results, you are in a position to confirm or challenge their conclusions. But to what extent does this fully capture scientific knowledge?

Though we did also get and interesting comment from Jon Mendel, who argued FoI requests can throw up really interesting context you wouldn’t otherwise get. For example, everyday discussions between those working on a policy which Mendel suggests might provide a more “bottom-up perspective on how decisions are made and policies develop”. I thought that was interesting, though I’m not sure how broadly applicable it is (and I know climate researchers have views on the relevance of their emails…). I’d be interested to know about other peoples experiences of FoI – I have one blogged here.

If you have any other comments on the piece you’d rather discuss here than on the THE site, please feel free to (e.g. do you agree with our our conclusion that public engagement is the way forward? Or agree, but wish to elaborate on how?).

Finding the lost women of science

You might have read Richard Holmes’ article in the Observer this weekend on the “lost” women of Victorian Science.

As several people pointed out, these people weren’t “lost” to all of us. Anyone with an interest in Victorian popular science will have heard of at least some of these names already. But that doesn’t mean such people are generally known about. Neither does it mean people who didn’t know about these people are somehow ignorant or stupid. Maybe you don’t know about Arabella Buckley, you know other things.

As Holmes himself writes:

Science should sow “seeds”. Science should broadcast, should disperse the seeds of knowledge to all and as imaginatively as possible. Science, and the scientific method, should become a new means of general education and enlightenment, not merely for the elite. Until scientific knowledge was explained, explored and widely understood by the population at large, the work of scientists would always be incomplete.

The same is true for the study of science’s history. It’s all very well sitting there and saying “I knew that already” (as I admit, I smugly did while reading Holmes) but what use is that (unless all you want to be is sit being smug I suppose).

A few people on twitter had the idea for a group-blog on the topic throughout December (i.e. the last month of the Royal Society’s 350th anniversary year). Join us! Tell us about a woman of science you think more people should know about, or take the time to do some research into one you’d like to know more about, and then share what you’ve learnt.

We’d like to keep some connection to the Royal Society, so someone connected with UK science is preferred. It’s worth noting that the Royal Society’s journals are free to access until the 30 Nov (right back to 1665), which might be useful for research. Also, to add to the people mentioned by Holmes, there is a good list here.

Have a think and leave a comment here with who you think you’ll write about (you might be able to link up with someone writing about a similar topic). When you’ve posted your piece, leave a link here too, so I can put up a list of all the pieces at the start of the new year, ready for the next 350 years of the Royal Society’s history.

Me, I’ll extend on some of the kids’ writers Holmes mentions (i.e. Arabella Buckley). EDIT: done! Although I do talk about men in that post too, because I don’t really like dividing up history like that.

The plagiarism business

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran a piece by a man who makes his living writing ‘bespoke’ essays for university students: The Shadow Scholar.

I’ve been keeping an eye on this business since I was flyered by one ‘Oxbridge Essays’ on campus about five years ago. At the time I was officially a PhD student, so possibly a customer (they’ll do you an 80,000 word PhD thesis in a month for a bit over £10000). I was also a part-time lecturer though. I’d just dealt with my first case of plagiarism, and the dude flyering got rather an earful.

I can recommend spending some time on the Oxbridge Essays website. Their cynicism is an eye-opener if nothing else. is also worth a read. They both stress that the essays are for research purposes only, a way of finding a model answer. They present themselves as a support center for students. Oxbridge Essays has a blog covering issues like the increase in fees. Both also stress their openness. You can see photos of the UK Essays writers, and visit Oxbridge Essays’ offices. According to an interesting piece from the Guardian, they are both owned by Barclay Littlewood who, via a link on his wikipedia page, I learnt had made the 2008 Sunday Times Rich List (see also a piece from 2007 and another from 2006).

If any of those links depress you, you might find the scepticism of this student forum page cheering.

Such ‘bespoke’ essays are unlikely to be caught by plagiarism checks (e.g. turnitin) and more likely to fit the coursework brief than cutting and pasting off the web. I do know a tutor who once caught a student who had bought an essay from such a site. She noticed a sudden rise in a student’s standard of coursework, so pulled him into a meeting to discuss the essay’s topics, at which point he broke down and admitted it. But she only spotted this because she is a good tutor who knows her students, one that thinks about their development as she works through her marking. I think it’s fair to say that tutors like that are less likely to get students cheating in the first place.

When I first caught that undergrad cheating, I was angry with her. I thought she was being phenomenally lazy (it was a real doozy of a cheat) not to mention downright cheeky to think such laziness was ok when other students had bothered to produce original work. But part of me also felt like I’d failed her slightly, that she either felt unable or simply uninspired by the coursework. I don’t think I was just being hard on myself. I think any sign of student failure (and this includes them making ‘stupid mistakes’ as well as dishonesty) should be taken as a signal for the teacher to at the very least check themselves. I think assessment is not just a part of measuring learning, but helping to develop it. I put a lot of effort into setting and marking coursework. I think most (good) lecturers do. Still, it is difficult, and even the best lecturers will set coursework students cannot do well in. This isn’t (just) because we set challening work, it’s because it’s bad coursework: confusingly articulated, uninspiring. As another bespoke essay writer puts it ‘Imagine trying to write a novel, for a grade, under a tight deadline, without ever having read a novel’ (hat-tip Paula Salgado for that link).

I’m not saying we should ‘spoon-feed’ lazy students or set easier work (or let cheaters get away with it), I’m just saying a good coursework assignment is a project students can and want to work on.

So, educators: read up on this bespoke essay business. Keep an eye out for students using it, but take their existence as a challenge to yourself too. As the guy in the Chronicle piece put it ‘I live well on the desperation, misery, and incompetence that your educational system has created’. If you find him disgusting, think about how you can most productively help cut off the food supply.

Does my brain look big in this?

According to an oft-cited paper by Marcel LaFollette, a 1926 magazine once introduced an eminent medical researcher as a woman whose mahogany furniture “gleams”. From the same study, but a 1950 magazine, a senior figure in the Atomic Energy Commission was praised for sewing her own clothes. Later, via Dorothy Nelkin, Maria Mayer (Nobel physics prize, 1963) was described as “a tiny, shy, touchingly devoted wife and mother… her children were perfectly darling” and Barbara McClintock (Nobel prize in medicine, 1983) introduced as “well known for baking with black walnuts”.

In today’s more enlightened times, we see women scientists in an entirely different light. No longer do we look past the prizes, publications and other achievements to a gleaming kitchen table. No, we look at the woman herself and er, um… well, maybe we linger too long on certain other features of her femininity which similarly obscure her professionalism. I am referring, of course, to the emergence of scientific ‘totty‘ (or hottie, if you’re on the other side of the Atlantic).

To give you a flavour of what I mean, the following are descriptions of women scientists, from profiles of them written in the British press in early 21st Century:

shoes of teetering altitude […and a] miniskirt of dizzying brevity [she] may be Britain’s leading authority on the brain, but it is her physique that turns heads

We must mention the makeover […] accessorised, a sparkling intellect doesn’t get you in on to the pages of Vogue

She looks like an off-duty Bond girl, but she’s actually a physicist […] given the chance, plenty of viewers would happily experiment with [her]

Lab coats, safety googles – and killer heels […] getting teenagers all steamed up over science

The above quotes (and historical examples) were all snaffled from a recent paper by media scholars at the University of Cardiff, Mwenya Chimba and Jenny Kitzinger. Part of a larger project considering the representation of women scientists in UK media, this paper notes the attention given to women scientists’ appearance compared to men, as well as the slightly different places women are used to talk about science. This is a topic discussed by many science bloggers last July, following a thoughtful post by Sheril Kirshenbaum, but it’s interesting to see systematic research on the topic too.

Chimba and Kitzinger’s research was rooted in an analysis of 51 interviews with scientists, 8 of which were with women, pulled from a sample of 12 UK national papers between January and Jun 2006. They also explored profiles of Susan Greenfield and Kathy Sykes in more breadth. In addition to this content analysis, they collected data from 86 female scientists about what they liked and disliked about media representations as well as their own experiences of working with the the media (questionnaire, follow up interviews and six focus groups).  Finally, they explored emerging findings with more scientists, as well as journalists and communication professionals (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 611-2). I personally wasn’t entirely sure of a focus on profiles as representing representation of women in science across media, especially considering the stress on Greenfield and Sykes. However, I can also see why they took that approach and the other side of the research helps them broaden their scope very neatly. Moreover, I think if you remember the context from which these profile analysis came, they are still worth thinking about.

One clear difference emerged from studying the 51 profiles: the attention given to the appearance of women scientists. Half of the profiles of women referred to their clothing, physique and/or hairstyle whereas this was only true for 21% of the profiles of men. Such references might seem fairly innocuous, especially when located within a generally positive article, but Chimba and Kitzinger stress the ways in which references to a man’s appearance carry a different tone. For example, while women might be described as having a ‘mane of blonde hair’, the focus for men is more likely to be on a beard, with rather different connotations: ‘His full white beard is worn more in homage to Charles Darwin than the Almighty’ (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 612-3). It’s not just journalists doing this: hunting out a line about ‘the Nigella of science’, they found it was sold to an editor by a television company’s PR agency (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 617).

References to hair and heels, etc might be welcomed as a way of showing off a generally unseen glamorous side to science. Chimba and Kitzinger also note the way in which a headline such as ‘Blonde hair, short skirt, big brain’ could be a mater of a journalist playfully deconstructing the various stereotypes  on offer; challenging images of boffin and bimbo at once (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 613). At the same time, however, we shouldn’t forget the ways a focus on female scientists’ appearance can have very negative consequences. It may draw attention away from the scientist’s professionalism, and there may be the implicit accusation that she is being manipulative and using her sexuality to attract attention (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 614).

For me, the most important finding was the way in which Chimba and Kitzinger draw attention to  the difference in places women are used in science coverage. For example, one publicity officer for a major science organization explained that if they were dealing with a ‘real heavy-weight current affairs programme’ they would go with a white middle-class male, where as BBC breakfast shows would ask specifically for a young, attractive woman (see Boyce & Kitzinger, 2008, pdf). Another of their research subjects reports that she had trouble moving from kids television, where her tomboy image fitted fine, to adult programming, because she couldn’t suit an image of ‘thinking man’s crumpet’ (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 620). Men may signal an aura of gravitas in science, whilst women are used when the science is being made ‘accessible’ or ‘sexy’; a possible divide between real scientists and scientifically flavoured ‘eye-candy’ (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 616).

The paper also stresses that women aren’t just the objects of media representation, they are active creators and negotiator of their own image, even if they do not always have control over this conditions of this (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 616). They noted an ambivalence in some of the interviews, and sense that they were in processes of negotiation. For example, one spoke of it as a matter of ‘walking a tightrope’; how much do they use it for their advantage, ‘or is that getting in bed with the devil?’. Further, such a representation would a woman more than just professionally. One mentioned being personally flattered as well as personally and professional offended. Another said she gave up because of the personal pressure on image (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 619).

Men on television get letched over too, of course, and this can make them feel uncomfortable too. Whether it has the same impact on their career is debatable though. It’s difficult being a scientist-populariser at the best of times, but Chimba and Kitzinger suggest, it is especially risky for women, especially as sexuality gets folded into this. Playing with the term ‘media whore’, they quote Laura Barton in saying ‘even in the intellectual world there are slags [a derogatory term for  promiscuous women] and there are studs [an admiring term for promiscuous men]’ (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 614).

Personally, I don’t mind the odd bit of glamourous science media, but it shouldn’t become a dominant theme. Scientists should not feel as if they have to play up a glamorous image in order to do any public work. Neither should we sort our media scientists into serious debate with men of gravitas on one side, and a bit of girlie chat/ tickle your fancy on the other. If nothing else, it’s limiting; for audiences as well as scientists. I think we should be aiming for a diversity of voices in our science media (and I don’t mean diversity simply in terms of gender).

  • Chimba, M., & Kitzinger, J. (2009). Bimbo or boffin? Women in science: An analysis of media representations and how female scientists negotiate cultural contradictions Public Understanding of Science DOI: 10.1177/0963662508098580

What do you think?

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.

Science, public engagement and ‘The Big Society’

Keep Science Public

Yesterday, Jack Stilgoe posted a piece about science and the Big Society on the Royal Society’s science policy blog. He starts by playing with the juxtaposition of the Big Society with the idea of “Big Science”:

Scientific research is increasingly specialised, a trend accelerated by the emergence of Big Science – an expensive, equipment-heavy team sport – in the second half of the 20th century.  This means it’s pretty hard to democratise much scientific research. Big Society science probably won’t therefore involve street gene-sequencing parties or the Women’s Institute designing a particle accelerator.

Stilgoe then goes on to stress the ways in which this specialised world of contemporary science can still accommodate, indeed be helped by, some collaboration with non-experts, celebrating a range of projects which might broadly be called ‘Citizen Science’.

Sadly, such enthusiasm for public engagement doesn’t seem to extend to the Royal Society’s website: their blogs don’t support readers’ comments. Much as I do love the piece of French social theory Stilgoe links to in pace of a platform for debate, I think there are some more pragmatic points to raise, ones that are worth making if we are to develop thought on this important issue.

So here’s my two-pennyworth, which I offer alongside an open comment thread for others to add their own ideas, arguments and examples.

Stilgoe mentions Galaxy Zoo. As does everyone who talks about this issue. As they should. It’s great. It lets professional researchers tap into the energy and enthusiasm  of amateurs. Everyone learns, everyone has fun, everyone is involved. There is now a whole Zooniverse of  projects, everyone wants in on the game. But there are problems. As I’ve argued before, Galaxy Zoo is relatively unusual. Astronomy is an area many people enjoy as a hobby, with a long history of amateur/ professional collaboration. The specific tasks Galaxy Zoo involves happen to be relatively easy to pick up.

Most science isn’t like this. This doesn’t damper the brilliance of Galaxy Zoo at all (I’m a big fan), but it does say something about it’s reach and potential role as poster boy for Big Society Science.

Stilgoe also mentions Steven Epstein’s excellent book about the ways in which AIDS patients in the 1980s managed to take some control of the research agenda, becoming experts themselves in the process. Again, this is an example that’s always wheeled out in debates like this. Like Galaxy Zoo, I can see why; it is brilliant. But also like Galaxy Zoo, I wonder if it’s cited so often because there aren’t many other good examples?

It’s important to remember issues of social and cultural capital here. Or, more bluntly: class. Not all patients groups are as well positioned as these AIDS activists. If I remember rightly, this is a point mentioned by Steven Epstein. There’s a history of networks which these AIDS activists drew on which not all patient groups have. Further, just as astronomy is an area people care about, so is medicine. Not all research has the same emotional drive.

And what’s missing from Stilgoe’s list? Well, we could talk about science blogging, science-themed political activism (e.g. over homeopathy, or funding, as in photo above), the role of charities or, more abstractly, whether citizen science projects allow professionals to take advantage of hobbyists. Maybe these are things for a comments thread.

Instead, I want to talk about Opal Air Laboratories (OPAL), a network of community ecology projects. Like Galaxy Zoo, OPAL involves science which has a history of amateur involvement, and has been designed to include tasks people can readily do without much training (go on, send them your photos of worms). What makes OPAL so fascinating though, is that it’s also an example of a research project which has receiving from the National Lottery. Why? Because it turns out that public engagement with science can help foster a sense of social inclusion as well as good science. When I spoke to OPAL’s director last year, she told me they run projects getting ex-offenders involved in ecological research, helping them feel connected to their natural and social surroundings in the process. In some respects, such work could be described as science as a form of social work (apparently the Eden Project run similar projects with Willesden schoolkids). It’s worth noting that the more developed aspects of OPAL spends time training it’s volunteers. Yes, you get work from people for free, but you also have to invest heavily in order to do this. This kind of community engagement is hard work in itself, relying on the fulltime expertise of people who do this for a living (and, I’d personally say, should maybe be given more stable “public” funding than Lottery grants).

None of this is to necessarily disagree with Jack’s initial post, I just think it’s worth having a longer conversation about some of the details and problems involved and drawing on the ideas and knowledge of others.

So please, do take some time to comment.

EDIT: spinning off from this post (or rather, the comment thread) I wrote a piece on science and “the big society” for Research Fortnight. It’s paywalled, but most UK universities have institutional access.