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.