Monthly Archives: April 2012

“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.

Temples

As it’s Easter Sunday and friends and family are at Church, I dug out a piece on the idea of an atheist temple I wrote it for Comment Is Free belief a few months back (but got bumped by coverage of women Bishops). The photos are of the Occupy Camp by St Pauls before it was disbanded earlier this year.

Several eyes rolled at Alain de Botton’s suggestion of a ‘temple to atheism’. For me, it was the Rev Katharine Rumens, rector of a church near where the temple might be built, who put her finger on the problem. Rumens worries that the sense of awe de Botton wants to invoke is not enough. Indeed, it might alienate people, make them feel insignificant even. A temple needs to be welcoming.

This is a concern we can apply to de Botton’s temple, but could be extended to anything trying to invoke a bit of awe: be it a popular science book, painting, train station or shopping centre. The politics depend on what you are asked to be in awe of. A God or a Bishop is different from a galaxy, a glacier, a spaceship or a giant tree. Awe of scientists, engineers or explorers who make and uncover our world is different again. There is always a politics though. Awe can make people feel slightly rubbish in comparison, and I don’t think that’s a nice thing to do to someone.

London’s Natural History Museum – an iconic “Cathedral to Nature” established in 1881 – provides a neat case study. Being in awe of nature itself is, perhaps, no bad thing. Perhaps we should feel an emotional connection with nature. Especially in the context of climate change, maybe we should appreciate nature’s beauty more and feel increasingly scared by it too. But the NHM doesn’t just showcase nature; it is a celebration of human understanding too, from statues of dead scientists to the fishbowl-like Darwin Centre, where glass walled laboratories mean you can watch live ones going about their work. These people, what they know and continue to reveal about our world, impress me. But I don’t want to be cowed by them.

There’s a difference between a temple that invites you to gasp open-mouthed, and one that invites you in for a cup of tea. I was talking to a friend recently about how the Occupy camp has changed the way we feel about St Paul’s. It used to be just another posh building on the skyline. Now it feels newly iconic in a way we feel a connection to. It’s not just for people in history books, or those with the religion or cash we lack. Now we feel we can drop by the space around the Cathedral, if not the site itself, for a chat. The first time I ever understood why people construct large religious buildings was a schooltrip to the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir. It’s a space of such grand, eye-watering beauty it’s hard not to feel humbled. It is also, importantly, a very welcoming and human space, perhaps because it was built by the local community and a sense of personal connection is so clear.

At its best, the NHM asks the public not just to be entranced and educated, but join in. It invites us to gawp at our world and gain perspective by tracing both the Earth’s history and our scientific understanding of it, but it also invites us to join an ongoing social activity of learning more. The NHM, for all its impressive halls and awesome dinosaurs, can also be humble and listen. Projects like Open Air Laboratories offer science to be part of.

If de Botton wants to build a temple to atheism, good luck to him. I just hope it’s a place where a diversity of people feel able to work together to discuss options for a shared future, not simply sit in awe of a world they’ve been given. At their best, religious sites provide this. I’d hope any atheist one would too.