Category Archives: campaigning

Scientists, torture and history

As NBC reports, “torture teachers” for the CIA earned $80million, and applied the expertise of academically trained psychologists.

This got me digging out my notes on the 1970s radical science movement (full feature on this for Mosaic early next year). One of the reasons I’m interested in them is the work they did unpicking technologies of control in Northern Ireland. It’s a story in itself, but one with a fair bit of relevance today: rubber bullets, CS spray, water-cannon, and interrogation techniques.

The bulk of the work on so-called “in depth” interrogation was done by Tim Shallice, who later went on to be director of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL, and a Fellow of the Royal Society. Although it wasn’t directly Tim’s area of expertise, he knew enough of the relevant science to help translate it for a broader audience, and bring the topic under greater scrutiny. He had some professional distance from the subject, so could be a lot more critical/ take a lot more risks than many others working more closely in the field, whilst still having some specialist knowledge. Some scientists might be happy to weaponise their scholarship, but people like Tim could disrupt that.

Here’s an extract from a 1974 pamphlet The New Technology of Repression: Lessons from Ireland, co-authored by Tim, which explores the issue of interrogation.

Of the 342 internees arrested on the rely morning of August 9th, 12 were subject to much more complex procedures than the others. After being held for two days at Regional Holding Centres, they were transferred to an “interrogation centre” (location unknown) for ten hours, transferred again to Crumlin Road Jail, and returned to the interrogation centre. (All movements were performed hooded.) The men were held at the centre for ix days. Except when actually being interrogated they were kept in a room — the ‘black hole’, as one of the interrogators called it. When it the black hole, they were forced to stay in a fixed position with their hands spreadeagled high on the all and their legs apart. (The KGB called this the ‘stoika’ position.) If they collapsed, or moved to try to relive the numbness in their limbs, they’d be beaten back to position. the room was filed with a loud monotonous sound “like the escaping of compressed air” or “the constant whirring of a helicopter blade”. Their heads were reseed in loosely fitting boiler suits. No sleep was allowed or the first two or three days, and their diet was restricted to bread and water. The temperature was normally too hot, occasionally too cold.

The components of this process — disorienting and impersonal post-arrest procedures, sleep deprivation, inadequate food and isolation — are the classic components of personality break-down processes long used by interrogators. The best documented use of these methods was that by the KGB in the Soviet purges of the 1930s. The British methods of 1971 we’re hover more severe than those of the KGB. In particular, the KGB achieved isolation by placing the prisoner in a featureless, relatively silent room, and making him continually face the same way. In Northern Ireland, isolation was achieved by the prevention of ay chafe in sensory input by use of the hood the mashing noise (white noise of 85-87 decibels), the fixed position and the wearing of a loose-fitting boiler suit — an altogether more extreme regime.

The Russian methods are the culmination of the break-down methods gradually developed during the long history of the craft of interrogation; the methods used in Ireland result from the scientific analysis and hence the perfecting of the realty cruder methods. Isolation is extrapolated to its limed by presenting any change in sensory input as far as is practicably possible […]

Even in the reassuring atmosphere of a psychological experiment, her subjects are amply rewarded for staying in a comfortable sensory deprivation environment, the situation is a very stressful one. Hallucinations, nightmares, inability to think, fears of madness, body-image distortions (e.g. “my body is like a spinning cone going away from my body”) and paranoid delusions occur frequently. In situations where subjects are also printed from moving, hardly anyone can stand it for more than 10 hours. In Ireland even the official Compton Report admits to durations “at the wall” of up to 16 hours at a stretch, and of up to 43 hours if breaks for interrogation are ignored.

Moreover, the effect of sensory deprivation is highly dependent upon the subject’s anxiety — the higher the anxiety, the more fearsome its effects. In Northern Ireland even before the sensory deprivation began, the depersonalised and highly confusing arrest procedure produced very high anxiety levels. As could be predicted from the psychological research results, the techniques produced a psychotic breakdown in the men within about 24 hours of their being at the wall. The symptoms consisted of loss of sense of time, visual and auditory hallucinations, profound apprehension, depression and delusional beliefs. […] Perhaps the best way of indicating the symptoms is by a quote from a statement by one of the sufferers: “The hood was put on my head again and I was put against a wall for a short time they beat my head on the wall. I was then taken into a copter; taken a journey of 1 hour, put in the lorry and back into the room with the noise. I was put against the wall again and left. I was beaten when I could not stand any longer, taken away for questioning, taken back to the wall, back for questions back to the wall, back for questions — ‘God when will it stop’. Time meant nothing I was only a sore, aching body and confused mind. After a time I was only a mind.”

I’m not sure where the equivalent scientists like Tim are today, or if a 21st century academic career allows the same time and freedom he enjoyed.

Britain ended up in the European Court of Human Rights on this issue, in case you were wondering.

I don’t know if any of it offered useful information for the interrogators.

Science policy and social media

Up and Atom

ANNOUNCEMENT: I’m part of a new blog network at the Guardian, “Political Science“. I’ll keep this for more personal/ niche content though. My first post there considers the way the public (or forms of publicity) are used to help reform science in the All Trails campaign. It’s based on a short talk I gave at the STEPS conference at Sussex this week, the full text of which follows.

The Royal Institution is up for sale. There are many interesting things about the fuss this has caused. One of which is that Harry Kroto has taken to twitter. It seems like that’s what happens when scientists get angry these days.

Social media is increasingly playing a role in science policy campaigns: All Trials Registered, All Results Reported (or the more 140c friendly alltrails), the anti-anti-GM “Don’t Destroy Research” and Science is Vital being just a few notable examples.

It’s an interesting development which as scholars of the field we should look at in more detail. From a more normative point of view, we might also welcome it as a sign of a greater openness in lobbying around science; making it more scrutinizable, more accountable and possibly more able to learn from a broader, more diverse, set of perspectives. Still, there are questions to ask and criticisms to make. Just because there are small moments of openness doesn’t mean that the majority of power brokering in science is still, if not outright secret, rather esoteric. Openness can be rhetorically applied and we need to think about that. Moreover, hashtags have histories and hierarchies as much as anything else; there are cultures and contingencies to consider here, as any campaign located in a specific social context. (Arguably, one of the reasons we’ve seen it in the UK is the relatively grassroots structure of our sceptics movement, and the experience of Libel Reform is important too.) It’s also worth reflecting on the ways in which ideas of the public and publicity are being used here and how this is similar and different from the rhetorical use of, for example, public polling data or protests putting bodies out in the street.

It’s not exactly new. I dug out my notes for a talk I gave on the topic at 2010  Science Online London conference (read text version and comment thread on blogpost I wrote at the time). There had been a lot of social media activity around the election, largely coalescing around the twitter hashtag “scivote”. I stressed that, as a hashtag, offered a connection; a folksonomical collective and dynamic socially constructed way of classifying. It connected people to events, information, ideas, debates and, quite simply, other people. It let individuals develop knowledge and interest and fostered community. You weren’t just the one person in the lab who was feeling a bit grumpy about the government, you were part of something larger. You didn’t have to feel weird about being a bit political. Still, none these connections happened entirely online and we  have to remember how much of a role much less public work happens around these online campaigns. The Science is Vital campaign, for example, gradually gathered expertise and steam from a few tweets and blogpost, but it also built on the infrastructure, contacts, profile and expertise of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (amongst others). That’s not to say Science Is Vital had no impact, it arguably let the more traditional lobbyists express a constituency that cared about these issues. That’s powerful political rhetoric.

It’s striking that although many of the online science policy campaigns have a grassroots-y feel to the, they are promoting rather traditional top-down expressions of scientific expertise and reflecting, if not emphasizing preexisting power networks. In one of the various obits of the Rio +20 talks this summer, John Vidal claimed the end fossil fuel subsidies and save the Arctic campaigns were “eye-catching global bottom-up initiatives”. They weren’t.

(When someone says “bottom up” always ask “whose bottom?”)

These campaigns were more about enumerating the actors of public relations than diffusing political power. They expressed a public, they didn’t try to involve them. And I think that’s how we can the recent scientific community based campaigns too; they don’t seem to have any particular interest in finding new opinions, just show there are people who have the same opinion as them. They didn’t want new questions, just more people to sign up to their answers. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – we can have public campaigns as well as public debate – as long as we recognise what we are looking at.

That said, I think it’s fair to say that both Libel reform and Science is Vital picked up a lot of expertise along with the more passive clickativist support: Lawyers, lobbyists, designers, programmers. In that respect it’s a different from the slicker professionalised projects we’ve seen from environmental campaigners.

It also strikes me that All Trials is especially interesting because it’s about publicizing absence of evidence and saying a bit of the medical science is broken. It’s being open about problems, albeit in a rather tightly framed way. And I think there’s a lot of potential there. I’m just not sure I’ve seen it realised yet.

Should scientists be bolder in public?

tomorrow disappeared, street art in east london

I spoke at the London Climate Forum this weekend. This is a rough sketch of what I said.

Jeremy Grantham is the investor behind the “Grantham Institute” centres for climate change research at Imperial and the LSE. He recently wrote a provocative opinion piece for Nature, arguing:

Overstatement may generally be dangerous in science (it certainly is for careers) but for climate change, uniquely, understatement is even riskier and therefore, arguably, unethical. It is crucial that scientists take more career risks and sound a more realistic, more desperate, note on the global-warming problem. Younger scientists are obsessed by thoughts of tenure, so it is probably up to older, senior and retired scientists to do the heavy lifting. Be arrested if necessary. This is not only the crisis of your lives — it is also the crisis of our species’ existence. I implore you to be brave.

It’s a bold statement. But possibly not a fair one. As Roger Pielke Jr quipped, “how about you go first?” More to the point, perhaps, many scientists recoiled from the suggestion, not simply because they lacked the courage or conviction of their work, but because they felt that isn’t a productive way to do science in public. People’s ideas of science vary, but to many it is not about bolding delivering anything, but asking questions.

And yet, perhaps Grantham has a point that climate is different. It’s more urgent, and there are more than enough people external to science ready to pounce and amplify your understatement for you. It’s surrounded by a very different political narrative of certainty and doubt than, for example, BSE. It’d be wrong to build a policy of scientific advice for climate based on models constructed in other crisis. Further, one might argue that climate science as a community is a bit too reticent, a bit too quick to hide (at least compared to other actors in the field), perhaps because the scientists who are currently at the most senior levels came into it before it was such a high profile political issue; they didn’t sign up for this.

In many ways, this isn’t a new dilemma. One might even say it’s the basic paucity of scepticism, the evental emptiness of doubt: At some point, you have to believe in something and act, or you do nothing. That doesn’t mean we have to be stuck though, it’s just a matter of deciding when you do choose to put questions to one side and act.

I don’t think we should be prescriptive about what scientists do here. If some would rather focus on uncertainty, fine, but equally I don’t think we should necessarily admonish those who take their work more boldly to the streets either (for one thing, that plays into stories those working against scientific advice would seek to promote: who are we really serving when we do such scolding?). That’s not to say we can’t critique individual actions we disagree with, but I’d like to think science is big and diverse enough to cover a range of approaches to science in society, and that we should be ok with that. If anything, we should celebrate and foster diversity of political attitude and approach. There’s a lot more to scientists in society than simply those who speak out and those who don’t; there are different ways to speak, a range of frames and a diversity of possible audiences. As Pielke Jr argues in his book the Honest Broker, their are various models for scientific advice one might choose, the important thin gis scientists do pick one approach, and do so consciously  thinking about which they apply, when and why.

I’m not sure I agree with Grantham’s focus on senior scientists, although they will have to be more accepting of such an approach if younger, less senior ones are to be involved too. This kind of work doesn’t just have to be done scientists either, but other members of the scientific community: educators, public engagement officers, artists, psychologists, sociologists, writers, press officers, storytellers, filmmakers, all sorts. (Yes, these people are part of the scientific community – broadly defined – and many are very skilled too).

We just don’t see enough of this activity applied to climate science. And so, I’d say if Grantham really wants a stronger public discourse on climate science, he should put his money where his mouth is and fund some. There used to be the Grantham Prize for journalism, the funding for which was recently shifted to training journalists, but journalism is only one part of the sort of work needed here. I would like to see a much larger project of investment in a larger range of climate communications. (I think it should be funded by the government, but that’s another fight). I know way too many science communication people who deliberately frame their ideas to have a biomedical theme so they can apply to Wellcome public engagment grants. If Grantham helped put together a climate version, I’m sure many would shift their energies, and that’d probably be a lot more productive in the long run than front page photos of Brian Hoskins occupying an oil rig.

A call for open journalism, and open campaigning, on climate change

A view from the Science Museum’s climate gallery.

This was originally published on Greenpeace’s Energy Desk blog and written for a debate they ran at the Frontline Club last month. I might well have written something different today, as I read debate over climate and Sandy and keep track of the anti-gas protest in West Burton. I still think it applies though.

Is journalism fit for purpose when it comes to energy and climate change? I have two answers. They’re both questions.

Firstly, whose purpose are we trying to fit to exactly? This is important. It draws our attention – crucially – to the politics of it all, because the public debate on energy and climate change is all about the politics.

We might, if in a conciliatory mood, agree that we all want to make a happier, safer future for us all. But what this future looks like and how we get there is up for debate. It might be nice to imagine scientists could simply pass their great knowledge on to the rest of the world. But they don’t know everything, and we’re not going to quickly believe them either. Neither is it as simple as a matter of saying we should argue with scientists. See, for example, cases of “false balance” (where a marginal view is put up against a rigorously worked out one, as if they were equivalent) or “merchants of doubt” (where small amounts of uncertainty are exploited to rhetorically unravel strong cases).

I give my students the difference between top-down versus discursive models of science communication to play with, but the reality is too complex for such rarefied models.

Secondly, is journalism really the problem? Greenpeace may organise an event like this, ready to point fingers at journalism, but they should take the chance to look at themselves too. For all that I’d like to see a continued role for professional, independent journalism, we’ll increasingly see direct communication to the public from activists, academics, politicians and more.

We could all be better.

The involvement recent Arctic Ready campaign came under particular criticism. I personally felt those wailing “but Greenpeace LIED” needed to get some perspective. It’s not like Greenpeace is the first to pull something like this. The Office of Fair Trading tried a similar game a few years ago, working with Sense About Science to highlight misinformation around health. Other parodies such as the pregnant man or downloadable tan invite people to consider quite how credulous they are when it comes to science and technology. Arctic Ready fooled you? You should ask yourself why. So far, so reflexive modernisation, perhaps. But I don’t think Greenpeace should cast their audiences in the role the fool. The public discourse on energy and climate change is shadowy, elitist and confusing enough already.

In contrast, Leo Hickman’s “Eco Audit” live blog is a good example of the sort of communication I’d like to see more of. He asks a question, shows the answers he’s actively gone looking for and provides a space for more people to chip in. He listens to these contributions, pulling bits out of the comments threads and twitter, before offering a conclusion.

If nothing else, this approach lets him draw on more expertise than he can imagine when he starts off. It leaves him more open to serendipitous surprise. It also helps build trust around his analysis; even if you only read his conclusion at the end, the workings are there to check if you want to.

I want to see more of this in environmental journalism, and I want to see politicians, activists and scientists similarly asking questions in public in such an interactive way too. Hickman’s approach isn’t as flashy as Arctic Ready, but it offers a more meaningful form of collaboration than space to upload photo-art or a point and click game. It asks readers what they know and think, not simply to perform jokes within a set framework. Maybe we do need more LOL-cat humour in the climate debate (LOLpolar bear? LOL oilrig?).

And arguably the odd bit of subversive art invites us all to think. But both politics and science can still be done with respect for the public sphere as a source of inspiration for what new directions to take, not simply a space to amass support on pre-set routes.

There is a place for privacy, even secrets, when it comes to a lot of work in climate change and energy. Many in the field are defensive for good reasons; be it email hacks, undercover cops or simply a desire for a bit of uninterrupted time to explore an idea on our own. But that doesn’t mean we should close off. Be bold, be open, listen.

There’s a nuclear missile on the roof above a vintage clothes shop on the Holloway Road…

There’s a nuclear missile on the roof above a vintage clothes shop on the Holloway Road. You have to look carefully, but it’s there. It’s that egg-like object in the photo above. Or at least that’s the top of it, the red thing next to it is the base.

No, it’s nothing to do with our upcoming sports extravaganza. It’s been there for years. It’s also bloody heavy, though it’s well over a decade since I handled the thing. It’s not a real nuclear missile. It’s a model. It belongs to CND, whose offices are also above said vintage clothes shop. They have an inflatable one these days, but the “missile” used to tour round the country every summer as a way of taking military technology to the people. Or at least it took a talking point for discussing such objects, in absence of the real thing. It’s not like the MoD are going to let CND play with an actual one.

The Holloway Road missile is only one in a cast of mockups of technological or natural objects used by campaigners. There was the whale the World Wildlife Fund drove down the Thames in February, or Greenpeace’s “polar bears” that sprung up in cities across the world last week. I walked by some orangoutangs outside on Tottenham Court Rd a few weeks ago too, protesting about deforestation. Environmental activist orangoutangs, it turns out, wear sandals (it was really hot that day). My favourite is probably Water Aid’s giant river crafted from 100s of blue squares posted by an international network of knitters; a wooly petition which ended up draped over the National Theatre.

Those are all clear, explicit fakes. They’re not mermen. They’re not designed to con. They are not even trick-then-reveal projects like the Yes Men Arctic Ready site or the OFT fat melting pads. Such overt fabrications are openly designed to expose those bits of the world which are too far away, too dangerous, too secret or too unruly to be experienced directly by most of us. They’re a moment of spectacular, a slight subversion of the world designed to draw attention and inspire learning or action. They are falsehoods in a way, but there to express something people feel very strongly is important and true. They bring a bit of reality to us by being unreal.

It’s not just activists who engage in such subverted realism. It’s a quite routine part of the public communication of science, technology and the environment. Metaphor or analogy in text, CGI or filming “under controlled conditions” for a documentary. I think museums provide the best examples though. Museums of science and technology often have to find inventive ways to fit the large, dangerous or simply abstract things they curate into a glass case: Einstein’s chalkboard, Galileo’s finger, Florence Nightengale’s moccasins, models of boats, a bowl from Hiroshima. My favourite example of this has to be the Science Museum’s DNA model. They wanted to display the model from the iconic 1953 Watson and Crick picture. Except the people in the lab had taken the model apart to reuse after the photo was staged. The museum dug out the old pieces from the back of a cupboard, dusted them down and rebuilt the model. It is a mockup, albeit an official one, unveiled by Watson himself, but a mockup nonetheless.

When it comes to the bits of the world natural history museums want to encase, once living things are often pickled, stuffed or rebuilt from fossils (though they model too, from the Crystal Palace dinosaurs to modern animatronic models or IMAX movies) . With the recent death of “Lonesome George” the Galapagos giant tortoise, there’s been some interesting debate over what to do with his body. Henry Nicholls argues we shouldn’t stuff George, writing a thoughtful piece about the politics of preserving other iconic animals (though I wondered why he didn’t mention Jeremy Bentham). In contrast, Paolo Viscardi stresses museums’ role as research institutions as well as public communication, saying George should be preserved for science. Both pieces are worth reading. Incidentally, Viscardi works at the Horinman, which is where the merman I linked to earlier resides, and also contains the most amazing inaccurately overstuffed Walrus (one of the many museum exhibits which tweet a form of post-mortem anthropomorphic existence). I can also recommend this piece by Phillip Hoare on how to remember the whale that died in the Thames a few years ago, or the Brown Dog statue in Battersea‘s worth a visit.

I’m rambling. My point is that we all do a lot of fictional work to have non-fictional discussion and fabricate things in order to debate things we hold as truths. It’s normal, it’s necessary and to think otherwise is just a bit limiting. The trick is to consider which bit of reality we want to communicate, and stay as true to that as you can.

If anyone has any other examples of fabricated, refashioned or reconstructed aspects of science, technology or the natural world used for public communication, I’d love to hear them. Bet there’s loads of ageing science props hidden in store cupboards of museums, NGOs, schools and film studios the world over.

“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.

Has Public Engagement become too institutionalised?

I was at a conference recently and a colleague raised an interesting question: today, where do the socially concerned scientists go? In the 1960s and 1970s, there was Pugwash or the Union of Concerned Scientists. What now?

I could think of several such scientists, though they didn’t fit the same model as the 1970s. Yes, I know Pugwash and the UCS still exist but I’d bet a good chunk of even the odd sub-sect of the world that read this blog haven’t heard of them. The nature of a socially engaged scientist seems to have changed somewhat since the 1970s. Some of my students made a great video a few years back dramatising this (screengrab above, watch in full here); with scientists from the 1950, 1970, 1990 and 2010 all arguing over the ways they feel they should address the public.

A key change has been the rise of this thing called ‘public engagement’. Now if you want to take your work outside the confines of the Ivory Tower, you can sign up to an engagement project. As I’ve written in a piece in the latest edition of Research Fortnight (paywalled, but most UK universities have a campus subscription, try this link), the rise of public engagement I something I largely welcome, but I also think it’s worth noting how institutionalised it has become, and wonder if this institutionalisation compromises the independence of academics in their ability to embed themselves in society. Public engagement as it’s framed in UK policy discourse can become a range of different activities; some more ‘impact‘-ful than others. A stall playing with balloons at a science fair is a lot easier than kicking up controversy over GMOs. It may also be more easily accountable.

In many respects, I like that the engagement institutions exist; that the government encourages researchers to do it, including support on how to do it. As I try to stress in Research Fortnight, the move away from top-down approaches to more discursive ones that stress mutual listening and learning between science and society (which many of the engagement institutions advocate) is not only one I personally approve of but, itself, a form of application of academic work from Science and Technology Studies.

One might argue, of course, that as soon as a researcher takes their work into society, they compromise their independence; that a search for objective truth requires a certain degree of intellectual dis-engagement. I think this would be simplistic, even if I do think we should question what the last 10-ish years of ‘engagement’ policy has brought us. So, I don’t agree with the Research Fortnight editorial’s take that ‘the scale and volume of engagement may be reaching the point where it threatens academic independence’. It’s not the size of engagement that’s the problem.

That video by my ex-students ends with the 2010 scientist with her head in her hands; feeling the weight of history and all the various expectations accrued upon her. I sympathise. She doesn’t have any answers and neither do I. The Research Fortnight ends with a question. As they don’t have a comments box for answers, I’ll repeat it here: how can we keep the political voice of academics independent, while supporting the idea that such a voice is part of their job, and ensuring that they in turn listen to other voices too?

Can we?