Category Archives: scientists

Social scientists and trust in science

I’ll be talking at a Social Science Week event next Monday which asks how social scientists and government might work together to strengthen public trust in scientific evidence?

Times Higher Magazine are partnering, and asked me to write a short piece on the topic for this week’s edition. I briefly ask why social scientists would want to be “used” in such a way, as well as what exactly they might provide:

It is clear that scientists simply saying that they know best is not enough for social or political action – take vaccines, climate change, nutrition, drugs policy (pharmaceutical or otherwise), energy, badger culling, or even – to be retro for a moment – mad cow disease, for example. To have impact, the public must believe the science, not just have it delivered to them. Belief is a social process, and this is where experts on the social can have a powerful role to play.

I wanted to stress that some of us have been at this a while (see this short bibliography, and this overview/ introduction might also be useful). Moreover, the role of social scientists doing such work isn’t just to work out the most efficient method by which science might be passed on to the public. Social researchers working in this areas will take a good long hard look at science as well as this thing we call ‘the public’, and sometimes they will deliver up uncomfortable messages. They are not PR officers, and this is precisely what makes them so powerful (not that there is necessarily anything wrong with science PR…). If science wants public trust, it will have to earn it, and it may have to change itself a bit in the process, or at least be willing to listen to what others have to say (it might also learn and improve from this too…).

Still, a form of this argument could be applied back to social scientists too, who are perhaps not always as trusted as they could be themselves. Perhaps the social researchers should take a leaf out of the natural scientists’ book and try to improve their image slightly. As I conclude:

So my message to social scientists is: ask not just what you can do for science, but also what scientists might do for you. I’d invite any natural scientists listening in to see social critique as a useful part of scientific work too. Everyone in the academy should challenge themselves to consider how the many threads of scholarship can best work together to serve the public good.

I believe the event on Monday is fully booked, but apparently it’ll be recorded in some way (EDIT 10/11: here it is, on YouTube). I’ll probably say something similar to the Times Higher piece, but if you’d like to help me refine my views do please comment here – I’m very open to changing my mind on this.

William Crookes

Sir William Crookes charity shop

A picture of some shop fronts on the Caledonian Road, a little to the north of Kings Cross station. At the forefront is a slightly grubby blue sign: the Sir William Crookes charity shop. A lot of London charity shops are big brands like Oxfam or the British Heart Foundation, but there are a few independents like this too. They tend to be based around local charities though, named after a campaign or hospital, not a person. So, when I passed this shop one night on my way home from a party, it stuck out. I also recognised the name. Crookes, Crookes, where I have I heard that before?


Reaches for Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Sir William Crookes (b. 17 June 1832, London – d. 4 April 1919, London), a physical chemist who did fundamental work in the development of atomic physics. The eldest kid of sixteen, his father was a successful tailor with a shop in Regents Street. The DSB says he had irregular schooling, although Hannah Gay (BJHS, 1996) also stresses that for all that his interest in chemistry was self-motivated and unsupervised, he was not without support. At 16, he joined AW Hofmann‘s Royal College of Chemistry, ending up as Hofmann’s personal assistent for a few years in the early 1850s. Hoffman’s focus was organic chemistry, but inspired by Faraday, amongst others, Crookes turned his attention to chemistry’s interaction with physics. In 1854 he was briefly superintendent at Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford, and in 1855 moved to teach chemistry at College of Science in Chester.

(At this point I like to imagine him as a teacher in a mid 19th century version of Hollyoaks, but maybe not). 

Crookes moved back to London in 1856 and set up a private laboratory in his home and started an entrepreneurial scientific career the DSB entry described as ‘catholic’. He was an ambitious man, both in business and science, a strong believer that pure science would lead of financial rewards. One might argue he had to be: he had ten kids to support.

His work with vacuums is credited with making possible the discovery of the x-ray and the electron, and was apparently a bit annoyed not to have discovered the x-ray himself. In early March 1861, he found a bright green line in a spectroscopy he was running. He initially thought it was an impurity, but by the end of the month he was confident it was a newly discovered element, and called it Thallium, after the Greek for green shoot. In 1873, he invented what’s known as the Crookes radiometer; an airtight glass bulb, containing a partial vacuum and a set of vanes, mounted on a spindle, which rotate when exposed to light (you’d recognise one if you saw it). He was knighted in 1897, and held presidencies of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Society. He founded Chemical News and was involved in several other publications. He published somewhere between 250-300 papers during his career, on a wide range of subjects. As the DSB puts it “with aid of his literary adviser, Alice Bird, Crookes acquired a well-deserved reputation as a Victorian sage”.

(Oh, how much do I want to know more about the Bird lady? Also, do check out quite how much of a sage-like beard Crookes had). 

Ok, you’re probably wondering what the hell has this got to do with a charity shop on the Cally Rd? Did he do the Victorian philanthropist thing and found a hospice or library or something? Did he do load of work on radiation, so a cancer charity’s been named after him, like Marie Curie? Nope. Well, he did work on radioactivity in his later years, but that’s not it… The URL on the shop-front sign was down, but using the Wayback Machine I found content in English and Portuguese, connected to a spiritualist church.

Yep, spiritualist church. Spiritualists, in the words of Wikipedia, are not to be confused with spirituality. It is a specific religion which has some roots in Christianity but dates from 1848. Try BBC’s spiritualism at a glance if you want a primer. The very short version is that they believe you can communicate with the dead.

If you are WFT-ing that a chap who was a President of the Royal Society might have been into séances, you wouldn’t be the first. A contemporary of Crookes, WB Carpenter, the man DSB describes as Crookes ‘archenemy’ would talk of two Crookes, one a rational scientist the other a credulous spiritualist. That’s a very narrow view.

(If you are feeling as if you’d like to stop reading for a bit and listen to some soothing music at this point, try this neat little video, from the British Society for the History of Science outreach team)

Crookes was brought up with the Christian view of an afterlife. He also suffered the death of a beloved brother in 1867. More to the point, there was a range of kinetic, audible and luminous phenomena (and ideas) associated with a séance to capture his scientific attention. Let’s also remember that by the middle of the 19th century, the Victorians had seen huge social and scientific change, people like Crookes wanted to be open to extra-ordinary ideas, and in many ways a study of spiritualism offered a physically-based explanation of aspects of the world. It’s also worth stressing that he was deeply sceptical of much of it, and intolerant of obvious hoaxes, taking a meticulous empirical approach, even if (or perhaps because) he also believed that ‘real’ mediums who could talk to the dead existed. He submitted a paper to the Royal Society on the subject which was rejected on grounds it was not exciting enough (Crookes then published in his own Quarterly Journal of Science), and they did later publish negative observations of another medium.

It’s probably worth mentioning that he was President of the Royal Society after all of this (1913-15). Although the DSB entry does dryly conclude with line that this presidency “was marred not only by the outbreak of war but also by a degree of ill feeling from the young generation of fellows that he had sowed the wild oats of genius past his allotted time” and Gay also notes that many of his awards from the scientific community seem to have been given grudgingly, that wasn’t necessarily because of his involvement spiritualism. Studying ghosts wasn’t quite the credibility-krypotonite it might be for a scientist today.

Gay’s paper starts with the observation that it’s often asked why Crookes didn’t do more with his career, but that one could equally ask why did he accomplish so much? She argues that although he didn’t come from a ‘gentlemanly’ background, or an especially scientific one, his family were not without money or connections. Several members of his family had connections in bookselling, which helped him later in publishing work. He also built on early professional networks at the Royal College of Chemistry, which Gay refers to as a fraternal culture, based on communal if competitive laboratory work supplemented by many outdoor and evening activities. Later, although he had a private lab in some respects this was a “a family economy”. His wife helped, as did his mother in law and, when they were old enough, kids. There were also key roles played by a mentor (George Gabriel Stokes) and skilled laboratory assistent (Charles Henry Gimingham).

Gay’s paper concludes with the important point that there is often an ‘underground economy’ in the production of scientific knowledge which we should always be aware of. She means this in terms of the construction of the conventional science and engineering; behind every great man of history there is not only likely the cliched great woman but a load of other support systems and networks it can be easy to miss (or even deliberately obscured in myth-making). A similar point could easily be made to understand the ‘two sides’ of Crookes. There is always a lot more to a scientific career than just the things that get written up in textbooks, and a lot more to the generation and development of scientific ideas than necessarily ends up lasting as ‘scientific’ thought.

I still have no idea what Crookes’ would have made of his name being used for a shop-front charity in North London though (I mean, the dude was from West London…) or precisely what the money raised by that shop funds.

Book Review: Free Radicals

With his new book, Free RadicalsMichael Brooks has done something which surprised me: he’s produced a popular science version of Against Method.

Against Method, if you don’t know it, is a philosophy of science book by Paul Feyerabend, published in 1975. It argued against the idea that science progressed through the application of a strict universal method, and caused quite the fuss at the time (it continues to, in places). Brooks is keen to distance himself from the more extreme ends of Feyerabend’s version of this view, but agrees with a central sense that, when it comes to doing “good” science, “anything goes”.

Subtitled “the secret anarchy of science” Brooks’ book argues that throughout the 20th century, scientists have colluded in a coverup of their own inherent humanity, building a brand of science as logical, responsible, gentlemanly, objective and rational when in reality it’s a much more disorganised, emotional, creative and radical endeavor. This, Brooks argues, is not only inaccurate but dangerous; education and public policy would be much more successful if science was only more open about its inherent humanity.

This picture of the anarchy of science is done with affection and a clear strength of belief in science. I’m sure some would be tempted to dub it Against Method Lite, but Against Method, With Love might be more accurate. The message seems to be that scientists are people who do amazing things, even though (and sometimes because) they take drugs, lie, cheat, are reckless, work on stuff other than what they’re supposed to, are horrible to their wives, fudge their results, are motivated by money or are simply a bit of a dick. In places, Brooks also emphasises the religious beliefs of many great scientists, and the way in which religion could sit easily alongside, even inspired, their research.

Personally, I’m unconvinced anarchy is the right word here. Messy and human is perhaps better. Or, as a colleague put it at a conference earlier this month: “just people doing people things, in people ways” (I appreciate this doesn’t make for such a sellable book though). Still, the result is a warm, engaging and neatly plotted trundle through aspects of the history of science which the more cheerleading heroic histories tend to avoid. In some respects, the book’s approach of short historical tale after short historical tale is reminiscent of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. There is a key difference though. Bryson’s book, when it came out in 2005, bugged me. Bryson is famous for his travel books, in particular a chatty style which talks about the people he encounters with a fair bit of pisstaking (affectionate, and often respectful pisstaking, but pisstaking nonetheless). But, witty as A Short History was, Bryson seemed to have left his ability to take the piss at the door of the Royal Society. It wasn’t a warts and all view of the world-weary observant traveller; more a cleaned up polished pictures you save for the tourist brochure. The scientific community welcome Bryson’s book with open arms. I was left thoroughly bored by its reverence. Brooks on the other hand, perhaps because he has a scientific background himself, doesn’t seem to be nearly so star-struck (and isn’t, I’d say, nearly so boring).

Again, let me stress Brooks’ approach is not “anti-science” in any way. But that’s not to say such an Against Method, With Love approach is without problems. I suspect many of my colleagues in the social studies of science would worry about this somewhat celebratory twist on the idea of anarchic science. They’d want more critique, more probing (because, I should also stress, they see such critique as a way to better science, they generally do this with love too). I also suspect Brooks’ focus on the big names of science – Nobellists and the like – would jar with those who eschew great men stories in favour of uncovering the less obvious, more detailed and often anonymous networked texture of science. Brooks might have produced an anti-hero popular history of science, but it’s still one with a focus on great men. Indeed, there is a way in which these stories of slightly crazy scientists simply constructs a whole new mythical image of the scientist, one that adds new and different forms of barriers between science and society. I’m not convinced science is necessarily a “bad boy” any more than I believe in the mythical branding Brooks aims to puncture.

(An anti-hero history of science isn’t a new one, nor are critiques of it. Rosalind Haynes touches on it in her history of the fictional representation of scientists; work that was neatly reapplied to non-fiction contexts by Elizabeth Leane. There’s a section of my PhD on the rhetoric of an anarchic image of science presented in some kids’ books too)

I’m really not the intended audience for this book though. I’d love to know what a more general reader from outside the scientific community makes of it. I’d also like to know what professional scientists think of the books’ image of their work, and how other scholars in the history, philosophy and sociology of science felt about this refashioning of their ideas. I did enjoy reading it though, I think the concluding points about the political worth of accepting the human side of science are, at the very last, worth more public debate.

David Kirby’s ‘Lab Coats in Hollywood’

dinosaur!Dinosaur model from the 19thC, still on display in a South London park.

Verisimilitude. Good word, isn’t it? It’s one of my favourites.

It means ‘the appearance of being true or real’. It’s not just a term for people who study semiotics: philosophers of science use it too (or at least Popper does), as a way comparing theories’ claims to closeness to truth. It’s more ‘truthlikeness’, than truthiness, but has a range of uses and applications, many of which get somewhat intermingled when it comes to actually putting science to work in society at large.

Top tip: After much swearing at my laptop while writing up my PhD thesis, I discovered typing verysimilartude into Word gets you the correct spelling prompt.

This is a slightly abstract way of introducing a great new book I’ve just finished reading: David Kirby’s Lab Coats in Hollywood. The book is the product of several years of Kirby’s sociological research uncovering the backstage role some scientists play in the film industry, as consultants on the depiction of scientists and scientific ideas on screen. Kirby also seems to love the word verisimilitude, and the occasional messiness of its uses. It’s even on the dust-jacket. But this isn’t an esoteric tome of jargon-filled social science. It’s a neat little book for a generally interested reader; direct, clear, thoughtful and communicated with a genuine interest in the people it studies.

Although the bulk of his examples are films of the last decade or so, in some respects, there is a long history to this sort of work. Kirby refers to my favourite example here: the Crystal Palace dinosaurs (pictured). In particular, the way Richard Owen, back in the 1850s, jumped at the chance to be the scientific advisor, so these models would match his ideas of what they looked like, not those of his rival, Gideon Mandell (Kirby, 2011: 15-16). As Kirby stresses, the construction of a movie is a very complex business, one which involves a huge number of specialists and has some rather unequal power structures. Arguably, Owen had more clout over the Crystal Palace dinosaur models than the scientists involved in the Jurassic Park films did. A scientific consultant may well be listened to at times, and in places within the making of a film, and then later ignored. Indeed, in some respects it’s an odd fluke that any films have scientific consultants at all, and there is no standardised method for integrating them into the film-making process (Kirby, 2011: 42-3).

It’d be wrong to think of film-makers as dismissive of a scientist’s point of view though. They wouldn’t invite them on set in the first place if so. Indeed, one of the key points Kirby makes is how important a scientist’s version of verisimilitude is to the film industry. The book has loads of examples of this (seriously, the number of films that have used advisors might surprise you) but my favorite example is Finding Nemo‘s missing kelp. As Kirby tells it, marine biologist Mike Graham was asked by the animators if there was one thing in the film that might disturb him, what would it be. Graham replied that he’d hate to see kelp in a coral reef (it only grows in cold waters). There was an uncomfortable shuffling in the audience. But go check your DVD: there is no kelp in Finding Nemo. Each frond was carefully removed, at a considerable cost (Kirby, 2011: 102-3). Even films which sell themselves on fantasy (e.g. talking fish) rely on a certain sense of reality too: they need to be credible even in their love of the incredible, and science can help them do this. There’s a lot film-makers can find inspiring in scientific research too; a lot of visual beauty and novel ideas, a lot to make people go ‘wow’. That’s all good material for movie-making. Kirby has a lovely example of a visual used in the 2009 Star Trek movie, inspired by input from astronomer Carolyn Porto (Kirby, 2011: 12).

Kirby also stresses how it important the verisimilitude of films is to scientists, something you can see very well from the fact that remuneration is not simply financial, and often relates to their work. Some do get paid for their work. Some feel this as inappropriate and so take alternative payment like tickets to premiers, some ask for funding for research programmes. Some see it as part of their responsibility to the public understanding of science, some want to promote their ideas, or see them realised with movie-technology, some find it simply fun (Kirby, 2011: 56-63). The National Academy of Sciences has a project to connect scientists and engineers with  professionals in the entertainment industry ‘to create a synergy between accurate science and engaging storylines in both film and TV’. Personally I’m not entirely sure if this is a constructive approach to the perceived ‘problem’ of science in fiction or a giant red herring compared to less showy education and public engagement work (? genuine question mark here, I don’t know. Kirby refers to audience research, but conclusions and comparisons are very hard to draw here), though it may well make professional scientists feel a bit happier; to let off a bit of steam.

Kirby has some constructive advice for anyone who does want to try promoting science through Hollywood: worry less about how you might make the science in entertainment products more accurate, and more about showing filmmakers that accurate science could actually make their film better (Kirby, 2011: 10). Other advice for scientists include get involved early on, and respect the filmmakers’ expertise too. Kirby further invites the reader to think about what scientific accuracy might mean within the necessary shortcuts and sometimes fantastical contexts of the film business. Yeah, there’s Finding Nemo‘s coral, but there’s also Brian Cox’s role in Sunshine, a scientific consultant who was brought in to talk to actors about a scientist’s psychological motivations as much as scientific ideas (Kirby, 2011: 71, 73). Those wanting to have an impact on the public discourse about science through movies would do well to think beyond a narrow sense of  ‘scientific literacy’. As Kirby stresses in his conclusion, based on what we know from the fossil record, the representation of Dilophosaurus in Jurassic Park is completely inaccurate, but the film had much greater public impact (for good or bad) in terms of its depiction of scientists as heroes, as paleontology as exciting, and as genetic engineering as potentially dangerous (Kirby, 2011: 230).

I’ve been recommending Kirby’s research to students for years (links on his site), and I’m glad I can now recommend a whole book to a much wider audience too. If you are interested in the politics of science fiction, some of the oddities of the film industry, scientific accuracy in popular science or simply an interesting mix of cultures, it’s worth a read.

Imagining the communities of online science

As a researcher of science writing and science writers, I’m interested in the ideas science bloggers have about the communities they are part of.

Bloggers being a reflexive lot, I have a growing collection of posts which discuss some of the issues involved here. Still, I want to go beyond the limited perspective provided by simply pointing and clicking through the blogs I already read, and see if I can generate something new. I decided to focus on people who blog about something to do with the brain. I choose the brain because it seemed like an area where there is a lot of interest in interdisciplinary work, as well as being one with a fair bit of sometimes contentious popular interest. I thought I might find elements of what might be called ‘bad science blogging’ and outreach work,  as well as researchers talking about their work in quite technical ways. I thought I might see overlaps in communities and cultural identities, and that this would be interesting.

My first main step was a very rough survey. The aim of this was just to increase the perspective; to introduce me to new blogs and bloggers, and get some ideas for how to frame interview questions at later stages of the work. I posted a set of questions a bit before Christmas, and have spent time over the last few months considering the results, including some of the new sides to blogging (both content they generate, and ideas about them one might hold) it has led me to. This is where I am now, and my next step will be to interview a smaller number of bloggers.

Having posted the call openly, I feel some responsibility to report back. Some of the responses were even posted publicly (in the comment thread, or on blogger’s sites). However, others were not only emailed to me, but also marked with as private. Moreover, I don’t want to go into detail about the results of this survey because it really is a rough look at the field. It is designed to help me do rigorous research, rather than be rigorous research in itself. It is not representative of science blogging, or even those who blog on the brain. It didn’t set out to be.

So here’s a compromise: a bit of an overview of what I’ve found which COMES WITH HUGE HEALTH WARNINGS (add your own red flashing lights here).

I emailed several bloggers I knew of in advance to ‘seed’ the project.  It was posted on my blog, and I posted a link to this on twitter. It was re-tweeted, and a few other bloggers linked to it too. I was taking a sort of ‘snowball’ approach, drawing on the connectivity of online communication to help see what I picked up. I was purposely vague with the notion of brain bloggers. I wanted to see who it attracted.

I received 47 responses in total. Some were academics, and there were a few science students who described themselves as scientists in training. Some were probably best described as patient bloggers; with a disease or injury relating to the brain. Some were journalists, some were skeptics and some I can only describe as ‘other’. A few were several of those categories at once. Some wanted to note they weren’t one of those identities; a few stated emphatically that they weren’t scientists and one wanted to stress that he wasn’t a skeptic. Very few had any formal training in science communication or journalism, though several had experience of some sort of professional writing outside of their blog. Very few said they were paid to blog, (this was true of the academics even if they also said they saw it as outreach).

I asked if they felt if they fitted into any particular community, network or genre of science blogging. The response to this seemed rather unsure, with a lot of question marks after answers. Interestingly, some also spoke about the importance of independence from any network too. One said they didn’t have time to read other blogs, which I was personally surprised by, and makes me want to learn more about bloggers blog-reading habits. Those who were on a network would talk about that, others mentioned the theme or subject area of their blog (e.g. ‘neuro’ or ‘genetics’), though many listed more than one. When I asked what this community gave them, the response was mainly ideas, sometimes access of paywalled papers and a way of making or keeping up with friends/ gaining emotional support. Networks seem to be seen to provide extra visibility, as well as technical support.

The reasons for blogging were really diverse. Some by accident. Some for fun and curiosity about the medium. Some because they were frustrated with peer review in academic publications or the (comparable?) limitations of writing for the mainstream media. Some wanted to tip a toe into professional writing, some wanted to promote a particular idea. I think my favourite was the one that said they started as a tribute to Darwin’s 200th birthday (anyone who has fallen down the rabbit hole that is the Darwin Correspondence Project will appreciate this).

The question after this was ‘what keeps you blogging’ – these answers were similar (some said ‘as above’) but they were more likely to stress the impact their blogging had had on others, or feedback they had received and that they learnt from the experience. Other topics that were stressed here were enjoyment, that they kept on finding things to share, and there was a sense of getting into the habit. I really think the notion of a community came out in these answers.

When I asked if they had a sense of size of their audience, what was most interesting was the variety of ways people answered the question. Some quoted web metrics, some said they thought only their friends read it, and clearly felt their readers were just those who left a comment or tweeted about it. Others felt there was probably some unknown audience, but that this was pretty much unknown. Some implied curiosity over this, one said he’d like to do the sort of reader survey Ed Yong does. When I asked about attitude to the commentators, the response was largely positive. A few seemed to boarder on the ‘I tolerate them’ end of things though, and bad comments did come through when I asked about disadvantages.

What’s next? Based on these results as well as my broader reading and research interests, for the next stage, I want to focus on just scientists who blog. I may later talk to those who come from a professional journalist route, and I’m really interested in student bloggers. The patient bloggers were fascinating, but I suspect this is something for someone with more expertise in the sociology of health to do. Obviously, part of the point of why this area is interesting is that we can’t necessarily divide these identities too clearly. Still, for the sake of having perimeters, scientists bloggers seem the most interesting.

Anyway, this is work in progress, so for all the red flashing health warning, as I continue to refine my research queries, I’d be interested to know what people think. Do these results, such as they are, match your own experience and expectations?

Having a chat about science policy

There’s a lovely bit in the Guardian Science podcast this week about some research that’s been done on the laboratory of molecular biology at Cambridge (the one that’s produced more Nobel Prizes than the whole of France). This lab has a very open culture, where people leave their doors opening and routinely drinking tea together. The researchers talk to those they wouldn’t otherwise notice, and as a consequence find new ideas and collaborations.

Sociable scientists are successful scientists. Taking time to have a bit of a chat about your work can reap all sorts of benefits.

Hoping to join in on some chat about science myself, I attended one of the Biochemical Society’s Science Policy Lunchbox events yesterday. The speakers were John Murlis and John Holmes, talking about improving the relationships between scientists and policy-makers. Their talk had a focus on the EU, through some detailed discussion of the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) and their dialogue project.

The talk was full of broad bits of solid general advice. Beck Smith or one of her team at the Biochemical Society will blog about it themselves soon, no doubt.  The two key points I circled in my notes are:

1) Science-policy interaction is built on trust and relationships between all the people involved. You can’t just tell people what you know, you have to build a relationship so they trust you enough to listen. This itself isn’t news, I circled it mainly because I agree. It was the point I trying to get at with my post ranting about the problems of simply calling for scientific literacy. What was news to me though was…

2) Only 60% of EASAC members send out a press release about their policy reports. Why not all, as a matter of course? I’d be interested to know the quality of that 60% too.

I think that we can easily combine these two points. If more science policy was done in public, I suspect it’d open itself to itself too. One of the interesting things scientists often say about media coverage of their research is not just that it helps them to shares their science with society at large, but that it helps them get noticed (in positive ways) by other scientists. It’s a bit like a slightly diluted version of all those cups of tea at that molecular biology lab in Cambridge. I think this could apply to science policy advice too. The audience isn’t so much an amorphous ‘general public’ (though that’s great too) but actually the same people who really should be paying attention to the report anyway.

NB: I do know some policy issues are sensitive, and so can’t work in public in the same way. However, a lot more could be done to help facilitate greater public discussion of science  advice to government which isn’t so sensitive.

I also think policy reports (if well written…) can be very newsworthy, an interesting way of sharing science with the public via the mass media. It’s research that has been applied, it’s made up of socially interesting science rather than work which may well be very important at some point and interesting to some people. You can insert your rant here about dominance of journal publishing on science news, but I suppose I see policy reports as potentially a form of “really far downstream” (in a good way) science journalism (not that research papers can’t be amazing and exciting, just there is more to science). My main suggestion here, however, is that if science policy advice was done more prominently in public, it would be understood, appreciated and trusted more by the politicians too.

Imran Khan wasn’t at the talk, but has been working through similar thoughts in terms of UK policy. He has a great post on the New Scientist’ S-Word Blog arguing, amongst other things, that scientists who advice government need to be given support to make their findings public, including independent press officers. To promote “evidence-based policy”, we need public accountability. I’d completely agree with this, and I’d also add that by doing more of this in public, scientists and politicians would probably find they understood each other better too.

Good for policy, good for science, good for news, good for citizen engagement, good for everyone: issue press releases on policy reports people (and as Khan points out, fund them to do so). Personally, I’d like to see much more developed engagement strategy than just a press release, but it’d be a start.

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?