Tag Archives: engagement

Boo to Woo

I really, really, dislike the word “woo”.

I don’t mean it as in “to woo a fair maiden”, though that’s a bit weird too. No, I mean the term used by some communities of sceptics (the science-y ones) to refer to ideas which seem to be based on very flimsy evidence or are rooted in a belief in supernatural forces of some sort. It is short for “woo-woo”, as in the noise you might make when jokingly referring to ghosts.

Woooooooo, spoooookeeeeey. If you want a fuller description, there is an entry on the skeptic’s dictionary.

The fact that I feel I need to start by explaining the word is a big part of the problem. It’s slang. It’s jargon. It’s code between a group of friends. Above all, it’s a word that’s used in a loose, ill-defined way to talk about people other than those using it. It’s exclusionary, used about an amorphous “them” and just a bit too vague for my liking. What has the woooooo of a cartoonish ghost got to do with, for example, GM policy?

If it’s not obvious already, it’s also a derogatory term, one that I think unfairly trivialises critique of science. It’s used to shut people up. Now, there are many (many, many, many…) people I personally wish would simply stfu on the subject of science and technology, but I also think critique of science and technology is often useful and/ or entirely understandable and know that my view is just my view, others have theirs. Maintaining a culture where people feel scared to talk about how they feel or what they think about science (or, perhaps worse, are alienated from interacting with the scientific community so they talk amongst themselves) really isn’t going to do anyone any favours. Moreover, when I do want people to shut up about science and technology, I like to think I have an argument more focused and intellecually rigourous than making wooooo noises.

While I’m on the subject of terms I don’t like, I’ll repeat my dislike of calls for scientific literacy, echo Jack Stilgoe’s argument against anti-science and point out to anyone who wants to blithely use the word Luddite that it’s a lot more complicated than simply being anti-technology (this is great on the Luddites, but sadly behind the Nature paywall, there’s a pretty good Comment is Free piece though). These are terms used to articulate and reinforce a boundary around who is allowed to speak about science and technology, and who is not. They are also simplistic and, all too often, simply inaccurate.

If you’re frustrated by what seems to be someone’s lack of scientific understanding or unjustified belief in an alternative view, contribute knowledge, listen to try to find out where they are coming from and explain why you disagree. If it’s mendacious, show people how and why precisely. Share your cleverness with the world, don’t try to intimidate people with it.

Who speaks for the trees?

Kapoor landscape Anish Kapoor sculpture in Kensington Gardens earlier this year.

I want to use this post to argue for the idea of the communication of science as a sort of public advocacy for natural objects.

That probably sounds more complex than it should. In many ways, all I mean is that I think we can think of people who share scientific ideas as telling stories about nature. I think hearing stories about nature is important. Science looks at things we wouldn’t otherwise see, and in ways we wouldn’t normally try; it shows us something new about the world. As some sociologists of science might put it, science’s networks of ideas, machines, methods and prior knowledge ‘transcribe’ new views of nature for us. Science uncovers stuff. That’s why we invest in it. These new views can also be politically important, or personally useful. Glaciers make for a good example. Or the impact of particular drugs on bits of our bodies.

Take glaciers: I’ve never touched or smelt one. I’ve seen them, but only ever mediated through photographs or film. I trust that they exist, though maybe that’s terribly credulous of me. I also trust things like the BBC’s Frozen Planet or Nature News’ special on the Arctic (though maybe less unquestioningly). I also appreciate them because I think it’s important to know about these big, cold, possibly-slightly-melty objects so many miles away from me because I also believe that I inhabit a world within which they also exist and am willing to believe that my actions may have an impact on them and they, one day, may impact upon me too. I like that reports like this keep me informed with information, but also because they remind me to think about objects like glaciers because, honestly, I’m a busy girl-about-town liable to get distracted by a passing pigeon/ NHS policy/ knitting patten. So, when Suzanne Goldenberg writes something like ‘It’s an odd sensation to watch a glacier die‘ she speaks up for the existence of the glacier and reminds me to think about it. Writers about more abstract science bring even less tangible natural objects to attention, as well as telling us about them: holes in the ozone layer, neurons, genes, quasicrystals. In a way, they bring them into public existence.

(People who communicate social science do similar work too, showing us stuff I suppose is there right in front of us, but without experts to take time, methods and sometimes even equipment to study, we wouldn’t necessarily notice. Isotype‘s visualizations of society en mass, as opposed to via individual perception, provide some good examples of this).

This might sound like a rather old fashioned view of science writing. Maybe it is. But it’s not born from a desire to go back to a golden age. The slightly clunky phrase ‘public advocacy of natural objects’ is deliberate, as I don’t come to this innocently assuming that science just tells you stuff to listen to. I am aware of the layers of belief involved here, and the degrees of uncertainty. I also think coping with a bit of belief and uncertainty is necessary to understand, predict and cope with life in the complex world we inhabit. I think science provides a point of view on the world which for all it’s faults aims to be the best which humans have, and can be a view worth sharing. As such, we might see some aspects of science communication as a form of public argument. It’s rhetoric (and that’s ok). I’d expect an advocate to go in ready to debate, ready to answer and provoke questions, not simply present a view, and to say a bit about how they know, as well as what. Maybe ‘advocate’ is the wrong word though: too political, more the role for campaigners? (Or maybe science communication should accept a campaigning role?).

I should probably say something as to why I’d bother even suggesting this idea in the first place. For a while, I’ve been a bit frustrated by rather dichotomous way many people tend to think about science communication: deficit or dialogue (read this ‘where now’ bit in this post if you want to know what that jargon means). I don’t want to argue against the critique of the deficit model or necessarily against public dialogue, much of which I see as A Good Thing. Neither do I want to retreat to an idea that before we have public engagement we must have public understanding (quite the opposite, if anything). I just think it’s limiting as a way of thinking. It also feels a bit like a 20th Century fight, and that we shouldn’t always be trying to foster debate about science.

(and yes, I have read Latour’s ‘From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern‘. I appreciate much of the above is not new)

Anyway, happy to admit this is a half-baked idea dreamt up on a bus ride to the pub which is probably totally wrong-headed. I’d love to hear what other people think though, I’m interested to know if I’m wrong in an interesting way.

Involving kids in research

I have a piece in the last week’s Research Fortnight on the ways young people might contribute to research, as opposed to simply being asked to sit back and listen to ideas being delivered to them; a challenge to think of under-18s as more than what I have previously described as ‘in waiting’ for adult interactions with science and technology.

It’s very much behind the Research Fortnight paywall, but many UK research institutions have subscriptions so try this link, hit ‘campus access’ and see what happens. Or, to provide some summary for those who can’t read it, I partly inspired by my visit to the Google Science Fair (see also my pieces for the Guardian on this, in March and July) but also the news that the Researchers in Residence scheme will end, which I see as a chance to re-evaluate what we think young peoples’ interactions with science are for.

People often see projects like Researchers in Residence as a chance to showcase scientific careers, but I suspect such work is most important for the young people who don’t end up working in science and engineering. As I’ve argued before, schools are so important because it’s the only time when everyone is exposed to science, and exposed to it together. Before we go about the ever-so-modern business of specialisation, school is a time where we can build shared experiences and so sow the seeds for trust between those who grow up to be scientists (or historians, or any other specialist) and everyone else. Similarly, that’s how we can see researchers working with schools: a chance to build relationships between science and the rest of society.

Above and beyond that issue though, I think more people should try applying a more ‘post-PUS’ approach science education. By this I mean an interactive approach which doesn’t just see young people as receptacle for science, but a resource, one you might have conversations with and draw ideas, critique and inspiration from.

It’s all too easy to over-romanticise youth and science; to argue that science may be endowed by some sort of mystical power of the child. Still, as with any engagement project, connections between young people and scientists help bring the latter out of their professional bubble. We should be wary of loose assumptions that youth necessarily provides a strikingly different perspective, but young people may well bring useful and often missing perspectives to both science and science policy. Arguably, the high investment they have in the future could have implications for the discussion of both scientific projects that run over long periods of time, as well as environmental issues.

As with adults’ contribution to science, collaboration is probably the best model here. It’s not a matter of kids simply telling scientists what to do, or doing science all on their own, but people working together. The overall Google winner had used resources in her local university, others had read scientific papers. Ideas are rarely plucked out of the air. I also mention the Blackawton Bees paper and the new Decipher my Data project (it’s not just super-stars I met at Google).

As I concluded the Research Fortnight piecethe end of Researchers in Residence doesn’t just have to be an opportunity for hand-wringing over cuts. It can be a chance to tap into the potential power of multigenerational science, not just in terms of building a science of the future, but the ways in which young people may be a resource for science and science policy today. It’s a chance to build more sustainable relationships between science and the rest of society. The next question is how? Personally, I suggest we start by asking the young people themselves, but I’d be interested to know what others think.

Edited to add (14th Sept): The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee have published their report into practical experiments in school science lessons and science field trips. You can make your own mind up about whether or not you think this report takes an appropriately imaginative attitude to young people’s relationships with science. See also an old rant on media coverage of science education policy.

Unraveling the politics of Geek Chic

Adam Corner and I have co-authored a piece for the Times Higher this week on so-called ‘Geek Chic’ and what, if anything, this means for universities.

'home' earrings

I like to pin computer keys into my ears and handknit necklaces.

We wrote it a while back and didn’t think it’d be especially topical. Then A-level results came out last week, along with some figures showing that, for the first time since 2002, physics is back in the top ten most popular A-level subjects. Further, applications for physics degrees were up 17% on last year; astronomy up 40%. Writing on the BBC website, Pallab Ghosh suggested this was an example of not only geek chic, a “Brian Cox effect” even.

(Yeah yeah, geek chic is all very 2006. Dr Corner, the THE, the BBC and I are all way behind the times. Spare me your hipster-isms. I live in Hoxton: I’ve heard them)

If feeling especially cynical, we might note that the “Brian Cox effect” is a story the BBC would be particularly pleased to promote. Although I do think the apparent rise in the popularity of physics is worth noting, we should be careful of taking these stats at face value, and of ascribing singular explanations. Personally, I like the Institute of Physics’ line of we don’t really know: “To be honest with you we don’t really understand that. We’re delighted, but we can’t quite put our finger on why that is” (Tajinder Panesor, quoted by Ghosh).

In particular, that stat on the rise in astronomy applications left me with a lot of questions: how many students are we talking about here, has someone started a new astronomy course recently, has there been an increase in the astronomy content of the school curriculum in the last few years, are there more astronomy clubs in schools, could Galaxy Zoo be credited in some way…? (many of these seem answerable – any readers of this blog help me out?).

Several people have noted that teachers and parents remain key influences on young people’s career and further/higher education choices, for all that celebs might make for a neat story. Others have also mentioned the possible role of the Stimulating Physics network, and it’s maybe also worth noting work aimed at developing school teachers’ professional skills, science museums and visitor centres, and public engagement activities. Over the last twenty five years (especially the last ten) the UK has invested a lot of resources on promoting science to young people; inside of schools and out of them. Cultural change is slow, and often happens through long threads of small, interpersonal projects you wouldn’t see on TV. Arguably, this is especially true when it comes educational change. We should remember that university applications are many years in the making, relying on GCSE grades and A-level choices. Brian Cox’s BBC show was only broadcast in March last year. It may well have ignited some previously laid kindling though, it’d be interesting to know more. Actually talking to teenagers about their attitudes to science and technology isn’t, I think, done enough.

Moreover, looking at the evidence we do have, I think we should remember that there are still some clear challenges. The Campaign for Science and Engineering warned against complacency over the “good news” for science in A-levels, stressing inequalities in gender and school type. From their analysis, it looks like the gender gap in science and maths is widening, not narrowing. Although more are girls taking physics, maths, and chemistry, those increases are, if we look in detail, outstripped by the number of boys taking them. Physics, for instance, saw nearly two thousand more entries this year, but only a tenth of those were girls.

CaSE also note that although independent schools account for just 13.4% of all A-levels taken, they provide for 29% of further maths, 18.1% of maths, 17.9% of chemistry, 19.1% of physics, and 14.8% of biology A-level students. I think this is really important. In putting together the THE piece, one of the things that stuck out for me was a reference to a ‘Geeks vs Chavs’ parties. We used this reference to reflect upon quite what a middle class movement a sense of geek chic might be, and suggest that it is perhaps “less of a celebration of the underdog and more simply a way of those traditionally in power finding new ways to assert themselves”. There is a politics to be unwoven here, ignoring it does no one any favours.

At an event on higher education policy last night I asked what the we could do to stop science becoming a space only for the middle classes? I didn’t really get an answer. That isn’t a criticism of the debate’s panelists; I don’t think there are simple answers here. Still, it is a question we should keep asking ourselves.

Fair’s fair

What questions would the public choose to invest scientific time and resources in, if given the chance to shape research policy? This is an old and largely unanswered question. Indeed, it is one that many members of the scientific community go out of their way to avoid testing.

Ben Goldacre touched on it a couple of weeks ago, in his Bad Science column, where he repeated an idea that’s been around for a while – that each year, a very small proportion of the research budget should be spent on whatever the public vote for. Goldacre mentioned this idea because he wanted to argue that at least some of the money would go on useful research. Still he was also fast to quip that ‘Most of it would go on MMR and homeopathy, of course’.

But we don’t really know what the public would fund. That’s the beauty of the experiment: we’d give ourselves a chance to find out.

We’d also give publicly funded science a chance to enrich its scope of inspiration, and make itself more clearly accountable to the communities which fund it. Researchers often say they should be to be left to research what is “interesting” without public, or at least political, interference (see about any reference to the Haldane Principle…). Ok. But we need to appreciate that any idea of “interesting” is socially constructed. I don’t say that to undermine the point necessarily. We’ve put 100s of years of effort into constructing a world of science which trains people to have a keen sense of “interesting”. But I see it as an ongoing process, open to development and, potentially, open to input from a broader social network.

I was thinking about this issue while at the Google Science Fair last week, in particular the broad range of sources of inspriation the finalists and drawn upon, and have a post about it on the Guardian Science blog. There, I suggest children sit in a sort of mid-way space between science and ‘the public’, and that this is is something we might try to replicate in at least some parts of grown up science:

It is perhaps best to think of schoolchildren as holding a liminal position with respect to science and the rest of society. They are not quite inside the scientific community or squarely outside it either. They are both science and “the public”, and they are neither of these things […] what can we do to further this sort of liminality in grownup science? How can we extend the social spheres of our professional scientists, especially those who define the research agenda, so they might draw inspiration more effectively from the diversity of publics that fund them?

When thinking about the question of how the public might shape research policy, I think this sense of liminality is key. To me, this is better than a straight public vote, which just seems a bit blunt. I much prefer a model of co-production which aims towards mutual learning between science and the public so they can build something better than either alone would be able to dream up.

Afterall, a question that on first glance looks like a call to homeopathy or MMR might well contain a nugget of a more scientifically credible challenge for public health, if only given a bit of discussion to help bring that point out.

Towards a multigenerational debate about science

Last week, I was supposed to be one of the speakers at the World Conference of Science Journalists, part of a session on reaching younger audiences. For various reasons (some including ambulances…) I didn’t actually get to give my talk. This post is a linked-up version of what I would have said. The images are screengrabs from an old website, Planet Jemma, which is discussed near the end.

One of the rare bits of research on young people and online science media was conducted back in 2004 by some communication researchers in Florida, published as Attracting Teen Surfers to Science Web Sites in the Public Understanding of Science journal. I know it’s old work, but it’s their attitude I’m interested in here, not the primary data. They concluded that attracting teens to science websites can be difficult because when teenagers do go online, they do so for social interaction and entertainment, not to be educated. They seem to be a little disturbed by this, or at least see it as a problem to be managed.

I don’t think they should be disturbed though. I think they should be excited.

Let me give some background. In recent years, much of the discussion about the public communication of science and technology has focused on what we might broadly see as a shift from a top-down model to a more distributive approach; models which stress the need for scientists to listen to the public, and the role of public-to-public communication in the construction of ideas about science. Many science communication professionals now see their job as facilitating conversations, not providing ready-made polished stories (see this post for more on that).

It is rare, however, that we see this approach followed through when it comes to work with young people. The idea of ‘discovery learning’ was briefly popular in the late 20th century (put kids in a classroom with a load of science kit, let them discover it for themselves). However, as many educational researchers pointed out, this is rather naive: it only works if we actually believe scientific research comes from such uncomplicated, quick interaction with physical entities. In reality, science teachers accommodated students’ results that did not fit the expected outcome. They were demonstrations, not experiments; activities wrapped up in a rhetoric of discovery. Additionally, when young people are asked to debate science policy issues or ethics in class – as we see increasingly English science curriculum – this is seen as a rehearsal for democratic engagement in later life; the kids aren’t going to be listened to as kids.

This shift from providing polished stories to facilitating conversations isn’t unique to science communication. Developments in media technology and cultures surrounding these have led to changes in the way journalists consider the people formally known as the audience; changes I do not need to repeat here. There is also a specific debate within children’s media about the history and politics of adult-to-child narration. It should be remembered that so call-ed ‘children’s media’ is usually given to young people, not produced by them. Even writers aiming at a ‘child-centered’ approach will draw on memories of their childhood which may well be out of date and framed by adult worries. David Buckingham, riffing off Jacqueline Rose, talks about a form of generational drag; adults acting as if they were children, based on an adult conception of what a child is.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with sharing science across generations. Indeed, we might think of science as a generational activity, and the lengthy time frames of science is something I think we need to acknowledge. But we should also be aware of when exactly younger people are asked to speak rather than being spoken for, how much freedom they have, and how often they are listened to.

I will now briefly introduce a few examples of UK science communication websites aimed at young people, before offering two conclutions.

First up: SciCast. Here, children are invited to make short films about science and share them. There is a competition for the best ones every year, and they have a big Oscars-style awards do (finalists announced last week). There are some gems on the site: do go and have look. Let’s not pretend it is unmediated kid-to-kid communication though. Kids are drawing on the ideas of adult scientists, some of which are long dead too. They are also using adult-made media technology, and I’m sure some videos were lead by parents or teachers. It’s also a competition, judged by adults, so kids work to their idea of adult expectations. But I don’t think it pretends to be adult free either. Indeed, the project invites adult professionals to leave feedback, and gives feedback itself, because they see this as a productive part of the process.

Secondly: I’m A Scientist Get Me Out of Here. Scientists are put in zones with four others, each zone is matched to a set of schools. The scientists introduce themselves with a profile, and then the school students ask them questions. It runs for a bit over a week, and adopts the loose structure of reality TV show; the scientists get voted off daily so they compete to give good answers. Here the kids do not produce content, but rather lead it with their questions (and the content is sometimes slightly scrappy forum post answers from scientists, not carefully constructed literary prose). The questions are diverse – about the scientists as people as well as factual – as are the scientists who are everyday working researchers rather than the super-star presenters you might see on TV, and the project is proud of the way it communicates a sense of how science really works. Another key point to stress about I’m a Scientist is that the questions are not always resolved: a lot of scientists simply reply with ‘I don’t know’ (see this post and comment thread for some discussion, as well as this video made by one of the contestants).

SciCast and I’m a Scientist are unusual though. Most science media for young people is made for them, not by them. Moreover, although some may offer forms of interaction, it is worth questioning whether this is interactivity or, more simply, ‘activity’. So here’s my third example: Energy Ninjas, a science computer game developed for use on gallery at the Science Museum, which you can also play online. It has a loose narrative, though you have some control over the order. You move around a city, pick a site to enter and watch the Energy Ninjas chastise people for their carbon consumption. Where you choose to click will have some impact on your route through the game, but it won’t impact on the structure of the game itself, or even change the outcome of any loose story it contains. What you as player choose to click on certainly doesn’t get fed into science, or science policy.  It’s reasonably standard as the genre of these mini-science games go. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but we should be aware of the limits of user involvement here.

Finally: Planet Jemma. It’s from 2003 and not online anymore (edit: a demo version is now up), but I think it’s fascinating and so worth sharing with you, so I’ve included some screengrabs the developers had archived, and there are some reviews online (this is interesting, and do see the comment thread includes response from developer). There’s also a Guardian article about it. This tells a story of Jemma a physics student in her early months at university, though emails sent to you as if you were an old friend from back home. You learn a bit of the science she is learning, but also about her life at university. The emails you get relate to where you’ve clicked on an associated website which includes videos and photo stories. Think of it as database-driven personalised narrative. This is a very good example of adult writers aping kid-to-kid discussion (see earlier point about ‘generational drag’). However, I should stress this was 2003. I’m sure the developers would have loved to have brought more of the actual teenage audience into making the story rather than just being the recipients and characters in it, something which is simply easier to do now. I’d love to see a project of this level of imagination and narrative complexity run today, but with the various technological and cultural resources we now have available.

Conclusion one: We should be honest about generational issues at play here. Don’t pretend to be providing a child’s voice when it’s an adult’s one, be aware of how adults are framing, possibly curtailing, children’s interactions with science (and why – they may have reasons for doing so). We should also be honest about the age of scientific content discussed with and by young people. I don’t think there is anything necessarily wrong with young people talking about old ideas, or using old ways to demonstrate them (in some ways, it’s quite exciting that people back in the 18thC did similar tricks to demonstrate science that we o today), but I do think we should be honest about this long history, even aim to explicitly pull it out. Moreover, rather than looking at communication patterns as just top-down or side-to-side, maybe we need to think about co-constructed multi-generational media; both in the construction of content, and its audiences.

Conclusion two: there are a host of projects getting kids to work with scientists, even to be involved in the scientific research. Why not get kids doing science journalism, with science journalists, too? Why not get science journalists doing ‘outreach’? Yes, there is SciCast and some projects to get schoolkids scienceblogging. My mother told be me about a science radio project in North London in the ’80s. But why not more of this? Moreover, why not include the more probing critical work of professional journalism? Kids can do more than explainers. I think this would have a number of educational benefits. Moreover, just as scientists doing outreach is sometimes (cynically) seen as serving the scientific community as a form of promotion for their profession, maybe is science journalism is under threat as a profession, maybe doing outreach could help promote youselves? And, just as scientists often say they learn a lot from working with young people, maybe science journalists could learn something too.

You want to reach young audiences? Stop thinking about them as ‘audiences’, and involve them.

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?

Avoiding the magic fact machine

It was Universities Week last week – a campaign to highlight the impact of higher education institutions on UK individuals, communities, culture and businesses.

One of the projects rolled out for the event was the web-based ‘FactShare Generator‘. If you happen to like car-crash science communication, go and have a play. Otherwise, I don’t want to dwell on it. It is suffice to say UNIVERSITIES ARE NOT BLOODY MAGIC FACT MACHINES, and that it made me angry enough to write a piece for Comment is Free, where I tried to take the more positive track of celebrating a project I do like: I’m a Scientist Get Me Out of Here.

UCLA picture of a man made of stone, in a university. It is SYMBOLIC.

I’m a Scientist probably sounds terrible. It’s not. It pitches teenagers’ questions against groups of scientists (amazingly diverse, cheeky, surreal questions too). Importantly, the contestants aren’t the super-star scientists you see on TV. They are everyday workers, and because the questions are not just factual queries, but about the scientists’ lives, the project provides a sense of science on a day-to-day level. Most of all, it’s striking how often scientists reply with “I don’t know”. It’s not in a dismissive way. If anything, it’s said with excitement. Not knowing is a source of inspiration for a lot of scientists.

This point about being able to say “I don’t know” is, I think, really important, and I was pleased to see it pulled out in the comment thread. However, also in the comments Scott Keir posed a challenge:

What I haven’t seen on I’m a Scientist yet (though I will keep looking), are the researchers answering a question and then saying, “and what do you think?” In some ways, that’s a similar model to the magic fact machine – the researchers have the answers. So contestants, if you’re reading this, please try asking what the questioner and other students reading it think too. I’m prepared to bet that sometimes, it’s the students that will have the better answers.

I know a few of contestants took on this challenge (see also this response from one of the mods). Still, it’s a good challenge, and a continual one.

I’d add a smaller challenge of my own: contestants should try to be imaginative in the resources they send students to with links. Or find ways of encouraging students to find resources for themselves. There’s a lot of linking to Wikipedia. When I worked on a science website for schoolkids back in 2001-3, I’d always challenge myself to link to something other than the BBC. I knew that if someone was interested and googled, they’d find and trust the BBC link anyway. As a writer, I wanted to be able to give them something else. Obviously, I link to the BBC if it was a really good page worth sharing, but I always have a good dig first. I now instigate the same personal rule with Wikipedia.

The challenges raised by I’m a Scientist aren’t just for the contestants though. Reading through some of the blogposts written by contestants – Tom Crick, posted yesterday, Paula Salgado and Stephen Curry from last year –  I’m struck by how much work it involves. This is on top of all the other things they have to do as professional scientists. They are all also keen to say quite how much they’ve learnt and how much they feel they’ve contributed. There’s a great comment under Tom’s post from another contestant, saying how much she learns from the other scientists in her zone, and I love the bit in Paula’s piece about how emotionally invested she became in the experience, and why. So, yet again, the question is how can we find (more) ways to make this sort of work part of a scientist’s job, not just an add-on?

Moreover, what other projects can we run that open up universities to outside questions? What other projects might be able replicate the sort of discursive work I’m a Scientist (at its best) provides, but for people other than schoolkids? What other projects might invite the public to learn from universities, and also allow universities to learn from the experience too? Brightclub? Cafe Scientifique? Something a bit more subversive…?

Whether you have an answer, or just another question, do let me know what you think.

KABOOM: Exploding ‘impact’

Picture: social researcher number one.

This is a drawing of a social researcher. I don’t mean a researcher who studies social relations. I mean this is a researcher who is social; one that’s connects to other people, very simply by citing other researchers.

(Yes, sociology-spotters, it’s ‘inspired’ by Bruno Latour. It’s a poor reinterpretation of an early diagram in Science in Action. I’m currently an ocean away from my desk, and don’t have the specific reference to hand).

A few months ago, I attended the launch of the Royal Society’s survey of the global scientific landscape, a report entitled Knowledge, Networks and Nations. Looking at all the Royal Society’s pretty pictures of international networks, I remember be struck by quite how much of a social enterprise science is, and that in many respects this is its great strength. The idea that science might be socially constructed is often taken as a criticism of science, an attempt at undermining it even. But it doesn’t have to be.

(This isn’t to deny science’s interaction with the natural world. Indeed, I’ve often thought many concerns over social constructivism are down to a confusion between science and nature. But that’s a larger philosophical debate/ bunfight, possibly also involving Latourian diagrams scrawled on bits of scrap paper).

I was reminded of this sense of the sociality of science during all the recent blather about ‘impact’. It is jargon, and rather ill-defined at that. As Richard Jones neatly put it, this thing called impact isn’t an actual thing at all, but rather a word that’s been adopted to stand for a number of overlapping imperatives. To put it as plainly as possible, publishing a research paper is only half the job (credit: I stole that line from David Dobbs). The government wants to make sure that the researchers they fund do a full job, even though they are aware that the other half of this work might take a range of forms, so they’re trying to find ways of measuring a thing called impact. This is hard. We could count citations in academic literature, or patent applications, or measure column inches of mass-media coverage. I suppose we could count mentions of Brian Cox on twitter too. I don’t think any of these are quite going to cut it, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be cleverer about how we do try to discern impact. As Steve Fuller recently argued, there is no reason why metrics have to be stupid. A recent AHRC report (pdf) covered many of these issues too.

Back to the social researcher thing. Here’s another picture. The first was supposed to show the social relations involved in making academic work. This one is of the social relations involved in sharing it too, and is as influenced by Lewenstein (via Gregory) as it is Latour.

 Picture: social researcher number two.

We might take first diagram as a critique of the rhetoric of a scientific paper; a way of showing off expertise to keep others out. Equally though, it is simply representative of the ways in which people with academic training draw on a body of other peoples’ work and are helped in their thinking (and give credit with a traceable trial for that thinking). I’m an academic. I have have read a lot and like to reference things. There are 533 sources cited in my PhD (I know because, after I submitted the thing, I ran a ‘guess the weight of my bibliography’ contest on my knitblog). I’ve also learned loads over the years from my students, friends, teachers, colleagues, family, ex-boyfriends, blog commentators, etc. I am a mass of other peoples’ ideas, even if I choose between them and add my own perceptions, misunderstandings and connections. It’s standing on the shoulders of giants stuff, or a matter of science as a team sport.

(The first of those analogies comes via a folk history of Newton, the latter one I’ve taken from Jack Stilgoe. Just as I’ve already drawn on Latour, Dobbs, Jones, Fuller, Gregory… see what I mean?).

This is really important when it comes to thinking about impact. James Sumner wrote a great post earlier this year where he stressed how much time he spent talking about other peoples’ research. Sumner meant this in terms of the specific issues of humanities academics doing public engagement, but I think it applies much more broadly. As Jack Stilgoe wrote earlier this week, innovation studies tell us that economic benefits comes from networking and policy making is similarly built on networks of trust.

So, when Stilgoe also says we need to rethink impact as ‘people, not papers’, I feel the same unease I have about calls to fund ‘people, not projects‘: science is done by groups, not individuals. It’s the tomb of the unknown warrior, to steal another good line, this time from Martin Rees (see second quote here). I guess if we want some tidy alliteration, it’s about keeping our scientists social. Let’s explode the idea of impact, not just to think of it as something more than in an economic or academic sense, but as something accrued, done and most successfully achieved through networks. I don’t mean networks in the Machiavellian sense sometimes associated with Latour, but simply in terms of people helping each other out. I want to sit in the Royal Society looking at pretty pictures that the networked journey of research, not just its networked production (or better, the ways networks or production and dissemination are and can be interlaced).

As ever, the comment thread is open for your thoughts. Or, if you’re London based and want to be sociable about the impact debate, do come along to our event at Imperial on the 5th

Rebooting the seminar

Last week in the Times Higher: My little paean for the seminar, including some notes on I think digital communication might help ‘reboot’ them.

Some background: I used to love seminars. As a PhD student, I’d fill my diary with listings for these little academic get-togethers, full of excitement about what I might learn, what new area of scholarly work might be opened up to me, what new bibliographical trails I might fall into and new shelves in the library I might find myself drawn to. Of course, I’d often get stuck working on something else, and wouldn’t get around to going, but my diary lived in hope at least.

A couple of years ago though, I lost that hope. It wasn’t just that as a lecturer I was simply busier. It was too many seminars had left me digging my nails into the desk with intense boredom. The low point came about a year back when I realized the chap next to me (a highly educated and expert colleague, I should add) was watching a video of a cat playing the bagpipes. I didn’t blame him. In fact, I passed him a note suggesting he googled “fainting goat kittens”.

I don’t even like cat videos.

It’s not just the distraction of YouTube that threatens the seminar. Increasingly, academics are going online to get the professional interactions that the seminar used to (or should) provide: there is research blogging, for example, and I think the recent development of a twitter journal club is fascinating (and ripe for extension to other professions/ areas of research). However, I still think there is something to be said for events where we meet in person. Moreover, I don’t think we should see this as online vs traditional. Indeed, digital communications may be used to improve the quality of seminars, in particular opening them up (which I think will have the effect of improving them).

So, please do share any tips on improving seminars, digital or otherwise. Maybe you disagree, and think we should dump the idea entirely and just congregate on the blogosphere? Or maybe I’m just going to the wrong seminars. What’s it like in your bit of academia?