Tag Archives: publics

Animal testing, activism around science, and brown dogs

stuffed fox

Stuffed fox in Oxford Museum of Natural History. I don’t know how it died. 

My January column for Popular Science UK is now online. This one’s on the public debate about animals in research. 

I was interested in some debate surrounding some slightly dodgy reporting of a poll on animal testing. Except, considering the paucity of the debate on this topic – with many scientists arguably scared to speak about it - I really don’t think anyone can claim to have public opinion with them. It almost doesn’t matter how it’s spun. An Ipsos MORI poll on behalf of the Department of Business, Industry and Skills last October suggested two-thirds (66%) of UK adults support the use of animals in research as long as it is for medical research purposes. Except it also reported that 64% of the British public felt uninformed about science. I don’t think we’re doing a good enough job of building an informed debate here.

I was also interested to find that one of the recent polls asks about public attitudes to activism. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the UK public seem most happy with handing out of leaflets (69%), organising petitions (68%) or writing letters (65%), but less comfortable with the idea of destroying/ damaging property (just 2%), “sending hate mail” (2%), using physical violence against those involved in animal research (1%) and “using terrorist methods e.g. car bombs, mail bombs” (1%). The cynic in me wonders if BIS asks these questions because they’d like to close down debate with stats to back up a view that activists do not speak for the public, but perhaps it’s useful to know.

There’s some interesting history to activism around animal testing. It’s not just people who are against it who violently take to the streets. If you’ve never heard about the “Brown Dog Affair”, it’s fascinating stuff. This started in February 1903, when UCL physiologist William Bayliss performed a dissection of a brown terrier in front of sixty or so medical students. Anti-vivisection activists condemned it as cruel and unlawful. Bayliss successfully sued for libel, but the anti-vivisectionists commissioned a small bronze statue of the dog as a memorial, unveiled in Battersea in 1906. Local medical students were angered at this, and their frequent attempts to deface the memorial led to a 24-hour police guard against what become known as the “anti-doggers”.

In December 1907, a thousand students – largely from London and Oxbridge medical and veterinary schools – marched through central London, clashing with a rather unlikely collaboration of suffragettes, trade unionists and police officers in what later became known as the “Brown Dog Riots”, many some brandishing effigies of the dog. In March 1910, fed up with dealing with this fuss, the local council removed the statue under cover of darkness. In 1985, the earlier skirmishes largely forgotten, a replacement was commissioned; a rather more placid looking statue (cuter, even), nestled in the park’s “Old English Garden” by the cricket pavilion, a shadow of its controversial ancestor.

Considering the lack of debate on the topic, sadly, that brown dog statue – stripped of much of his context, placidly hiding in Battersea Park – remains a good icon of where we are on this issue.

As ever, read the full piece on Popular Science UK’s archive page. And if you want to read February’s piece – on being able to admit fault in or about science, Margaret Thatcher, Mark Lynas and the overly honest methods hashtag – you’ll have to subscribe (or wait till next month).

Review: Maximum Republic

street art in london during the jubilee

Some of the monarchy-themed street art in London this sumer.

A couple of years back, the Royal Institution made their director redundant. There were various reasons why they did this, but part of me enjoyed the basic idea that they didn’t need a director. I wondered if other scientific institutions might follow. I mean, do universities really need vice chancellors? (and it’s an interesting convention that we call them vice chancellors, as officially they are deputy to a figurehead chancellor who’s role is generally entirely ceremonial). Do we need a President of the Royal Society? Or a Chief Scientific Advisor?

I remembered this rather idle musing on a possible more anarchic science while reading Dan Hind’s new ebook/ extended essay “Maximum Republic“. Here, Hind argues that the republican cause should stop picking a fight with the Queen and focus on other constitutional arrangements. Most Brits seem to quite like our current head of state. Moreover, the actual Queen is perhaps a distraction from those global oligarchies which rule so much of the economies we live within. In Hind’s words, “the hidden wiring that connects London to global capital flows and their enabling circuits of information and untruth” (pp.12). Instead, Hind offers “another, less familiar and more substancial republicanism” which denies a necessary anti-monarchism and is more concerned with “remaking the state as the shared possession and achievement of a sovereign public” (pp. 7-8, emphasis added).

Key to Hind’s central argument is that the British too often use the world republic in ways which obscure the more interesting and useful aspects of what a republic might look like. A republic exists when the state is the shared possession of a sovereign public. This is already understood by the ruling class, Hind argues; indeed, the very idea of shared possession of the state is what defines a ruling “class” (i.e. group, not just individual). “A coalition of the wealthy and the political astute has achieved this by accepting the need for paradox and cooperating as a secret, or radically unreported, public” (pp. 15). In a way, we’ve already toppled the monarchy, there are already co-operatives ruling the state. The question is who has access to this slightly more distributed power (and the answer is that it remains within a rather small, closed group).

To deal with this, Hind suggests, we need to learn more about the processes of governance to: “We do not fully own what we do not understand” (pp. 41). He understands that such processes of understanding aren’t simple. It might be “commonplace to say that education empowers, it is also true that power educates” (pp. 43); we need more public ownership of communication systems, a point that reminded me of old debates on the circulatory of ideology and education (e.g. Bourdieu and Passeron). In places, Hind’s arguements also reminded me of the idea of science and the “modest witness” (see Shapin and Schaffer and Donna Haraway); the 17th century construction of a connection between truth and openness whereby science must be demonstrable to witnessed, except only certain people may count as appropriate witnesses, a process of exclusion which is largely hidden.

Hind makes a few specific points about science, arguing that any truly republican system of communication would not just stop at journalism, education systems, etc, but must include the discussion and conduct of science too. His ideas will be familiar to many in science policy: “the state, the corporations and a handful of industrial and post-industrial foundation largely determine the direction of science” this determines much of the direction of society “although science reflects the preoccupations and assumptions of those who fund it, scientists themselves do not like to admit this elementary fact” (pp. 46). In some ways, it’s a matter of gaining control of the means of production, just applied to a knowledge economy, and kind of Foucaultian (in a power/ knowledge sort of way).

The Royal Institution had it’s own reasons for picking a fight with their particular queen when they made her redundant in 2010, but what was left in the wake was a very long way from a Royal Institution by the people, for the people. We might make a similar point about the increasing uptake of “open access” policies, which drop paywalls for access to science but doesn’t open it up in any meaningful way to allow the public any role in that science, maintaining their role simply as recipients of knowledge (a point I tried to make in the THE a few months back). As with his book The Return of the Public, Hind’s essay has a lot to say to those interested in the social relations and structures of science.

Engagement with climate science

liable to flooding

I was a speaker at yesterday’s Royal Meteorological Society’s meeting on Communicating Climate Science. I was asked to talk about models of science communication in the light of their new report on climate science , the public and the media, in particular the shift from top-down to more discursive approaches. I also took the opportunity to question the applicability of these models a little. What follows is roughly a script of my talk, but with links.

I’ll start with a potted history of science communication, it’s the sort of history professionals tell themselves about themselves, so read with some caution, even though it’s pretty illustrative. Once upon a time, around the end of the mid 1980s, scientists in the UK and America (and a few other places, science is an international business after all) decided the public had stopped listening to science, and that this was dangerous. Science had grown immensely over the middle of the 20th century,  developing multiple strands and a mass of complex, specialist knowledge, but in doing so it had left many behind. There was a gap between what scientists knew and what the rest of the world understood. If only the public knew more science! And the media were better at delivering this information! Something. Must. Be. Done.

They kicked up all sorts of fuss and, in the UK, forming a sort of movement for the Public Understanding of Science (PUS), with a Royal Society report (“the Bodmer report”), a multi-institution committee (CoPUS), a journal, a set of courses, a load of general fuss and worry, etc etc. Soon after, however, a load of educationalists, historians and sociologists (many of whom had been working on this stuff for years) started pick holes in the more simplistic end of this argument, complaining that the PUS approach was not only ineffectual, but might be considered anti-democratic, even morally repugnant and non-scientific even too. They set up their own ‘critical PUS’ camp in opposition and pointed fingers at Bodmer et al for being a bit “deficit model” (i.e. seeing the problem as being a matter of a deficiency on the part of the public). The book “Misunderstanding Science” is the classic text of this sort of approach, but maybe not the easiest of reads.

There are three main problems with the deficit model:

  1. It’s unrealistic. You can’t black-box science, media and public. I mean, what does “the public” even mean? Moreover, we cannot imagine that the media will take this science and happily and simply pass it on to their readers who, in turn, will happily swallow it all. Such an idea is based on a really naïve ‘transmitter-receiver’ view of media effects (if you’ve never read David Gauntlett’s essay on what’s wrong with the media effects model, do).
  2. It’s patronising. It assumes the public are stupid and journalists are just information carriers, both of which is likely to alienate both groups.
  3. It’s limiting. Science policy issues aren’t just about the science. That doesn’t mean science shouldn’t have a role. A large one. But there are other things to be woven in too, and there are times when criticism of the scientific community is both entirely justified and highly productive (even if there are times where criticism is not only misplaced but dangerously over-emphasised). Journalists should ask questions and contextualize what scientists say. As should the public at large (and they should be asking questions and contextualising what the journalists say too).

These criticisms, along with the experience of GMOs and BSE, had a lot of impact in the UK. By 2000, the House of Lords report on Science and Society formally stated there was a “new mood for dialogue” replacing the older, slightly naive, top-down approach.

And that’s what the term “engagement” is meant to symbolise, for a lot of people: A shift from simplistic top-down approaches to a more nuanced one that appreciates not only that sharing science with the general public is a hard thing to do, but that public debate on science and technology is just that, a debate. The problem of science communication was now understood as not merely a matter of how to clearly transmit information, but how to have good, clever conversations about expertise in society. Changing scientific discourse as it travels into the public realm was not necessary seen as a distortion, but a matter of course. Scientists should listen as well as talk; communication is something you take part in, not simply deliver.

PUS and the deficit model became the bogeymen of UK sci com, with people actively booing references to it at conferences and snidely whispering criticism of unpopular colleagues as “a bit deficit”. Arguably, some people just took the language of this shift without actually understanding the ideas behind them though. There is a lot of science communication that talks as if it moved on from the deficit model but is really quite simply about shouting “but science is awesome” at the general public. Moreover, it sometimes looks like we’ve simply replaced the presumed deficit of knowledge with one of trust (i.e. the public don’t trust scientists enough, see Alan Irwin’s essay for this OU reader). Such a view often argues that scientists need to earn public trust, and might suggest discussion as a way to go about it, but it still based in a rather technocratic attitude that the world will be saved if only everyone just listened to the scientists.

Which brings me to this new report on the public, media and climate science. Because in places it seems, well, a bit deficit model, a bit preoccupied by getting the message across. It looks at context, and is meant to be rooted in what the public think and want, and many of its results are useful and interesting. But its central notion of communication, for me, seemed to be pretty linear and just a bit naive about how the media works. It’s all still about how we can give science to people, not how we might have conversations which connect science with a range of other topics. It says we need more “engagement”, but it’s not really what I’d call engagement.

But maybe they’re right to. Maybe we shouldn’t assume the public want to be engaged any more than that they don’t. We might also ask if a shift to debating science is dangerous when applied to climate, considering what is at stake and the keenness of some to ignore, even dismantle quite certain and useful science in this area. Maybe climate science simply doesn’t have the luxury to be so open? As Naomi Oreskes argued in an LA Times op-ed last January, perhaps we need leadership here. Debate just confuses people and delays action. Oreskes has thought about this. She is also coming from thoughtful empirical studies in the history and sociology of science understanding that sharing expertise isn’t simple. Just as Wynne et al said the deficit model is too simple, so can a simplistic call to engage.

As I’ve noted before, in some contrast to Oreskes, much of the discussion post-Rio+20 was that leaders had failed us, but there is hope in the grass roots activism of civil society. E.g. Mary Robinson. I like the rhetoric here, but I worry still. It’s the kind of world I want, but I’m not sure it’s possible, or it’s happening. To fuel my cynicism, in another obit for Rio+20, John Vidal cited “two-catching global bottom-up initiatives” – one the save the Arctic campaign, and another to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies – as having emerged at Rio and “reasons to be cheerful”. I call bollocks, at least about the bottom-up. These were projects that were launched at Rio, not ones that emerged. They are downstream invitations to passive engagement within a pre-set frame – sign a scroll, use a hashtag, follow a celebrity – more about enumerating the actors of PR than diffusing political power. Which isn’t to say there are wrong, but call a spade a spade.

Whenever I see any climate communication I feel an echo of Steve Yearley’s argument that the green movement enjoys the language of mass participation but only when it comes on their own terms (his essay here) and that similar critique can very easily be applied to the scientific community, or politicians, or industry, or anyone involved in the debate. So the question still remains, can we have open public engagement on climate change?

I don’t know.

Britain, a nation of climate sceptics? Really?

Street art – or rather tree art – in Toronto.

The latest British Social Attitudes survey was released earlier this week. Cue much swapping of claims to know what the public really thinks, and how well this does or does not match government policy. The Prime Minister issued a short statement suggesting the results showed a “crucial shift in our society” and that people were “making it clear that they’d had enough of the [previous government's] something for nothing culture”. Personally, I don’t think survey data like this makes anything clear. The public don’t speak in one voice, but many, complex and changing ones. You can’t read a singular view of the people off blocks of data like this, no matter how strong the methodology, how pretty the infographics or how tempting the political message. Still, such data is interesting, I’d even say important. It takes us out of anecdotes of people we met in the pub last week and our own small social circles and makes us think, as best as we can, about the country at large.

The chapter I was most interested in was the one on the environment. It’s entitled “a paler shade of green” and the central message isn’t exactly rosy for those who campaign on environmental issues. The Guardian ran with “Public support for tackling climate change declines dramatically” or, from the Daily Mail, “Rise of the climate change sceptics“. I agree the results include many items of concern for the environmental movement, and for science communication too. However, I’m really not convinced by the narrative of a rise in scepticism, especially the BSA’s own focus on the impact of Climategate. Such surveys can have a rhetorical power in themselves  (e.g. Cameron’s claim the people had spoken with him) so I think it’s important to check such narratives.

I guess the headline result is that 37% think many claims about environmental threats are exaggerated, which is up from 24% in 2000. I want to ask, however, whose claims? That is, have people stopped trusting the science, or do they just feel there is a lot of exaggeration and hype around environmental politics? Maybe it’s less a matter of the impact of Climategate, and more a bit of climate media fatigue. You might trust a scientist on the news, and yet still find a DECC advert annoying. For example, Attenborough’s calm concern in the latest Frozen Planet is rather different from exploding schoolchildren (or, for that matter, posing with huskies, or ads “made from recycled clips” or a host of other stunts). Personally, I don’t think we can take this data simply as a sign that sceptics are winning the climate communications war. It could be that too. We just don’t know.

The survey also considered whether people agreed more with these two statements: “We worry too much about the future of the environment and not enough about prices and jobs today” and “People worry too much about human progress harming the environment”* (p95). From this, the BSA report argues that the public are more sceptical that a threat exists. I’m not sure that follows. Maybe, but it’s a jump to cite scepticism. It could just be that people think we worry too much. Perhaps they just think there are other things to worry about. As the report itself suggests, the “financial pinch” of the recession may well be having an impact on the ways people make choices about the environment. Or, perhaps people agree that climate change is happening, just that there is nothing we can do. Again, this doesn’t mean climate sceptics aren’t winning the communications battle here, I just mean I don’t necessarily see that from the data. It all rather depends on how we unpack and then define denialism/ climate scepticism, and I don’t think the report does that very clearly (not that it necessarily should, but we need to keep that lack of definition in mind when reading the data).

(* I think the latter is a really interesting choice of statement – to me, there is something slightly 20th century about it. As technofixes become more part of public discourse, I wonder if it’ll be the right way of measuring things? I also thought it was interesting that they asked about impact of pollution on the British landscape – polluted rivers, etc. Climate change is maybe a slightly different story, a more esoteric question of satellite images, detailed debate between scientists and complex graphs, glaciers melting in largely unpopulated poles and stories of flooding in parts of the world we are not used to hearing news from. There is a strong link between environmental concerns and national identity in the UK and elsewhere, but climate change is a more global issue. But I digress…).

All that said, I did think data around whether people agreed with the statement “Every time we use coal or gas or oil we contribute to climate change” was something climate communications people should worry about. In 2000, 35% said this statement was definitely true, 46% said it was probably true and 12% said definitely/ probably not true. For 2010 the results change to 20%, 51% and 17% respectively. There were also marked drops in concerns over the impact of cars and agriculture. As the report says, this might be due to people thinking they’ve been partly solved by “cleaner” technologies; it’s harder to explain away the impact of coal/ gas/ oil on climate statement quite so easily though. If you want something cheering, maybe age will help though: the sharpest drop in people agreeing that climate change was dangerous came from people 55+. This was down 13% from 56% to 43% with over 55-64 bracket and down 19% from 47% to 28% with over 65′s, but only down 3% and 1 % respectively to 48% with 18-34s and 15-54s (p103). I’m not sure 48% agreement is a particularly good score though anyway.

Something else that sprung out at me was that 52% of the people who said they think the rise in the world’s temperature caused by climate change reduce the energy use in their home (p91). Perhaps what this highlights is not a communications challenge of convincing people of the science, but more of a behavioral one. The figure is 39% overall though, so it does seem that agreeing climate change is dangerous has clear impact. The report also notes an “ascension of recycling to a national social norm”, so maybe this is possible, given political will.

The report also notes a decrease in political activism (p95-6). Maybe this shows a failure of green groups to reach out of usual audiences? Or maybe the activism issue is a timing thing, as the data considers a period not too far from the election (and I think it was collected pre-forests). There is the economic downturn issue again: haven’t all donation-based groups suffered from drop in support? I also wonder if people who’d signed up for anti-airport protest because they don’t like noise would have necessarily have thought of it as an environmental issue? I don’t know. I do think it’s interesting though, and would be interested to know if the green movement is worried. It was interesting to look at how the data on concern over global warming mapped onto party political sympathies. ls green politics too tribal? Conservative supporters (38%) are less likely to show strong concern than those who lean towards Labour (49% – a decline compared to 2000 interestingly, unlike other parties) or the Lib Dems (55%) (p102).

One final thing that bugged me about this report was that it didn’t really examine how and where people got their information about the environment from, and yet still felt able to make loose connections between the timing of Climategate and the apparent rise in scepticism. From the final pages: “we conclude that media coverage may make a difference – not least ‘new’ media and the internet ‘blogosphere’ where unfounded opinion can sometimes be favoured over scientific fact” (p106). The impact of the media on people’s understanding, reasoning and framing of any issue, perhaps in particular ones including esoteric expertise like climate science, is incredibly complex, and the BSA report writers should have known better. They should certainly know better than to make loose comments about unfounded opinion on blogosphere (which is a large, diverse and porous area of activity). I also don’t see how they can look at a change over ten years and say it has to be something that happened in 2009, no matter how much media ink was spilled. To their credit they do also say it could also be matter of fatigue and refer to financial cost, etc. Personally, I’d like to see them acknowledge that they don’t know and call for investment in more research here.

Anyway, there is a lot more in the BSA report. Do please go and read it for yourself. My scepticism over some of its analysis aside, it is worth reading. I’m glad the government invests in social research like this (I wish they invested more). If you are interested in public attitudes and knowledge of science I can also recommend this excellent paper (paywalled journal, but you could try emailing one of the authors for a copy). It’s worth having a look at the Eurobarometer on attitudes to climate change (pdf, 2008) and some of Leo Barasi’s blogging on polling around Climategate, as well as recent studies from the USA. In terms of media effects science issues, this report from Cardiff (pdf, 2003) is old but still relevant (and free to access) and comes highly recommended.

EDIT (12/12/11): see also Leo Barasi’s take on this (where he stresses timing of survey, a point I’ve heard made about other chapters too), and a shorter version of my post on Liberal Conspiracy. EDIT 15/12/11: … and Adam Corner’s piece for New Scientist.

Public art in Washington DC – a fountain floods the sidewalk to reveal a map of the world (little raised edges protect coastlines).

Pondering PUS

PUS is 20 next year

The Public Understanding of Science journal, volume 1.

The main journal in my field, Public Understanding of Science, is twenty next year. I recently had to look up an old paper in the first edition, and it was slightly depressing to see how little has changed. Still, the fact that I find much of it still relevant was also kind of inspiring, and does (sort of) make me feel part of a historical body of scholarship.

The journal’s name is a bit embarrassing for some; too strongly associated with the Bodmer Report (pdf) and top-down models of public communication apparently popular in the 1980s. Many people working in science communication, especially in the UK, are keen to stress they prefer the term ‘engagement’ over calls for public understanding. The journal takes a much broader view than this, and covers a lot of what might be dubbed ‘engagement’ as well as science in popular culture, science journalism, public attitudes and a lot more besides. It just happens that the journal was founded while the term ‘understanding’ was still in vogue, and keeps the name.

I gave a talk last week about the sorts of worries that prompted the public understanding of science movement as well as some of the reasons people turned their back on it, and Sarah Castor-Perry interviewed me about it afterwards. You can listen to the full podcast, or here’s a rough transcript of her first and last questions to me:

Sarah: What is the public understanding of science, and how is it different to something like ‘science communication’?

Alice: For me ‘science communication’ is an umbrella term which encompasses any kind of communication about science and I’m going to be really broad about the ‘science’ and ‘communication’ words. It could be two scientists sitting in a pub complaining about their boss, or an article in a really esoteric journal that is really hard to get hold of and is written in really difficult jargon than only a few people will ever understand and even less of them will ever read, or it could be Brian Cox on the telly, or it could be a science show with puppets for four year olds at the National History Museum, or parents talking about vaccinations at a schoolgate, or a news story about spaceships. It could be all of those things. Whereas the Public Understanding of Science or PUS is more specially a worry about what ‘the public’ (which I guess we could define as non-scientists) know and think and is generally used to refer to a particular part in history around the 1980s and 1990s when there was a real worry about a need to tell the public stuff. The idea was that scientists would tell the public things, and it was imagined the public would just listen.

Sarah: Do you feel reasonably positive about the public relationship with science, or do you feel there is distrust and a lack of knowledge and a lack of interest, or are you quite positive about how popular Brian Cox and Bang Goes the Theory and things on television, and Lates at the Science Museum? Positive or negative?

Alice: Um, negative because it’s positive? To explain that… if my aim was for people to like something called science then yes, this thing seems to be flying quite high at the moment. But I also think that a lot of this is a kind of glitzy, glamourous ‘science is cool’ way which is not exactly good. If you just think science is great and look at these people who are simply going to give you good knowledge that is reliable, I’m not so sure. I’d rather have a public aware of the problems of science, who questions it and helps make science as good as it should be. I think that’s what most scientists want too. I don’t think most scientists want people to breathlessly go ‘wow, you’re great, tell me your wonderful knowledge’. They’re are happy to have a conversation and they know that what they have done is potentially useful for some people, but they don’t want to be made out to be gods, or painted as music stars. I don’t think that would help science in the long run, or society in the long run either. I worry that a country that loves science ‘because it. is. awesome’ will end up not liking science because something else will come along. More to the point, we’ll like shampoo advert science. Because if you look at those adverts that a lot of scientists get annoyed about – the reason they work is because people like science. People get pulled in by that because they are working with an image of science, rather than real science and real conversations with real people. So if we have more of these conversations, and were maybe more critical, we’d have a more productive relationship. So, yeah, if my concern was if people liked science I’d probably be positive, but I think that’s the wrong concern.

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.

Social scientists and public accountability

This was originally published on social science space. I’m happy to admit it is a piece of rhetoric, designed to make a point. If you are interested in debating this more, I’m on the panel for a Guardian Higher Education livechat on research communication later today (or use the comments below, as ever).

Every now and again I see someone argue that the models for public engagement and impact built for natural sciences are all very well, but can’t possibly apply to us in the social sciences or humanities.

Whilst I have some sympathy, some of this amounts to sticking slightly snobby scholarly fingers in pairs of already too-deaf ears and going ‘yada yada yada, I can’t hear you’ at political realities knocking on the doors of lovingly constructed ivory towers.

Ideas of public engagement and impact are, in themselves, not a bad thing. I’m all for cynicism about particular definitions of these terms sometimes offered to us (cough – Big Society fuss – cough). But we should take these offerings fairly too, and accept that organizations like the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement are there to help us be better academics.

The scientific community woke up to demonstrate their worth around the mid 1980s. They then started a long and painful process of realising that they can’t simply shout ‘BUT YOU SHOULD LISTEN TO ME I AM VERY CLEVER’ (and ‘while you’re at it, leave me alone to get on with my work in peace’), gradually realising they needed to get imaginative about explaining not only their work, but themselves. Moreover, they realized that they need to listen to the public too. This doesn’t necessarily amount to being told what to study, it just means listening (this might be useful as background). It may seem like an imposition, but those who bother are reaping the benefits.

Of course, you could study whatever you want to, in exactly the way you choose, and only bother to have the cosiest of chats about it. You can do that in your spare time. Want independence? Go, join the hobbyists. Me, I’m a public sector professional, and as such, I take pride in the ways in which I may cultivate an independent voice, but do so within a network of constraints provided by public service. Listening to outside voices is not a threat to my professionalism; it’s an expression of it.

I don’t want to sound entirely unsympathetic, and I admit I’m being deliberately provocative. I know many people in the social sciences aren’t nearly so blinkered. I also know from personal experience than communicating our scholarship can be bloody difficult. Yeah, everyone loves a nice historical story – a little ‘factette’ about Newton inventing the catflap for example – but what about the more complex offerings from professional historical research, the less convenient ideas, the less appealing detail?

A scientist friend puts a fart joke in his explanation of methane and get congratulated for being so down to earth. I seethe with envy. Part of my research involves unraveling the cultures and politics of fart jokes in popular science. When I try to explain this work, I sound like a spoilsport.

Most people feel uncomfortable talking about the abstract entities of science. Traditionally scientists have seen this as their great challenge, but in some ways they have it easy. Everyone’s got an opinion on the research objects of social sciences and humanities, and this is precisely what makes sharing our expertise so hard. But we shouldn’t loose sense of how it can be an advantage. We should listen to all these opinions, and then work out how to challenge them, how we can offer something more. We have these opinions for a living, we have taken time to have a proper look and good, deep think about it. What new stuff have we dug up? Moreover, as someone who worries about these issues for a living, surely we want to have our ideas and evidence extended, our assumptions poked at, our ideas used?

We are paid to do our research. Teaching a small set of kids privileged enough to go to university, or publishing in esoteric journals only a couple of people will read does not cut it. Moreover, it doesn’t challenge our ideas enough to make the sort of high quality work we should be producing. Earn public trust by showing off your worth. You may well learn something in the process too.

You don’t have to do what you are told, what’d be the point of you if you did? But for goodness sake take those bloody fingers out of your ears. Me, I’m a professional scholar, not a hobbyist. That’s why I try to stretch my work outside of the academy, and why I think you should too.

Science and craft

Mendel's peas
Mendel’s pea, by some of last year’s science communication MSc students

There seems to be more and more events happening which I can only describe as science-craft. I thought I’d write about it, and did a post for the Guardian Science blog.

There are overlaps here with sci-art projects, just as there are overlaps (sometimes problematic ones) between arts and crafts more generally. However, I think science craft events have the potential to involve new and different communities which sci-art doesn’t necessary reach, and to be more participatory in their whole project set up too.

There is the question of what you participate for exactly: what are you making? At danger of repeating myself, science communication isn’t all about baking a cake shaped like a neuron. In particular, I worry that the fluffier ends of sci-craft might act as a distraction from the production of more politically controversial outcomes.

Still, we shouldn’t loose sight of the use of these more playful products too. Or rather, we shouldn’t ignore the power of the social interactions which surround their production. My knitting friends often laugh at me for being a ‘process knitter’. I’ll happily take a piece apart and re-knit it, several times. Finishing is nice. But, for me, the fun’s in the doing. Similarly, I suspect much of the worth of public engagement happens in the process rather than the outcome. The various collaborative processes often involved in crafting can provide a space for people to talk through and think through ideas together. As I end the piece for the Guardian:

At a knitting evening held at Hunterian Museum a few years back, I ended up sitting next to a homeopath. As well as swapping tips on the best way to bind off for socks, we discussed our own research projects, including the ways in which they might be seen to clash, and some of the items of the history of surgery that surrounded us. Other people listened and joined in, before we all moved on to complaining about estate agents. It was polite, humorous and thoughtful. It was also pleasingly mundane; something that we’d all do well to remember a lot of science is.

To give another example, I spotted this video of a neuroscientist, Zarinah Agnew,  making a giant sandcastle. She told me she wants to do it again, but as a workshop rather than a film. I like this idea, because the time spent making the sandcastle allows space for social interaction which simply watching the film might inspire, but won’t necessarily do in itself.

Not all public engagement can or should have an obvious political or scientific outcome. Whether you want to open up the governance of science or increase the public understanding of science, you are unlikely to get anywhere without quite a bit of cultural change first. Playing with a bit of yarn might seem unambitious, but arguably the social interaction and reflection that comes with it can help us get there. Or this social interaction might lead us somewhere else entirely.

Handcrafting political discourse

I visited Ottawa last weekend, for the Extending Expertise conference. Walking around the center of town on Sunday morning, I spotted this flyer for the Green Party.

green party flyer referencing twitter in Ottawa
Ottawa, May 1st 2011

I thought it was interesting not only because it referenced a Twitter hashtag, but that it left space to add a short message on the flyer itself too. It asked the person posting it not only to stick it up, but share a reason for doing so, and to hand-write that message.

It’s an interesting example of the way in which online participation is making a mark on offline. I also think reflects a slight change in political discourse, one that aims to include explicitly citizen voices – perhaps echoing some recent research suggesting news consumption in Canada is an increasingly social experience – and even explicitly handwritten contributions to response.

It reminded me of an electoral reform demo last summer, where campaigners brought branded but blank signs for people to compose their own messages. Or, at solidarity with Egypt rally in Trafalgar Square a few months back, that Amnesty brought a truck of wifi provision to encourage people to post to social networking sites. At one point at that rally, we were even asked to hold up our phones, clasped with our fingers arranged in a peace signs, as a statement of solidarity (sadly, it felt a bit like being in a TMobile advert).

I'm upset so I've made a sign!
London, November 10th 2010

Handcrafted political banners are nothing new, and I remember sorting through decades of handmade badges when I briefly helped out in CND archives as a teenager; loving the multiplicity of puns based on specialist professions (“taxidermists say stuff the bomb” is the classic, but there were less funny ones I can’t remember now).  Still, there seems to be an increased focus on handmade elements of political discourse in the last year or so.

Although when it comes to any shifts in style of British protest signs I’m tempted to blame Father Ted, the desire to humorously make and remake political discourse and then share with others is an international development. I’ve seen mainstream media collect images of protest signs in Egypt and Germany recently too (seriously, click on the German link, it’s lovely…). I’ve also seen photos of quite a few photos of handmade signs in the celebrations in DC and NYC after the news about Bin Laden, but I think this event overlaps with memorials of the dead (by which I mean 9/11 deaths, not Bin Laden’s), which there are different reasons and traditions for hand-crafted notices.

This banner isn't big enough...
London, March 26th 2011.

This reflects the way in which it’s easier for the media to capture and share such works but also that the protesters are capturing and sharing such handmade art with each other while on the demo on (hence Amnesty’s odd request for us to hold up our phones).

I’m reading David Gauntlett’s new book Making is Connecting at the moment (I’ll post a proper review when I’ve finished it). Part of the inspiration for the book is that he, as a professor of media studies, had noted a shift away from a slick ‘sit back and be told’ media culture, and towards a more handcrafted one of making and doing, and most of all, sharing (though which we get the connecting of the title). As he puts it in the introduction:

I’ve always liked making things, but they didn’t have an audience. With the Web, making writing, photos, drawings – and indeed websites themselves – available to the world was so easy. It was also rewarding, as people would see your stuff and then send nice comments ad links to their won. So I experienced the feeling that making is connecting for myself. (Gauntlett, 2011: 3)

I think current cultures of protest signage and these Canadian Green Party flyers are a good example of political campaigners getting in on this shift. If you are interested in reading more, I can also recommend the chapter entitled ‘Photoshop for Democracy’ in Henry Jenkins’, Convergence Culture.

green party flyer referencing twitter in Ottawa
Ottawa, May 1st 2011

Of course it’d be naive to simply say the odd hand written flyer, or even a highly skilled handquilted protest banner (or handcoded website) amounts to a sudden ability for the people to speak to power. The space left for comment on the green party flyer is really very small, and entirely framed by their branding.

Indeed, much of the Extending Expertise conference I was attending in Ottawa reflected on the problems of an apparent move from ready-made to DIY media: from sometimes petty clashes between professionals and amateurs, to more serious concerns over the potential skewing of public debate by clever use of apparently more open political debate, including the potential dis-empowerment of ‘publics’ by a too-cursory devaluing of professional expertise.

Grass roots is one thing, astroturfing is another. If you’ll excuse the extension of the metaphor, there’s also a difference between a carefully polished lawn seeded from a small selection of carefully cultivated varieties of grass, and a meadow full of more diverse flora and fauna. That’s not to say a focus on handmade parts of political discourse are necessarily a bad thing, just that we shouldn’t be naive about this.

EDITED TO ADD (10th May): I spotted this ‘Tiles for America’ wall in New York yesterday, and considering my reference above to memorials of 9/11, I thought it was worth adding. You can read a bit about the project here, (or some more of my photos here and here). In some respects, it reminded me of the wall of memorial at the Cross Bones cemetery in Southwark (photo at bottom) though in many ways it’s very different too. Anyone think of other examples?

tiles for america

tiles for america

New York City, May 10th 2011

Memorial gate, Crossbones

London, August 24th 2010