Tag Archives: science

Vannevar Bush, science, the world’s brain and inventing the web

This was first published in the July edition of Popular Science UK. Subscribe to read August’s piece on health data. See their new rates for educational subs (for .sch or .ac email addresses).


The web’s origin story generally goes something like this: Tim Berners-Lee, a British scientist working at CERN in the late 1990s, wanted to find a way to deal with increasing desire to share information across the intricate global network of scientists working on the project, and found a way to connect an earlier idea of his, for a hypertext database system, to the Internet.

There’s a lovely – though somewhat Romanticised – story of Berners-Lee being inspired the culture of the CERN canteen: All these clever people from all the world and different disciplines sitting together, exchanging their cleverness, the web was just a way of sharing that experience with everyone.

A bit of science funding PR often gets spun out of this. All that money on physics research at CERN? Don’t worry, because, aside from the fact that studying the universe is a fine aim for humanity in itself, we got the web out of it. OK. But we could have got the web from lots of scientists being brought together on another ambitious problem. And that’s where an earlier character in this origin story comes in: Vannevar Bush.

Bush is often credited in the history of the web in terms of his influence on the idea of hypertext via something called the Memex (more on this later). But he played a key role in creating the social context that CERN emerged from too, and I think he should get some of the credit for that too.

Vannevar Bush was an American engineer, inventor, public intellectual and, perhaps most importantly, administrator of mid 20th century America. Born in 1890, after studying science at university he worked for General Electric for a few years before moving to MIT to do a PhD in electrical engineering. Work in industry, academia and the military followed, and he eventually became Vice President and Dean of engineering at MIT in 1938.

He’d been aware of a lack of connection between science and the military during World War One so, as the US entered World War Two, worked hard to set up official federal systems for more strategic coordination of scientific energies. He became director of the newly established Office of Scientific Research and Development in 1941, which included the initiation and administration of the Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project is significant not just in terms of the outcome of the Atomic bomb, but the way it brought together a large number of scientists from around the world and a range of subjects, to work on a strategic goal with an enormous budget, left a mark on the way we subsequently organised science.

The Manhattan Project wasn’t unprecedented, but it was a step in a set of changes to the way we organised science which led up to much more peace-time orientated projects such as CERN. The Manhattan Project did not cause some singular radical change in the development of science, but arguably it did accelerate shifts that were already taking place. Big Science is not simply a 20th century phenomenon any more than “scientists” only arrived in 1833 when William Whewell coined that term. Darwin’s correspondence (which you can read if you fancy getting lost down the rabbit hole of Victorian natural history) shows the degrees to which even seemingly “gentleman” individual science was highlight networked. Astronomy also offers case studies of multi-national networks of astronomers utilising large telescopes and in pay of industry and military stretching centuries. There’s a reason Brecht uses an astronomer to talk about the morality of 20th century science in his play A Life of Galileo. But there was something about the particular scale of the Manhattan Project and subsequent work. A physicist in early 20th C would know the handful of experts in their field, working directly with a few and corresponding with others, easily catching up with developments. In the early 21st, and I have a physicist friend who uses Ctrl Alt F to locate his name on papers.

Not everyone loved this change. The term Big Science was popularised by Alvin Weinberg, writing in the journal Science in 1961, complaining it was somewhat of a corruption of what science should and can be for society: “We build our monuments in the name of scientific truth, they built theirs in the name of religious truth; we use our Big Science to add to our country’s prestige, they used their churches for their cities’ prestige” he mourned.

That “Memex” thing is also part of the tensions surrounding this shift in how we made and connected expertise. Writing in The Atlantic in 1945, Bush reflected on the sheer quantity of information he came across on any day, and the diversity of ways in which this information might link to one another. He felt the “growing mountain of research” quite acutely, and felt quite bogged down by all the multitude of findings of various specialised branches of research:

The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers—conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.

This is something many will identify with today. But it’s no surprise that someone coming out of Manhattan Project strategy felt it so acutely. As a way of dealing with this, Bush imagined a machine which allowed for the non-linear filing and retrieval of information. This is Bush’s idea:

[the reader] finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him. And his trails do not fade.

Recognise it? Ted Nelson, who coined the term hypertext, and the Wikimedia Foundation both credit this idea. HG Wells had a similar idea with the “World Brain” in the late 1930s, though you can maybe see Wells’ socialism driving a slightly different concept and arguably it’s Bush’s Memex which had the most resonance.

Vannevar Bush lived through and was shaped by big science, but he also helped bolster its rise through the key role he played in the way 20th century science was run. We usually credit Tim Berners-Lee with the invention of the web. And so we should. But when people use the web as some sort of spin-off of the science done at CERN they are only telling half the story. If anything, the administration of science gave us the web, not science itself. We’d do well to recognise the impact the work such administrations have.

Climate change: a process, not an event

keeling curveThe Keeling Curve. It shows the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere over time. Anyone who follows climate change will know it well. It’s called Keeling after a Charles D. Keeling, and it’s curved because it’s going up. Dr K began a regular measure of the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere back in 1958, from an observatory in Hawaii. Today, his son Ralph works on the same research project; a nice example of the long-roots of our multi-generational science of environmental change. The full graph shows the long sweep from 1958 – when it was around 317 parts per million – till today’s readings skirting around 400. That’s what graphs show: Change. They are stories in a way.

I share it because I want to stress the point that climate change – like the science that lets us witness it and politics that helps us do anything about it – is a process, not an event.

Events have their uses. I was at a conference last year where scientist Myles Allen argued events like the upcoming Fifth Assessment of the IPCC were more trouble than they’re worth; an interruption to more effective on-going processes of science, only offering opportunities for sceptics. In response, journalist Fiona Harvey argued such events might not obviously serve scientists, but they allowed her a chance to take stock of the developments in climate science and work out what was best discussed with her readers. I think she had a point.

There was the Energy Bill last week, for example. An event which may not have come to the conclusion everyone wanted, perhaps, but it still had outcomes we can build on. It was also a chance to publicise the issue and build momentum, even if we’re not up to speed yet. On an international level, there are events like COPs, or Rio +20 last year. Again, frustrating for many, but not without reasons to be cheerful too. It’s important that these events are recognised as part of a longer process and that we build in spaces for reflection and recovery after moments of political failure. For all that the post-Copenhagen slump was understandable, it took way too long to recover from, and there are going to be more like that. Action on climate change isn’t a series of battles building to summative liberation; it’s a long, hard slog.

Dramatic moments within the processes of environmental change can also provide useful anchors for social and cultural reaction; whether they are events we can easily witness like the recent floods in Central Europe (yes, you can talk about weather events, just do it well) or those we need scientific work to help us see (such as when we passed 400ppm on the Keeling Curve).

If you’re playing horizon scanning, there’s also the potentially disruptive role of new technology to consider. Geoengineering is a key concern here, especially the way the very idea of it can impact on current plans, regardless of whether it actually happens or not. Science studies people sometimes talk about the sociology of expectations, the ways in which ideas of the future are applied and managed to influence what we do today. I don’t want to imply techno-pessimism here. The idea of a simple technofix may be silly, but technology can help us fix things too. There are reasons to be hopeful about the power of innovation. Still, we have to be bold and clever and take control of it, which is another reason why events much be understood as part of a process, so we can join the process as early on as possible and play a role in the direction technology takes (“upstream” engagement if you will).

Climate campaigners would also be served by paying more attention to science as a social process. They could work harder to forge alliances with scientists, utilise science’s social and cultural capital, and play a role in helping scientists productively talk to each other (especially in terms of how Western scientists might help those in the developing world). I’d also like to see them critique research funding more, helping to open public debates over why, what and whose ends our R&D budget is aimed at. Environmental NGOs could play a powerful role in helping science stand up for itself here, as well as helping science improve by critiquing itself; both things the scientific community should welcome.

That said, climate change communications could leave the science alone more often too. Climate change as an issue, isn’t simply the science of tracking what’s happening in the natural world, it is something we’ve been trying to act on for decades (albeit not always that successfully). And yet, if you look up “what is climate change”, you typically get scientific explanations. Programmes like adopt a negotiator are all too rare. We need more of these, ones that talk to different audiences in different ways, but at least try to connect the public with the political infrastructure of climate change. It’s perhaps no surprise many feel politically disengaged with climate change when all they are offered are depoliticised inscriptions of science.

But back to that graph, because it is important, and the point it hit 400 ppm last month. If you’d been following its climb, the power of hitting that symbolic point was very dramatic. I certainly felt it. But you needed to have been following it, or the drama looked a bit silly. Symbols don’t mean anything if you can’t anchor the referent. If we want people to be there for the various events of climate change, you need to engage them with the process first. If you want to avoid being surprised by other people’s events, you need to be connected to their processes. If you want to be resilient in the face of political failure, you need to see it as part of a long game and build spaces for recovery along the way. Climate change is a long game; action on it needs to keep its eye on that.

The first appeared on Greenpeace’s Energy Desk blog.

How science works: follow the money

I’m mainly blogging at the Guardian at the moment. Today I posted a piece on the fossil fuel disinvestment campaign, which has been rolling through  US universities for a while.

In essence, disinvestment is the opposite of investment, inviting people to think about how their money’s being used when they’re not using it themselves. There’s a good Rolling Stone piece from last February if you want a catch-up on how the campaign has taken off in the US, or see the 350 website for more.

As I wrote on the Guardian piece, I suspect UK universities will take broader approach to the ways in which their campus might become “fossil free”, largely because they don’t tend to have such large endowments to invest.

The People and Planet site already has a reasonably impressive list of demands under simply “move their money” including changes in careers advice, a phase-out of fossil fuel research and to demand more research funding on renewables. Recent years have seen growing campaigns to “disarm” universities – e.g. Leeds – not only in terms of shares in arms manufactures, but careers fairs and the money they take for research, which is substantial, as funding from the oil industry can be too.

In some respects, this is less about universities disinvesting, and more the other way around. It’s about preventing particular industries from being able to profit from the resources universities hold; the people we train, the cultural authority we hold and, perhaps above all, the focus of the research we do.

I suspect we’ll see more of these campaigns in the future. In fact, the University of Oxford will see on Thursday. Its Earth Sciences department is launching a new partnership with Shell. Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, will be there. And activists are planning to meet him.


How to be optimistic about climate change

reclaim the street, brighton

Climate change is depressing. Really depressing. And yeah, I know the apocalypse is like sex because every generation thinks they’ve discovered it. But it does feel a bit end times. Properly end times. We maybe don’t admit this enough, but it really, really is.

I think it is still possible to have hope though. Moreover, it is possible to have hope without (a) being naïve about some magic technology fairy or (b) sticking your head in the sand when it comes to the science. The trick is to dislodge science from the centre of the debate and replace it with politics.

I appreciate this might sound counter-intuitive and I want to stress this is not the same as ignoring the science. Let me explain.

Some background: On Thursday, I was in the audience for an event at the LSE looking back at the Beveridge Report’s idea of “Giant Evils“, and what a social state might mean in 21st century. Zoe Williams started things off with a call to move away from the pessimism of austerity which too easily plays into the hands of those who want to cut for other reasons (see her piece on their blog, complete with ref to Gramsci’s “pessimism of the intellect”). She noted the way in which a sense of pragmatism is often claimed as a way to limit options and laugh at socialists as unrealistic. The left’s response, she argued, should be to regain a bit of old school hippie optimism. She mentioned, almost in passing, that the environmental movement had fed this pessimistic narrative. When picked up on this in the questions, she defended the point, although also stressing it’s complex, and expanded it to say she felt it was no accident that Cameron had, at least initially, aligned himself with the green movement. That trip with the huskies wasn’t just a way of expressing a conservative pride in nature; there are ways in which Tory stories of austerity dovetail very neatly with modern environmental stories of scarcity.

In many ways, I agree with Williams. Indeed, I’d say it’s a point of longstanding tension between some elements of left thought and parts of the green movement. The problem is that it’s not just something greens say. It’s part of several discourses, including many scientific ones. The idea that there are limits to what we can do to the Earth isn’t some neo-con conspiracy to quash hippie dreams.

So, how do we find hope? Evidence-based hope? We should shift our focus from debating the science so much and talk more about what we want to do about distributing those resources which we do have, including one resource we maybe have too much of: people. How we choose to manage this is very much up for debate. Our plans might well go left, right or some other frame entirely, but I do think that a focus on what people choose to do is where the sort of freedom from pessimism Williams wants can be found. This is not a new idea. Neither is it simple. It’s a huge global challenge. Way more radical than anything Beveridge faced. I’m not entirely sure it is possible (I’m not sure I’m personally that optimistic about people). But it’s where the hope can be found, I think.

Science can be a big part of this. As Williams said in Q&A, there’s a way in which stories of climate change can be used as a reason to inspire positive change. Scarcity is often as reason to divide and rule, but it can be otherwise. Moreover, I’d add that science can give us a lot more than doom and gloom. Modern science is the best way we have of knowing about the world and, for all that science can be the origin of a fair few dystopic visions, it can give us new ways of seeing things and unravel further options too. It’s also happens to be one of the best expressions of how a group of internationally well-networked humans working together is so much more than the sum of its parts. We’re often invited to wonder at science’s ideas or the objects of nature it uncovers, but it’s a massive social achievement too.

I’ll end with an attempt at a bit of inspiration from a trained scientist famous for insisting there is no alternative: Thatcher. In some ways, her radicalism proves the hippie cliché that another world is possible. Even if we might disagree with the world she helped make, it shows that social structures can be dismantled and re-fashioned. And others can be dismantled and re-fashioned again. And again.

A Life of Galileo: What Brecht can teach us about the public ownership of science

HSBC Stratford upon Avon

This post first appeared on New Left Project.

The central tourist strip of Stratford-upon-Avon is not the sort of place you expect to find much Marxism. It’s all a bit Ye Olde Costa Coffee, Anne Hathaway fudge, postcards, postcards, postcards and pink fridge magnets quoting As You Like It. The most subversive it gets is a pile of Terry Deary’s Terrible Tudors in the front of Waterstone’s (i.e. not very).

But Bertolt Brecht’s A Life of Galileo is currently playing at the Royal Shakespeare Company‘s Swan Theatre, and Roxana Silbert’s production of Mark Ravenhill’s new translation puts the themes of class struggle front and centre.

On the surface, it’s a play about the clash between science and religion, but the Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts manages to miss the point by a heliocentric system or three when his review complains of a post-Dawkins boredom with such “hectoring atheism”. The point of the play isn’t to privilege scientific thinking over others, it’s a critique of the way science can be captured by particular interests, a tale not of a hero but a complex, flawed man who wants to give science and its power over it to people and (crucially) improve science by listening to the people too.

The play is very much a product of the late 1940s, re-written by Brecht in 1947 in the still-blazing light of Hiroshima. The Galileo portrayed here is far from heroic. He’s patronising, arrogant, manipulative and happy to sell his work to not only the church, but the military too, if it only gives him some time to quietly peruse the stars. (He’s also extremely dismissive of women, but that might be more the play itself than a deliberately crafted negative character trait). Even the basis for the moment of technological determinism often cited as an expression of Brecht’s Marxism in the play – the invention of the telescope – is the product of theft. The play may start with Galileo naked, but he makes no pretence at purity. As he exclaims to an old pupil in his final speech “Welcome to the gutter, brother in science”.

More to the point, the play is much more about the distribution of power than the doctrines of Catholicism. It’s the organised in organised religion that’s of importance here, and how this may be all-too-often enacted to perpetuate social inequality. The church’s role in the play is largely a symbol for hegemonic power, part of Brecht’s preoccupation with science for the few compared to science for the many. Galileo wants to publish his work in vernacular Italian instead of Latin (the court philosophers laugh “the argument will lose brilliance”) and argues for the worth of the knowledge and skills of his working class collaborators. Later, after Galileo is threatened with torture and renounces his earlier work as heresy, one of these workers turns to the others to complain: “He never paid you properly for your work. You couldn’t buy a pair of trousers or publish your own work.” Galileo was exploitative too, part of the character’s fashioning as an anti-hero.

In many ways, the science is there for symbolic purposes too. Galileo’s story is picked above any other case study of attempted rebellion not just because of his relationship with the church but because his work displaced the idea the Pope sat at the centre of the universe. The order of the heavens Galileo science speaks of is used to reflect upon orders on Earth, a metaphor which runs thickly throughout the play and was especially drawn out by the set design for the National Theatre’s 2006 production. There is much talk of being unsettled and the people not knowing their “place”, as this particular thread of the scientific revolution is used as an extended allegory for possible social ones.

There is, importantly, still the worry that scientists themselves will become too powerful and simply create new hierarchies based on their own claims to expertise. But I think Brecht’s keen to avoid the suggestion we replace religious authority with a technocratic one. This is why Galileo is shown up for exploiting his workers and we are continually told of the use of the worth of listening to people to make better science. When Galileo’s old pupil feels let down near the end of the play and exclaims angrily “Unhappy the land that has no heroes”. Galileo replies humbly “No. Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes”. Our scientist is an anti-hero not just for dramatic reasons or historical accuracy, but because Brecht wants to argue for collective rather than individual agency when it comes to understanding our world and working out how to make it better. The rallying cry of this play is to build a science and technology for the people, by the people, not simply defer to experts.

Perhaps befitting the astronomy-based talk of a topsy-turvy world, this new RSC production is a highly carnivalesque affair. At the start of the second half, a singing monk strips to reveal a fat suit over a tuxedo, in which he dances in along with the rest of the chorus, also in playful fancy dress, bathed in a pink light which runs through the set’s blue graph paper backdrop. This street festival then turns into a ball, with Galileo in shiny shoes, his daughter in a gown to announce her engagement to a wealthy landowner and clerics in glittery animal masks. Throughout, the historical span of the play is connected with a chorus who set the scenes by sing into large microphones. Ian McDiarmid, playing Galileo, seems to dance around the stage as the boyish scientific excitement comes almost entirely from his hips.

One might be tempted to critique this as simply licensed carnival – moments of sanctioned freedom to distract you from everyday oppression – especially as you leave the theatre and return to central Stratford-upon-Avon, walking past the mosaic of Shakespeare’s face adorning the local HSBC on the way to the station, as well as the Anne Hathaway fudge, fridge magnets and collected works of Terry Deary. Or when you read that the RSC have announced a new partnership deal with BP. Indeed, the BP deal invites us to think about one of the plays key themes: the corrupting role of patronship. More relevent, perhaps, is the role of BP in university-based scientific research and or science education, which invite us to consider the ways in which the play’s are still relevant. As Galileo bitterly declares in his closing speech: “Surely the purpose of science is to ease human hardship. If scientists follow the orders of those in power, if they store up knowledge for the sake of storing it up, then science will be crippled and your new machines will bring new forms of oppression.”

The RSC production ends with a nice touch: a young scientist throws an apple at a small child, telling her to learn to use her eyes. Apples have iconic status in the history of knowledge. Newton told the story of his apple not just because it’s a fruit that falls, but because it echoed Adam’s loss of knowledge in Eden; Newton had now got it this knowledge back. There’s a crucial difference, however, between whether Newton and other scientists felt such knowledge was now theirs, or whether it was seen as something for the whole of humankind. (Apparently Newton also thought he was no coincidence he shared a birthday with Christ, make of that what you will). We should expect scientists to share their work and be public accountable, but non-scientists should be proactive in the processes of opening it up too: stand up for the public funding of science and actively go forth and ask questions of professional researchers and their managers so you might be part of their research. Work with scientists and put them to work because other people already are. Check they’re building machines for liberation, not opression.

Go on. Be inspired by the possibilities. Bite into that apple.

Why “scientific literacy” is silly, again.

scientific literacy klaxon

The prize of smugness for anyone who can correctly guess which event caused a friend to text me this last year.

I spent an evening earlier this month doing some public engagement about public engagement. Or, talking about scientific literacy in a pub in Bloomsbury as part of the regular “Big Ideas” debates. If you don’t mind the sound of a load of pub chairs moving around, here’s a podcast.

It’s pretty similar to the stuff I covered for the BBC last summer but with added Boris Johnson and much longer (and better) Q&As at the end. Especially good first question from a chap who works for a biomedical charity.

Science policy and social media

Up and Atom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Production of Nonknowledge

private public

UCL’s Science and Society reading group discussed an interesting paper on the production of non-knowledge, what science decides not to look at, why and how. It’s interesting because the growing literature on the sociology of ignorance – e.g. agnotology – often sees it as a problem, but as this paper points out, it’s a routine part of science. I thought I’d share my notes. You can download the paper here (pdf).

  • Kempner, J, Merz, JF, Bosk ,CL (2011) “Forbidden Knowledge: Public Controversy and the Production of Nonknowledge”, Sociological Forum, Vol. 26, No. 3: 475-500.

Historians and sociologists of science have long studied they ways in which the social world shapes the production of knowledge. But there’s a limited amount of work on what we don’t know. We might argue it’s hard to get an empirical grip on the absence of something, except that scientists are active producers of non-knowledge; they routinely make decisions about what not to do, and sociologists can track that. In many respects, a process of selection is endemic to scientific work. To quote Robert Merton, “scientific knowledge is specified ignorance” (Kempner et al, 2011: 477).

This paper is particularly focused on scientists’ understandings of what they call ‘‘forbidden knowledge” (too sensitive, dangerous, or taboo in some way) and the ways particular topics might become seen as such. They see such forbidden knowledge as a rather dynamic category, shaped by culture, political climate, and the interests of researchers and therefore decide it’s best to focus on how knowledge comes to be forbidden rather than consider one specific aspect of forbidden knowledge or another (Kempner et al, 2011: 479-80)

What they did: 41 interviews collected 2002-3 drawn from six subject areas picked because such work might involve forms of forbidden knowledge (microbiology, neuroscience, sociology, computer science, industrial⁄organizational psychology and multidisciplinary drug and alcohol studies). Kempner et al identified the 10 top-ranked universities in each discipline and from lists of faculty, randomly chose names and backups in case they did not respond or simply refused. 30-45 mins, mainly by phone but 3 in person. The interview consisted of four sections: they asked researchers to name a prominent example of forbidden knowledge in their field; respondents were then probed on these responses and asked to comment on their own experiences as well as the experiences of their colleagues; thirdly, they asked a series of closed specific questions about practices and experiences; and finally, the interview ended with attitudinal questions about what the respondent felt about scientific freedom and social and professional constraints they worked under.

In terms of the results, Kempner et al found researchers perceived science as responsible and “safe”, with scientists committed to openness and generally moral. The pursuit of knowledge was seen as worth in of itself and perhaps providing the social function of challenging social norms: ‘‘Truth and knowledge is always the most liberating thing, even though it’s often unpleasant and not what people want to hear’’; ‘‘Our job is not to defend the status quo, our job is to explore truth (Kempner et al, 2011: 484). Research subjects disagreed (70%) or disagreed somewhat (20%) that: ‘‘A journal editor should reject a paper if peer review concludes that the results would undermine or clash with societal norms’’ (Kempner et al, 2011: 486).

When pushed, most of the agreed there are legitimate constraints on the production of knowledge; restrictions which provide valuable and necessary protections to society. However, they were largely dismissive of constraints on science which they understood to be motivated by electoral politics, or, as one respondent remarked, are “just typical of American Yahoo politics”. Stem-cell research stood out as an example of overly restrictive limits and the Bush Jnr era America this research was conducted in may well have been a factor. Many respondents expressed a preference that scientists themselves should determine the no-go areas for research, not policymakers or some abstract notion of ‘‘publics’’ (Kempner et al, 2011: 486).

Most of the researchers were also to outline entire areas of research that they felt could/should not be conducted in their fields. Perhaps most tellingly, terms of areas which were already seen as no-go, they tended to do so by reporting stories about people who had broken norms through a series ‘‘cautionary tales’’ which amounted to a sort of gradually constructed collective memory of ‘‘what not to do’’ (Kempner et al, 2011: 486). It seemed that researchers often stumbled into forbidden territory through no intention of their own, only learning they’d hit upon some area of forbidden knowledge when legislators, news agencies, activist groups or institutional review board raised unanticipated objections.

All that said, according to this data, working scientists do not shy away from controversy. If anything, they are driven by it, as long as the controversy is within the community of working scientists, not those pesky policy makers or publics. (Kempner et al, 2001: 487). Drug and alcohol researchers in particular framed the division between these two worlds using an ‘‘us versus them’’ narrative (Kempner et al, 2001: 488). Still, there were internal forces of constraint mentioned too. More than a third of the respondents reported they or one of their colleagues chose not to pursue/ publish research because they knew it contravened accepted dogmas of their discipline in some way.

Overall, they concluded that “forbidden knowledge” was omnipresent in the research process, routine almost as scientific research often “requires that all working scientists learn to accept the bit so that they can properly march their paces” (Kempner et al, 2001: 494). Accepting forms of what might be called censorship is central to the everyday work of making knowledge. Kempner et al go as far to say they found it “puzzling that scientists could maintain an adherence to normative principles of free inquiry while prodigiously avoiding the production of forbidden knowledge” (Kempner et al, 2001: 496) which I found a bit unfair, or at least it’s not “puzzling” even though it’s worth pointing out and discussing. On a more normative level, as non-knowledge is such a routine part of science we should acknowledge this more. We should also perhaps try to heal that “them” vs “us” divide to build productive debate about science chooses what not to research (something I’m sure would actually liberate a lot of scientists, far from the image depicted in this paper’s interviews).

Big Pharma: Small Science?

I recently read a paper by some colleagues at SPRU on the publication patterns of the pharmaceutical industry. I thought I’d share a short write up of my notes. A version of the paper is here (pdf) or full citation:

  • Rafols, Ismael, Hopkins, Michael M, Hoekman, Jarno, Siepel, Josh, O’Hare, Alice, Perianes-Rodríguez, Antonio and Nightingale, Paul (2012) Big pharma, little science? A bibliometric perspective on big pharma’s R&D decline. Technological Forecasting and Social Change.

You might be forgiven for thinking the pharmaceutical industry doesn’t publish research. It does. Quite a bit. “Big Pharma” (the world’s 15 largest firms) have around 10,000 publications. It’s still only about 4% of total publications in the field (and to put that 4% in some context, Big Pharma firms invested £46 billion per year in research and development between 2004-07, compared to the National Institute of Health’s £15.25b). But looking at some of the whats, whens and wheres of Big Pharma publishing can be interesting. They seem to be publishing around 9% less than they did 15 years ago, in slightly different areas, with evidence of different collaborations in ways which suggest they are a bit more of a follower than a leader when it comes to science. Although the issue is very complex, as the paper notes in its conclusion, is Big Pharma is not doing the research itself, will they be able to continue to be able to justify their large profits?

The researchers used Web of Science to download publications – “article” “letter” “note” “proceeding paper” and ”review” – from the largest 15 European and American pharmaceutical firms, amounting to a total of 160,841 records for the 1995-2009 period. Note: Here “European” meant they had an affiliation to at least one European Free Trade Association country (EU + Switzerland, Norway, Lichtenstein and Iceland). Though I’m personally taken by the idea of applying a Eurovision view of “European” in research policy data collection, I guess the politics of Israeli publishing might be a complicating factor. Also it’d just lead to really bad null points jokes in seminars. The data was then analysed with VantagePoint software, and they used Pajek and VOSviewer to create visualisations.

There are different motivations to publish in the drug discovery and drug development stages. In the discovery phase, publications can signal to investors but participating in the more traditional exchanges of “open science” (open in that they are published, even if there’s a paywall) also allows industrially based scientists access to the resources of the scientific community. In drug development, a degree of openness is often required due to the need for clinical evidence for the uptake of innovations. The authors argue that the evidence-based medicine paradigm has encouraged this (though some might argue not enough). They also suggest that scientific publications are sometimes written to diffuse information about the effectiveness and safety of pharmaceuticals; acting as a marketing tool, to win support in regulatory/ policy areas.

So, what’s Big Pharma publishing? More in rheumatology and ophthalmology (up 190% and 122% respectively), perhaps reflecting areas of increased therapeutic interest. Interestingly, also up was health policy and services (151%) reflecting greater role in fields closer to patient (or perhaps closer to the market) such as health services and clinical research. The industry’s shift away from agrichemicals and materials explains drop in plant (down 62%) and polymer science (down 71%). Chemistry, in comparison, was relaivly stable, but biomedicine was down 40% and cell biology down 46.5%. Put this data through visualization, and you get a pretty map of threads and bubbles lets you see a larger picture of a diversification of research interests. Also, the drop in biomed sciences can be seen in context of increase in peripheral areas related to new techniques (e.g. computation bio) and a marked shift towards disciplines more orientated to clinical applications. As the conclusion put it; we can see an apparent shift from bench to bedside.

There also seems to be some evidence of the organisational shifts many others have noted of Big Pharma in recent years. E.g. there’s a lot of talk of a shift to “team science” of collaboration, especially in biological sciences, medicine and neuroscience. This data suggests it’s even stronger in big pharma. However, interestingly it seems to be external partners which seem to be taking the intellectual lead: there’s a distinctive decrease in the number of big pharma first authors in collaborative publications (from 43% to 35%). The researchers conclude that the picture of Big Pharma their data presents is that of an intellectual follower, not leader.

We should be careful of drawing conclusions on this data as a simple proxy for what’s happen in Big Pharma. For example, there was no obvious sign of off-shoring of research to countries outside US and Europe (e.g. Singapore, India and China). However, the researchers suggest that due to division of labour in this particular collaborations and which part of that labor gets author credit, this is one of the areas where publication data underestimates actual activity. Also interestingly, although the oncology publishing increase is consistent with other data on pharmaceutical projects, there was increase in cardiovascular publishing despite decrease in number of projects. As Brian Balmer’s book on secrecy in science tells us, there are complex, often inter-mingling reasons for opening and closing scientific research. Similarly, there are a complex of reasons for publishing and not publishing. Still, it tells us something things and suggests others and if you’re interested it’s worth having a look at the full paper, including appendix.

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).