Has the Square been Circled?

Last week, I was at the “Circling the Square” conference organised by the University of Nottingham’s Science, Technology and Society research group.  The meeting’s purpose was to bring together and start a dialogue between natural and social scientists, policy makers, science communicators and the media and public.

Did it help bridge the gap between these at times disparate communities? Perhaps not as much as hoped, but if the debates during the sessions and subsequent blogs were anything to go by, it did start (or at least reinvigorate) dialogue.  The metaphor of circling a square may have been intended to imply smoothing relationships, but at this stage it might be better applied to simply drawing a ring around the issues. We are probably still some way from resolving them.

This post is a quick summary of my thoughts about the event and what I think might need to be done to help circle that square further. There have already been a number of excellent blogs that have inspired plenty of debate and discussion and which go into far more detail than I intend or am capable of.  A list of attendees contributions can be found here and a storify of tweets made during the conference here.

Be clear what we mean when we say “science”

During the week “science” was used interchangeably to refer to the physical/natural sciences, social sciences or both, and/or the practice of science to give advice or as a mechanism for discovering “immutable” truths (the difference between “regulatory” and “research” science). And, as always in these debates, the disciplines of engineering, mathematics and medicine were submerged into the general field of science, even though there are often massive cultural and language differences between them.

I’m not saying we should do away with general terms but we need to be careful in how they are used and clear on their meanings. We also need to better understand and, I’d argue, welcome cultural differences between disciplines when they arise. (From now on in this post I shall use science to mean the disciplines covered under the STEM acronym and medical sciences).

Finding a common language

In his closing presentation, physicist Phil Moriarty fired a shot at the use of jargon and obtuse language by social scientists, and his comments have sparked online debate. Of course, technical jargon develops in any technical field, nor is poor writing or communication the reserve of social scientists (sorry Phil, I’ve read some terribly constructed physical science papers in my time). I wonder, however, if the aim of Circling the Square can only be achieved if those involved are able to communicate the challenging concepts in a manner accessible to all. This wasn’t always the case and some discussions headed too far from the pragmatic into the theoretical. Analogies and metaphors also became false friends, often causing more harm than help as meanings were lost or misinterpreted.

Science is more than Global Warming (or GM, or Nanotechnology or, err, Badgers)

Of course the big scientific issue of our day is climate change and I appreciate that the public response to GM and nanotechnology is interesting, important and informative. However, the majority of scientists do not work in these fields and risk being alienated from the broader debate if the focus is too narrow.

Education, education, education

UCL’s Jason Blackstock, acting Head of the new Department of Science, Technology, Engineering, And Public Policy (STEaPP), is attempting to educate a new generation of science policy makers to understand the complexity involved in making decisions. Another speaker, Suzy Jarvis of University College Dublin, runs an Innovation Academy which teaches entrepreneurial leadership to scientists and others. Athene Donald wonders if young scientists should undergo media training. Chris Tyler of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology believes policy training should be embedded into science PhD programmes.

It appears, we are moving to a future where our research scientists are well versed in the types of topics discussed at Circling the Square. In general, I am a supporter of a broader training programme for scientists, such as those proposed above. It always surprised me that I could complete a degree in science without knowing anything about its philosophical, historical or social context. Giving perspectives beyond just the science will hopefully challenge preconceptions and develop new approaches and ways of thinking about research. Of course, the students still need time to do that research too.

Be honest about why we do what we do

If Circling the Square was a guide, stereotypes and generalisations still hold sway and were at the root of some of the ensuing “heated” debates. Jason Blackstock wanted to know how best to get the different groups around the table to develop policy. I suggested being honest from the outset about people’s motivations was important.  Why study physics? Why go into industry or policy and not academia? How are these decisions linked to people’s attitudes when it comes to policy making? There may not be enough time to answer these types of questions on every government panel, but surely academic conferences or research programmes are ideal places to do so.

As Reiner Grundmann illustrated in his closing remarks, the expectations placed upon each group in the science policy “square” need to be considered.  This also highlights a source of difficulty – communication surely breaks down when expectations are neither understood nor met.  The clear message I took from the conference was that if we want to circle the square, we must be more honest with each other and to achieve this we need more dialogue, collaboration and education.

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The peril of the press release

In a famous piece of media analysis, the average length of a soundbite in a US presidential election was found to have collapsed from 43 seconds in 1968 to just nine by 1988. Although the discovery led to plenty of head-scratching and fears about the “dumbing down” of political discourse, in the end it changed very little.

After the first day of the Circling the Square conference, it would be easy to conclude that the communication of science by the media is heading in the same direction.
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Sustainable chemistry thriving at the University of Nottingham

This post is a copy of a press release I wrote for a recent event on green and sustainable chemistry held at The University of Nottingham in April 2014. 

Researchers from across the University of Nottingham came together to talk about how their research could lead to the greener and more sustainable production of chemicals and materials.
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20p for every pound: the value of the UK’s science base

Where’s the evidence? A common challenge laid down by scientists and skeptics to politicians who open their mouths and proclaim the latest ill thought out policy.

But the same challenge can also be made to those of us in the science community who call on the government to increase research funding because of our belief that it is critical for the economy. Aware of the need to back up claims with hard evidence, the Campaign for Science & Engineering (CaSE) and several learned societies have commissioned a report to investigate what economic benefits research funding leads to.
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Inverting the hierarchy? Blogging and social media in academia

Academic blogging has snowballed over the past few years and huge numbers of researchers from across all disciplines are now writing about their experiences online. The reasons for doing it are many, and the potential benefits overwhelming. Blogging obviously provides a great opportunity to engage in two-way communications about your work with new groups, from your community of peers to the wider public.  On a more personal level, writing online allows you to grow your professional network, hone your communication skills and raise your profile.
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Our Broken Science Career Path: Something Needs to Change

The career path for scientists and engineers in UK academia is broken.  But we knew that already. The recent House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee’s report on women in STEMM careers (science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine) is just the latest to find issue with the structure of research careers.
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Screwing the Planet

My second article on Medium’s Futures Exchange collection looks at how sustainable our sex lives are. An excerpt is below with the full article here.

But sex isn’t just about making babies; there’s also a fun side. The sexual revolution of the 1960s has given rise to a rapidly expanding sex industry, worth $15 billion globally, which aims to satiate all our carnal needs. From latex to lube, this industry supplies a wide and diverse range of products to help spice things up in the bedroom. Like all chemicals, how these products are manufactured, used and disposed of will have an effect on the environment. As a chemist myself, I’m not suggesting we start to worry about the planet mid-coitus — I certainly don’t (honest!) — but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a growing awareness of some environmental issues associated with our modern sex lives.

Thanks to Frank Swain (@sciencepunk) for his help cleaning up my writing and publishing the article on his collection.

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Blogroll: Turf wars

I was invited to write for Nature Chemistry’s Blogroll column for their December issue. The column is meant as a brief summary of the current chemistry/science blogosphere and features in their printed and online issues, which hopefully creates access to a broader audience. Thanks to Stuart Cantrill and colleagues for the opportunity! Original (including link to PDF) can be found here (£££).

Molecular modellers scoop Nobel and a publishing ‘trash heap’ uncovered.

Nobel season has come and gone, with this year’s chemistry prize awarded to Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel. Once more, Paul Bracher at ChemBark must be thanked for collating the runners and riders on his blog (http://go.nature.com/qrY5o2). That the prize was awarded for computational chemistry delighted Ash Jogalekar at the Curious Wavefunction (http://go.nature.com/u4TEfB), who noted that it recognized both a whole field and the lifetime achievements of the three winners. Realizing that not everyone was happy with the decision, Jogalekar’s delight soon turned to frustration (http://go.nature.com/kytmTT) at those chemists who snipe at researchers in other fields of chemistry. As Ash put it, these ‘turf wars’ hardly help improve the public image of chemists.

Speaking of turf wars, a recent sting investigation reported in Science on open-access (OA) publishers caused a stir both in the blogosphere and the mainstream press (http://go.nature.com/mCNMVJ). John Bohannon, under the superb alias Ocorrafoo Cobange, sent a spoof paper describing the new (non-existent) anticancer properties of a new (equally non-existent) wonder drug to 304 OA journals. It was accepted in 157, occasionally without peer review, despite clear scientific and ethical shortcomings.

“An Open Access Trash Heap” cried Derek Lowe at In The Pipeline (http://go.nature.com/GMJ2ST), with his two barrels aimed directly at those journals who rip off authors for “whatever fees they can scam”. Open Access advocates, including PLOS founder Michael Eisen, were quick to defend OA publishing, suggesting similar failings would also occur in subscription-only journals. As Jon Tennant, guest-blogging on Matthew Shipman’s SciLogs page, pointed out, Bohannon’s sting uncovered deeper issues with peer review and editorial processes in general, regardless of publishers’ business models (http://go.nature.com/hXfji5).

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Lists

It’s the end of the year, or nearly, and time to start reflecting. It seems a common manifestation of such reflections is to draw up lists. From 50 Most Embarrassing Celebrity Moments! to funniest comedy catchphrases, TV and magazines end up awash with countdowns and collections in December. Even the Telegraph got into the spirit this week with a list of greatest female cartoon characters.

Scientists and policy makers have also been making lists recently. Three to be exact. The first, published in Nature but repeated on the Guardian website, outlined 20 tips to help politicians and policy makers understand science. Then Chris Tyler, Director of the UK’s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, responded with 20 things scientists should know about policy making. Finally, Roland Jackson (Sciencewise), produced a trimmed-down list of only twelve points reminding both scientists and policy makers not to forget about the public(s) too.
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A few words on Nelson Mandela

I came home last night to hear the news that Nelson Mandela, former leader of the African National Congress and first black President of South Africa, had passed away at the age of 95.  I am far too young to remember any of the period of Mandela’s incarceration, although I do just about remember his release. Two memories of mine that do stand out vividly from the immediate post-Apartheid era are the seemingly endless queues to vote in the 1994 election and then a year later Mandela cheering like a schoolboy as Francois Pienaar held aloft the Webb Ellis trophy.

Mandela himself said “Let every man be respected as an individual and no man idolized,” but he is a man who is idolised by millions. He was not a perfect man- prone to stubbornness, anger and apparently distant and cold in his private life- failings he could be forgiven after so many years imprisoned.  Yet he was able to rise above, soar even, forgiving those who had oppressed him and in later years breaking with tradition in his criticism of other African leaders and campaigning for HIV/AIDS awareness.  He was truly a man who believed in freedom and equality for all.

Will there be another like Mandela? His death signals the end of that series of great freedom fighters and revolutionaries who dominated the 20th Century. Although we might not be able to replicate what Mandela achieved we can all learn a little from him, a little that can make our lives and the lives of those around us that little bit better.  

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