At the Launch of Making Science Public

I recently attended the launch day of Making Science Public , a new Leverhulme funded research programme at the University of Nottingham that aims to look at “the challenges involved in making science more public.” Although I have attended social science lectures before, this was my first real foray into the area of “Science and Technology Studies.” I enjoyed the day and it was interesting to see new perspectives on the science communication and how science and the public(s) engage. As a rookie to the area and a scientist, this is my take on the day and some of the issues that were raised.

The Making Science Public launch day covered topics large and small, including the politics of climate change, the motivations of individual scientists who engage with the public and the purpose and function of science communication as a whole. Ulrike Felt, the keynote speaker, began by asking if science was a “public good in search of a good public”; that science communication was a means of creating “good publics” more receptive to the outcomes of science and technology. During the day, some went even further to suggest that at times science communication was merely promotion and Felt herself noted how scientists increasingly describe their work in a “medialised” manner. Scientists are sceptical by nature so why should they seek to create an unsceptical public? What factors turns science communication into science promotion, performed by increasingly media-savvy scientists?  Is this a consequence of how scientists perceive themselves as being responsible for growing the economy, improving people’s lives and saving the planet (whilst, of course, recruiting the next generation of scientists to do the same)?

The direct interaction of the public with science was naturally a continuing theme of the day.  The “democratisation of science” was discussed as the future of science communication, achieved through a two-way engagement between scientists and the public, rather than the one-way transmission of knowledge that characterises the information deficit model. For the democratisation model to be successful, the aims and processes will need to be clearly explained to scientists, particularly as they remain suspicious of how science is understood by the public and conveyed by the media (despite surveys showing how the public holds scientists in high regard). Expressing one such concern, Phil Moriarty, a Professor of Physics at Nottingham, asked how members of the public, with presumably limited technical training, would be able to engage with the science decision making process. The discussions also considered whether these interactions could be general to all science or if specific disciplines and technologies lend themselves more to public involvement than others. If the argument for public engagement in research is around the right of taxpayers (who are often the end “users” too) to be involved in how their money is spent, then democratisation naturally extends to the arts, humanities and social sciences.  Will each discipline’s engagement at this level be independent or will the result be a greater public say on how all research money is allocated across the board? If so, could we see more sad situations where departments, such as archaeology at Birmingham, face closure if they fail to demonstrate and defend their value to society? And, if required to secure public support for funding, how do we stop the communication of science becoming both medialised and politicised?

Of particular interest to me was a debate, between Alex Smith (University of Warwick) and Beverley Gibbs (Nottingham), around the potential risks and benefits arising from the privatisation of research. Alex highlighted the dangers of the current drive towards privatising University provision, exemplified by the case of Birmingham’s archaeology department. In opposition, Beverley argued in support of private investment in science, quoting how for every £1 spent by government and charities on science, industry spends £1.67. She also claimed that the customer-orientated drivers behind industrial research place the private sector in a better position to meet public needs than poorly accountable government institutions and Universities. Of course, Universities will defend their positions as custodians of independent, “basic” or “fundamental” research that would not be done otherwise. Yet many would question the real value of publicly-funded basic research, and the lines between private and publicly funded science are becoming increasingly blurred as Universities take up the slack left by industry‘s withdrawal from early stage R&D.  

At one point, I was asked directly if I felt uneasy about my role in encouraging private research funding for a publicly owned University. Should, as was suggested by one delegate, Universities and other publicly funded science organisations even shun or boycott sectors of industry with questionable moral or environmental reputations? There may be specific examples where a boycott is appropriate, but in general I believe that Universities have a responsibility, within reason, to offer their help to the private sector. Industry is not immune to regulatory and social pressures and is often keen to work together with University science and engineering departments to develop technologies that will reduce their environmental impact.  Withholding access to this knowledge doesn’t just withhold the commercial benefits to individual companies but also the wider associated benefits to society.  However, Universities may soon face a dilemma around how they balance industry’s need for confidentiality with the government’s drive to open up access to publicly funded research.

The day had begun with Professor Sarah O’Hara, a Pro-vice Chancellor at Nottingham, setting out an ambitious objective that no scientist or engineer should leave University without knowing their wider role in society. Clearly, this can only be achieved through joint training and networking between scientists and other disciplines, alongside giving opportunities for all scientists to interact with public and private science users. Already, many scientists enjoy being able to discuss their science with the public and see it as a way to engage rather than simply educate. Social media, blogs and accessible multimedia platforms may have a dramatic impact on how both the public and scientists engage with each other. Recent examples suggest even “warts-and-all” revelations that expose the human side of research can quickly catch-on . Even so, no one can deny that sometimes science is communicated poorly, nor should the default response of scientists be to blame the media or public ignorance . These developments make the start of the Making Science Public programme particularly timely.

Useful Links:

-A couple of Storify streams of tweets from #MakingSciPub by Boris Popov (@BorisOPopov) and Ino Agrafioti (@inoagrafioti)

-Making Science Public has its own blog (@MakingSciPub)

-And more blogs about the day can be found here (@UonResearch), here (@eannekerr) and here (@Sciencewise).

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