December 19, 2016, by Brigitte Nerlich
Making Science Public: 2016 blog round-up
This has been a weird and momentous year. For me personally and, even more so, for the world. In June this year we celebrated the almost end of the Making Science Public programme, which I directed between 2012 and 2016. At the end of September I retired, after working for more than 25 years at the University of Nottingham. During that time I helped set up the Institute for Science and Society and had the privilege of working with an incredible bunch of PhD students, post-docs and permanent members of staff. I therefore wrote a blog post which provides a detailed account of how the Institute came into being.
I now have a ‘hot desk’ in the room where I first worked as Research Officer within the first incarnation of the Institute, around the turn of the millennium. I share this room with my former Making Science Public programme manager, Harinee Selvadurai and Anne Patterson, a Research Fellow working within the Centre for Social Work – two wonderful people. I am still in the same corridor where the rest of the ‘Institute’ members are located and where the remaining members of the Making Science Public team work. That is great, and I love coming in to ‘work’ and mingle with them, as well as with the rest of the School upstairs and with people across campus.
That is the good news. The bad new is that the world around us is changing, from the University, to the nation, to Europe, to the United States, to the Middle East, to the world, and not always in good ways. Brexit in particular has deeply depressed me. The erosion of differences between truth, facts and fantasy annoys me and made me wonder about how this might impact science communication (and communication in general). However, all these events and developments are also bringing out the best in people, and we should rejoice in that.
So, what have I been up to in terms of blogging during 2016? I wrote my last blog post about climate change (on the strangely contentious topic of certainty and consensus). However, Mike Schäfer wrote a fascinating guest post on climate change and digital media last week and I would gladly publish more posts by other people engaged with climate change issues.
As my climate projects have now ended, I have focused more on current projects relating to biology and physics. In terms of biology, I wrote many posts on synthetic biology and a few others on epigenetics and antimicrobial resistance. In terms of physics and astronomy, I wrote some posts related to a project in physics/nanocience on 3D printing with atoms, and a few on space exploration.
At the beginning of the year, I collected all my old posts on synthetic biology into one anthology of blog posts – I was a bit surprised how many there were. Inspired by an article by Juli Peretó, I wrote a quick overview of the history of early synthetic biology, focusing in particular on Loeb and Leduc. I reported on an attempt at assembling a synthetic human genome and the politics of openness and secrecy surrounding this project. I also reflected on the race to be first in developing CRISPR tools and the risks and responsibilities entailed by participating in that race. What I most enjoyed though was reporting from a meeting of the SBRC‘s advisory board, not so much because of the meeting though, but because of its location. This was the Carbon Neutral Lab here in Nottingham which has tried to build the values by which science is done (responsibly) into the building itself. And I love it.
Gene editing and gene drives
Gene editing and gene drives (which are not the same!) have been in news a lot this year. So I wrote something about the semantic origins of the ‘gene drives’; something about genome editing in fact and fiction, and something about the metaphor of gene surgery, which, in Germany at least, seems to compete with the metaphor of ‘gene editing’. I am still not sure what implications the choice of one metaphor over the other has for science communication, public/patient understanding and ethics. But I’ll try to find out at some point
Metaphors occupied me quite a bit during the year. So I reflected on the metaphor of books and circuits in synthetic biology, on pathways in synthetic biology and in responsible innovation, on precision metaphors in a messy biological world, on programming metaphors and what they may entail… And finally I wrote a blog post about an emerging international interest in metaphors in synthetic biology (and their responsible use) – an interest we want to exploit in a forthcoming symposium.
I have been interested in epigenetics for quite some time and wrote about it in past blog posts. Over time I have become increasingly concerned about some epigenetic hype spread by alternative medicine and nutrition providers, but also, and more importantly, about the way that some social science research discussing epigenetics deals with this hype and amplifies it consciously or unconsciously. So I wrote one post on epigenetic hype, one on the conceptual muddle surrounding epigenetics, one on the phrase ‘how epigenetics gets under your skin‘ (in more sense than one), and one on the various meanings of plasticity in epigenetics and neuroscience.
AMR is a hot topic at the moment and all major research funding bodies are interested in it, as well, as, of course the Government, the Chief Medical Officer and many more. The UK is, I think, at the forefront of trying to tackle the emerging problem of antibiotic or antimicrobial resistance, a topic I have been interested in since around 2005. This year, I wrote four blog posts on AMR, one trying to trace how AMR has been discussed in the UK news media overtime; another questioning alarmist messaging around AMR; yet another on AMR and citizen science (really interesting project), and finally one reporting on a blog post by the ESRC AMR champion Helen Lambert who herself deals with rhetorical aspects of AMR which are of interest to me – and of course should be to others too.
During the summer I worked on a small project relating to Brazilian media coverage of the then hot topic of the Zika virus (with Sarah Hartley, Barbara Ribeiro and Rusi Jaspal). Related to that, I wrote one post on poems that Brazilians had written about this topic and another about searches on Google trends related to the outbreak and the lack of women in the search results.
I am still involved in a project led by Philip Moriarty at the School of Physics and Astronomy. Just after I had posted my round-up of blog posts last year, he published a guest post on this project which deals with 3D printing with atoms. He wrote about how this proposal came about and how we narrowly avoided falling into the ‘impact trap’. Instead we honestly declared that we would link this curiosity-driven project to novel ways of public engagement, in this case the production of a graphic novel. I have blogged about the way the writer (Shey Hargreaves) carried out research for the novel and what the results were. We now have a new illustrator, Charli Vince, on board and we have just presented our novel to members of the Nottingham Does Comics community. Philip wrote a lively report on this fun meeting.
I also wrote a blog post which was inspired by this year’s Nobel Prize for chemistry and involved ‘molecular machines‘ – a topic linked to nanoscience that has fascinated me for a long time.
This year was another good year for space (in contrast to down here on earth, unfortunately). Gravitational waves, about which I had written before, were finally discovered. I also wrote about the ongoing Juno mission (i.e. exploration of Jupiter), especially as Nottingham and Leicester were involved. New images, for example of a storm, are now being beamed down as we speak.
Science and politics
I also wrote a variety of posts on science, culture, politics and communication. A blog post by Athene Donald made me reflect on the close links between science and culture. Like Athene, I see science as part of culture. In my post I mused about cultural differences in the use of the word ‘culture’ itself and how that might impact on the public understanding of science. Unfortunately, we now live in a culture of speed and accelerating which threatens some vital tenets of both science and culture. I mused on these issues in one blog post, which is also linked to the topic of responsible innovation or RRI. I came back to the topic of RRI in a post in which I used insights from anthropology (Malinowski in particular) to talk about responsible innovation as a ‘magic’ word that is supposed to work miracles – but does it, really? In another post I wrote about the ‘value’ and ‘utility’ of science, delving into Feynman on the one hand and Poincaré on the other.
Two other posts dealt with more current concerns. In one post I argued that the government has just as much responsibility for ‘science communication’ as scientists and science communicators. Finally, I tackled a recurring meme, namely that science ‘is broken’ and tried to show that ‘science’ is not broken but that the environment in which science is being carried out is broken. Here too governments and policy makers have to shoulder some responsibility!
Three other posts cannot easily be classified. One reflects on the rise of algorithms, AI and automation (prompted by a dissertation I supervised by Vahini Sangarapillai – who is now doing her PhD on the impact of automation on knowledge work).
In two other posts, one for the Making Science Public blog and one for Discover Society, I went back to my roots and rummaged around in 19th-century science and popularisation of science, with one blog post on the French astronomer and science populariser Camille Flammarion and another on the Prussian geographer, naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt. This exploration of Humboldt and also Jules Verne was prompted by a wonderful book, namely The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf, winner of the 2015 Costa Biography Award and winner of the 2016 Royal Society Science Book Prize.
We hosted six guest posts or quasi guest posts. Three were written by former members of the team; one dealt with ash dieback (Judith Tsouvalis), one with a strange gagging clause for academics, which now fortunately has been abandoned (John Holmwood), and another tackled responsible research and innovation and the politics of governance (Warren Pearce and Sarah Hartley). Alasdair Taylor, now working at the Royal Society, wrote a complementary post on responsible innovation and the missing link between theory and practice. Mark Schäfer from the University of Zurich wrote a guest post on crowd funding science and one on climate change in the digital world, focusing on Buzzfeed, Vice and Huffington Post.
At the end of this eventful year, I would like to thank everybody who has supported this blog and the Leverhulme Trust funded Making Science Public programme! I would also like to thank Carmen McLeod for working so tirelessly at embedding responsible innovation (RRI) within the BBSRC/EPSRC funded Synthetic Biology Research Centre here at the University of Nottingham and for giving me the time to just my blog posts about synbio, language and responsibility. Thanks also to Phil Moriarty whose energy seems to be boundless when it comes to science and science communication. I am glad that I can still be involved with his EPSRC funded nanoscience project. Thanks also to all these funders, of course.
I wish everybody a good break over the Christmas period and I very much hope that 2017 will an improvement on 2016!!
Image: Frosted flowers, Millennium Garden, University of Nottingham