January 5, 2018, by Brigitte Nerlich

Making science public: Our edited collection

As our Making Making Science Public programme has come to an end, it’s time to take stock across all projects and beyond. This is exactly what we have done in an (open access) book coming out with Manchester University Press in January, entitled Science and the Politics of Openness: Here be monsters.

The chapters in this volume are mainly based on work carried out by the Making Science Public team during the Leverhulme Trust-funded ‘Making Science Public’ research programme (2012-2017); some of the chapters have in addition been written by other experts on the topics covered in the book.

The chapters explore the relationship between science, politics and publics through a number of topical case studies which challenge received wisdoms about openness and transparency and map the pitfalls, dangers and, indeed, the monsters lurking behind some of these buzzwords (see the book cover).

We argue that the time is ripe to examine the positive and negative effects of contemporary policy innovations and institutions which purport to bring science, society and publics closer together through processes of openness, access and transparency. Developed as solutions to perceived crises in science/society relations, these initiatives might hide dilemmas that need to be made visible and need to be discussed out in the open. The chapters in this book therefore explore the unfolding contradictions around efforts to ‘make science public’.

Themes

Following an introduction by the editors and a coda reflecting on recent development in science and politics in the US by Alexander Smith, the book is organised around the four themes/sections: (1) transparency in the context of science in the public sphere, (2) responsibility in the context of contemporary research practice and governance, both globally and more locally, (3) expertise in the context of policy-making, risk assessment and the regulation of science, and finally (4) faith in the context of emerging tensions and misunderstandings between science, politics and publics regarding issues of faith.

Each section of the book contains an opening essay by an expert on the theme and the book closes with an afterword thinking through the impact of the marketisation of universities and an epilogue reflecting on the contributions to the book in the four themed sections.

Transparency

This section opens the book with an exploration of one its core topics, namely transparency and openness, and how they play out within various institutional and policy domains. Three chapters circle these concepts in different ways. Stephen Curry deals with an issue that has risen to prominence in science and university research in recent years, namely ‘open access’. He examines not only the potential of Open Access to academic research to break down barriers and open up research and knowledge to the wider public but also the many barriers that exist or are emerging to impede the open access movement. Carmen McLeod deals with issues of transparency and secrecy in the context of animal research through the lens of two transparency initiatives: the Swiss Basel Declaration announced in 2011, and the UK Concordat on Openness in Animal Research launched in 2012. In the final chapter of this section, Roda Madziva and Vivien Lowndes deal with transparency, evidence and publics in the context of a very topical issue, namely immigration. This chapter also contributes indirectly to the last section of the book, which deals with faith, as Madzvia and Lowndes investigate faith-based claims being used when adjudicating asylum applications.

The section introduction by Benjamin Worthy dissects the concepts of transparency and openness and puts them into the context of recent research on these topics, as well as work on related issues around security, privacy, confidentiality and accountability. Worthy also highlights problems with radical openness in a context where ‘people’ might not be willing, able or interested to make use of the opportunities such openness affords them.

Responsibility

This section continues to explore the topic of transparency and openness, but with an additional focus on responsibility and justice. Three chapters move from the global to the more local and from global environmental change and energy justice to concerns about responsible innovation in the context of Western concerns with genetically modified foods and crops.

Eleanor Hadley Kershaw presents us with an overview of the opportunities and challenges that emerge when trying to foster science/society or science/public co-production of research and engagement within a global institution, namely Future Earth. Alison Mohr, by contrast, deals with the tensions that emerge when Western energy technologies are distributed in the Global South and how co-production between energy experts, social science experts and local community experts can help in this context. In both cases openness is the condition sine qua non for such global enterprises to succeed. In the final chapter Stevienna de Saille and Paul Martin tackle in an almost playful but deadly serious way some of the potentially problematic (or monstrous) consequences of the ‘opening up’ agenda written into responsible research and innovation frameworks. They do this by inspecting stories about monsters that have been told and are being told around GM foods and crops.

The section is introduced by Barbara Prainsack and Sabina Leonelli who tease out the discursive promises and risks of using buzzwords such as openness and responsible innovation. They also examine the tensions explored in some of the chapters between efforts at centralisation on the one hand and opening up research and institutions to epistemic diversity, as well as between inclusiveness and social justice.

Expertise

This section goes on to examine issues around experts and publics in greater detail. The first chapter, by Sarah Hartley and Adam Kokotovich, focuses on the always hot topic of ‘risk’ and risk assessment. The authors make the claim that public involvement in risk assessment is not reaching its full potential and argue for a new role for experts and publics supported by a detailed analysis of a particular case study, namely, the European Food Safety Authority’s public consultations. We then move from food safety to emerging diseases, in this case the emergence of a plant/tree disease: ash die back. The chapter by Judith Tsouvalis finds a similar disconnect between experts and publics and a similar divorce between ‘risk’ assessment and public values. Both chapters make a plea for not dealing with risks from a purely expert and technoscientific perspective. Warren Pearce and Brigitte Nerlich in turn explore a particular case study, the release of the film An Inconvenient Truth in 2007, as an example where climate change expertise is taken out of the pages of science journals and into the public sphere and the opportunities and problems this generates. Sujatha Raman, Pru Hobson-West, Mimi Lam and Kate Millar use a famous political speech, Science Matters, as an opportunity to rethink the role of engagement by minority publics in constituting the public interest around science in alliance with expertise.

The section is introduced by Mark Brown, who sheds light on the tensions between experts and publics by providing an historical overview of the relationship between science and democracy. He examines the legitimacy of expertise in the current political climate and points out that ‘avoiding technocracy without fostering populism is a key challenge of our time’.

Faith

This section continues to explore some of the topics addressed in the previous one dealing with experts and publics but with a particular focus on science and religion. The chapter by Fern Elsdon-Baker questions the expertise of social scientists when dealing with a particular type of ‘public’, namely people who in one way or the other lean towards a creationist view of life on earth.  She makes a plea for researchers to not posit as a ‘fact’ a presumed clash between scientific and religious worldviews and to explore public perceptions of evolutionary science and religion without it being overshadowed by this prejudice. A second chapter by David Kirby and Amy Chambers, is a fascinating exploration of the struggle between film makers and religious communities over shaping public views of science, including evolution, through a history of censorship.

The section is introduced by Chris Toumey who combines reflections on science and religion with the themes of openness, expertise and responsibility in new and unexpected ways.

Afterword and epilogue

The book is rounded up with two closing statements, one a afterword by John Holmwood and Jan Balon reflecting on markets, neoliberalism, populism and the demise of the public university, which is one current issue that bedevils our (academic) lives. This is followed by an epilogue by Stephen Turner who weaves together all the chapters presented in this book into a coherent story, by projecting them against a much-needed historical background involving science, politics and publics.

We hope that readers will find all this interesting and stimulating, especially in a time of radical change in science, society and politics. You can buy the book at MUP or in any academic bookshop, including Amazon.

Image: Book cover, based on an illustration in Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia (1545), which was a combination of an atlas, an encyclopaedia and a syllabus on math, language, history and ethnography. The image has the title: ‘Wonders of the sea and rare animals, as they are found in the midnight lands in the sea and on the land’.

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