February 7, 2012, by Adrian Mateo
The cosmos has no camps – on public engagement with science and the role of social scientists
When talking with research funders of research administrators about my work on the boundaries of science and society, they quite often ask me why I don’t do ‘a Brian Cox’ (and, much more rarely, a Jim Al-Khalili or a Kathy Sykes or, perhaps in the future, an Alice Roberts, not to mention David Spiegelhalter, Marcus du Sautoy and, closer to home, a Martyn Poliakoff).
This made me think. What prevents me, as a social scientist of sorts, to do what all these scientists do so brilliantly?
There are obviously lots of things that prevent me personally from joining this group of people, things that have nothing to do with the fact that I am a social scientist. However, can it be that those dealing with ‘hard’ sciences actually have it relatively easy (and I know it’s not easy!)
What is there not to like about the wonders of the cosmos, for example, or the beauty of a molecule? Now, we, as social scientists, deal with topics such as GM food or cloning or carbon capture and storage or climate change or bovine TB or…. The problem is, we cannot just make people appreciate the wonders of GM food, for example.
GM food, unlike the cosmos, is something people argue strongly about and, most importantly, argue mainly against (at least in Europe). I and many other social scientists study these arguments and the social, political and ethical implications of new and emerging technologies and scientific advances; we do not study GM food or crops themselves. Given this focus, I always find it quite difficult to formulate an engagement or media angle that doesn’t immediately drop me in one ‘camp’ or another.
By contrast, the cosmos doesn’t really have camps. You can’t be against the cosmos. That’s why it is relatively ‘easy’ (in the sense of straightforward) to talk about the cosmos and engage people with the cosmos, make them appreciate it, enjoy it and so on. Similarly, when it comes to GM or cloning, for example, all depends on the debate you are engaged in, on ambiguity and ambivalence, on plurality and uncertainty, on context and contestation. This is also the case with regards to climate change, and here we have seen that being in one camp or another has become almost more important than the topic of climate change itself. It’s all about the politics.
What is the role of social scientists then with regard to public engagement (with science)? Can we ever become the new Brian Coxes for carbon capture and storage for example or should we stick to analysing how this and many other complex and economically and politically fraught issues are dealt with by the media, policy makers, and, of course, various types of publics?
Brigitte Nerlich (Professor of Science, Language and Society – Institute for Science and Society, The University of Nottingham)
Maybe it’s helpful to think in an engagement model rather than (top down?) mass media TV broadcasting of your examples?
Many in STS work directly with stakeholders in science and policy on issues like GMOs, etc. I’m not entirely sure that’s enough, but maybe it’s the way to work. You could also write comment pieces and offer to be a speaker on news/ current affairs (and blog so people know you have views they might draw on – be more visible in small ways) – work with your sense of camps, rather than against them…?
I wrote this a while back about this issue, though it’s a bit of a rant so might not be all that helpful http://www.socialsciencespace.com/2011/05/being-professional-about-impact/ – the main point being you won’t know how easy/ hard it is until you actually try.
Thanks for these really helpful comments. It’s all a bit about expectation management as well I think. What some people thing of as engagement other people think of as top down model and what other people think of as outreach yet others think of as engagement and so on and so forth. That’s for another blog though: Who expects what from whom and why and what models of ‘engagement’ are brought into play. But yes, I like what you say about working with the grain of the camps rather than against it (if that makes any sense!) and perhaps trying to combine all of the above in novel ways.
Well done Brigitte, you are now out there!
This has been a hobby horse of mine for some time – why don’t social scientists, who have really important perspectives to contribute, get out there and contribute them. As Alice says, they often do, but not as a matter of course. You don’t have to communicate about your opinions, but just about the findings of your research, so it is not quite as daunting, because you know what you are talking about in that area.
However hobby horse number two is about the style of communication which I think also gets in the way. I quote from one of my respected scientist steering group members here, which was intended as a compliment (!). “The thing is Hilary, you state the obvious, obviously. Social scientists state the obvious in as obscure and circumlocutious way as possible.” I think this is also another barrier to social science communication. Many of the social scientists I know in may area are shocking communicators, which is a chicken and egg sort of thing. They won’t get asked for comments if they don’t communicate in a way the public understands. So when citations in academic journals is their only output, only a fairly dedicated journalist will either have access to it, or be bothered to find the wood for the trees!
That’s enough hobby horses, Ed!
I think perhaps you might be in danger of being overawed by the flashy, viewer-enticing computer graphics particularly beloved of Professor Cox and some others. I would try and bear in mind that most of the physical/biological science presented on TV is not much more advanced than GCSE or A-level science in schools. It may deal with some more up to date topics, but it is worthwhile remembering that cutting edge graphics don’t necessarily mean cutting edge science.
When you say that it is ‘hard to argue against the cosmos’ I would be very surprised if there are not some, albeit highly technical, debates currently raging in cosmology about the correct models or understandings of the cosmos. However these won’t, in the main, be discussed in popular science programs, partly because they have not spilled out into a wider socio-political context.
Instead, what makes these programs so appealing is that they tell good stories about ‘how things are’. One of the ways in which this is done is by hiding the technical complexities (and contingencies) of how the knowledge that is being presented has been produced and similarly by presenting the situation e.g. our understanding of what a molecule is, or what the cosmos is etc as established and largely unproblematic – i.e. at a secondary school level of explanation.
The alternative, with ‘controversial’ areas of science, is of course to produce an entirely different type of program highlighting the controversy, scandal and if possible getting as many opposing views unto the screen as possible – especially if they can be persuaded to engage in acrimonious debate. in other words there are programs popularising science and populist programs about science controversy but they are quite different in format, approach and intent.
With regards to what social sciences can do, I think it really does depend on what type of engagement you want to do, but the equivalent to the popular science programs would be to concentrate on presenting ideas, and opinions for people to respond to, without going into the complexity of how data is produced, evaluated etc. As an example here is a post from my own blog, giving my opinion about personalised medicine:
Obviously some social scientists might prefer more transparency, drawing attention to the contingency, situatedness etc of their work, but I see that as one of the important differences in function and format between the media of peer-reviewed publication and blogging.
For reasons of getting lost in time and space, I only discovered your response now. Many thanks for such a considered reply. Of course there are many arguments raging about the cosmos. However, what I meant was that you can’t be ‘against’ the cosmos in the same you can be ‘against’ GM or climate science etc…. But what these types of ‘against’ mean is a different matter again. Something being discussed in various blogs about the meaning anti-science at the moment. And thanks for guiding me to your own blog!!