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)

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