May 27, 2012, by Brigitte Nerlich

Making science policy public: Exploring the pitfalls of public protest

I have recently published two blogs, one on impact and one on hype. Protests against EPSRC funding policies provide an opportunity to reflect on both these and other issues related to making science public.

Science for the Future – the protest

On 15 May, 2012 members of a campaign group “Science for the Future” delivered a message to Westminster signalling deep disquiet about recent changes in funding policy within the EPSRC (which include the impact of the impact agenda on blue-sky research). The way the message was delivered was rather dramatic: The protesters used a coffin transported on a horse-drawn hearse; they also delivered a wreath with the word ‘Science’. This way of ‘framing’ the message was intended to raise awareness about the potential future dangers to science (in particular physics, maths and chemistry) and society posed by allocating funding partially based on an ability to predict economic and commercial impact of research in the public sphere (for a summary of concerns, see here).

The hype?

Using a hearse to ‘transport’ the message may be regarded as hype. However, as I have pointed out in my blog, hype is not always ‘bad’. It depends on the purpose for which you use it. In this case the hearse-hype was intended to attract attention to an issue that members of the ‘Science for the Future’ group felt very strongly about. And it did attract attention, but perhaps not in the way intended.

The impact?

What has been called a ‘stunt’ by some commentators actually fell relatively flat in the main-stream press. I used the news data base Lexis Nexis and searched for EPSRC on 22 May and found only 7 articles of which two were duplicates and one was the publication of a letter in support of the campaign written by 9 Nobel Laureates and published in the Daily Telegraph on 15 May. I addition I found one BBC news report and an article in the Times Higher. One can speculate about the reason for this low impact on the media. One reason may be that the event was over-hyped. However, it is more likely that science funding policy doesn’t score as highly with newspapers as the announcement of ‘scientific breakthroughs’ or protests against certain types of science. However, while newspapers largely ignored the story, a heated debate erupted on twitter and on two blogs (but there were others, see e.g. chemistry blog, chemistry world, nature blog which, however, did not attracts many comments).

Debate in the twitter- and blogosphere

Adam Smith, a journalist, hosted a debate on the blog site Purse string theory, where he had blogged about the event on 15 May under the title ‘Factions. Not the future of British Science’. This elicited 32 comments (and some further debate on an associated site). On 20 May, Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Cambridge, published a blog entitled ‘On the so-called death of British Science’ which has elicited so far (26 May), about 90 comments.

Many comments on both blogs were posted by Philip Moriarty, Professor of Physics and Astronomy here at the University of Nottingham, and one of the most prominent critics of recent government (impact; funding; university) policies. Another contributor to the blog debate was Richard Jones, Professor of Physics at the University of Sheffield (who mostly defended the EPSRCs stance). In the traditional media two commentators James Wilsdon, Professor of Science and Democracy at the University of Sussex, and Mark Henderson, author of the recently published Geek Manifesto, voiced concerns about the tactics of the campaign and its use of hyperbole (‘death of British science’). For a while emotions ran quite high in the comments on the blogs and on twitter (with quite emotive language being used). Athene, Richard and James feared that the campaign was divisive and therefore counter-productive; Phil and some mostly anonymous others felt the campaign was necessary as other means of drawing government attention to flaws in the new EPSRC funding regime had failed (here is a good summary of a gathering storm from 2011 onwards, from a mathematical perspective).

Problems and questions

Given the minimal impact in the mass media (and one can therefore assume the wider public) and the relatively small and circumscribed impact in the blogosphere (although in one comment Athene hints at wider resonance), it would be interesting to know why this happened and how things could have been different.

Although the long-term ripples of this debate may affect ‘the public sphere’, this ‘impact’ is very difficult to predict (and therefore not yet newsworthy). Will policy changes have negative impacts on blue-sky research that may impede the development of life or planet saving technologies? Or will they have positive ones on applied research and speed up the developments of life or planet saving technologies? Ironically, these questions raise the issue of predicting impact, a topic that was forever in the background and sometimes in the foreground of the blog debate.

The blog debate also highlighted problems around policy reform and advocacy. When in the process of policy changes should those affected by them, especially those who think they and the wider public sphere are negatively affected, advocate a review of the intended ‘reforms’? In this case protests began as soon as changes were announced in 2011 but culminated in the 15 May protest. And when should one decide to crank up advocacy and turn it into an attention-grabbing public protest? This timing of advocacy/protest raises another questions: Should those who believe an urgent protest is needed first try and create what one may call ‘scientific consensus’ before taking to the streets (e.g. coordinate actions with other campaign groups such as Science is Vital and CaSE)? Is it possible to measure how collective an action is before taking collective action; or how much unity there is in a community?

Decisions and actions under conditions of uncertainty

As in so many things (including asking for research funding, deciding on policies etc.), such decisions are decisions taken under conditions of uncertainty. In this case the campaigners made the decision to protest. We have to see whether in the long term this was the right decision and the right time and the right format. One thing is sure: This public protest was one pathway to making an impact on current science policies and the future of science. It is now up to policy makers to take over and make decisions under conditions of uncertainty, taking account of all the arguments voiced in traditional and social media and by those for and against this protest. It is a shame that those arguing for and against the protest and the new funding regime are all members of the same scientific community. This makes it much easier for policy makers not to make a decision or not change it.

One tweet in all the blogs and tweets I looked at rings true to me: “When scientists start criticizing others for making criticisms of public bodies publicly, I worry” (Ananyo Bhattacharya) But then, where else but in public would you do it?


Posted in Science and GovernmentScience PolicyUncertainty