August 17, 2013, by Brigitte Nerlich

The ‘Making Science Public’ blog: What is it for?

Our ‘Making Science Public’ blog puzzles some readers, and perhaps rightly so. One blogger in particular pointed out recently that he found what we are doing ‘confusing’. This confusion emerged in particular in the context of us posting some guest-posts on climate science and climate politics (and climate scepticism) and also in the context of a debate about advocacy and science that played out alongside the publication of these guest blogs. So, what is the ‘Making Science Public’ blog about, where does it come from,  what does it want to achieve and why might it be confusing?

The research programme

This blog is related to a large research programme on science and politics, dealing in particular with issues of legitimacy, trust and authority. This programme of research started in May 2012 and covers a large array of topics, approaches and angles. As part of this programme we started to write blog posts in order to make our own research more public. It turned out that, for one reason or another, Warren and I have become the main contributors to the blog, with other members of the research team posting occasionally.

I direct the research programme and one of the projects within it and Warren works on this project, which deals with science and scepticism. Warren and I share an interest in language and a particular philosopher of language, Ludwig Wittgenstein. We hope that in the future a wider variety of people will join us in posting blogs and will cover more of the topics that run through the research programme and also focus more on findings related to individual projects.

Science communication and Science and Technology Studies

As Warren pointed out recently, science communication was not a topic mentioned in our original proposal, but has crept into the blog. How did this happen? And how did this perhaps contribute to the confusion that some readers experience?

Originally two people with expertise in Science and Technology Studies (STS) were supposed to lead the programme: Paul Martin and Sujatha Raman. Before the start of the programme, Paul accepted a Chair at the University of Sheffield and the University of Nottingham appointed me as Director of the programme with Sujatha as Deputy Director (Paul now leads his sub-project from Sheffield).

When I took over the leadership of the programme and started to blog, I had to think on my feet. The programme had only just begun; so I couldn’t report on emerging findings. I had also taken over a programme which was grounded mainly in STS, a field or discipline in which, to use Harry Collins’ terminology, I have no ‘core expertise’. Although I have gained some ‘interactional expertise’ over the years while doing my own research within the Institute for Science and Society, my core expertise still lies within the fields of linguistics and the history and philosophy of science. (I did my PhD on the history of 19th-century French linguistics).

One of my earliest posts for the Making Science Public blog was therefore dedicated to trying to make clear to myself what STS was about. I then went on to write about various aspects of climate change from a linguistic and philosophical angle, thus trying to contribute to the sub-project that I lead as part of the overall research programme. As I am passionate about science, I also began to report on a number of emerging science topics and issues such as the Higgs Boson or the landing of Curiosity on Mars. I always try to link my accounts of such developments to questions related to ‘making science public’. However, my posts began to waver between contributing to the theory of science communication and actually practicing science communication. This caused some confusion amongst my STS colleagues and probably more widely. This confusion is compounded by the title of our blog: ‘Making Science Public’. This blog title is based on the title of the research programme: ‘Making Science Public: Challenges and opportunities’ – with a focus on the challenges, as I’ll explain below.

Theory and practice; critique and advocacy

Now, why would some see my activities around science communication as somewhat problematic in the context of our research programme, which deals with science, publics, politics and participation? And how may my posts have contributed to the confusion mentioned at the beginning of this post? The issue, it seems, is that STS sees its mission as keeping a critical eye on developments in science and technology, whereas some variants of science communication may be seen as promoting science uncritically. This means that some of my blog posts can be seen as promotion or advocacy of science and technology rather than as critique.

This also means that some readers of our blog might have begun to expect that we want to promote or advocate certain types of science, certain types of publics, certain types of politics and certain types of participation, whereas in fact the aims of our research programme are (or should be) much more scholarly and academic. We study, analyse, examine and try to understand how science, publics, and politics interact with relation to various topics, such as climate change, religion or food security for example.

We focus in particular on the problems, dilemmas and challenges posed BY making science public or by promoting the making public of science as a solution or panacea to problems of trust and legitimacy. We do this from the perspective of STS, but also anthropology, sociology, cultural geography, animal studies, social policy and linguistics for example. Our aim is not to just publicise science (which the title of our blog may suggest).

I personally want to study the (changing) meanings and values of science in contemporary cultural and political contexts. These meanings are shaped by the language we use and the contexts in which we use it. Language is and will remain the focus of my research, including trying to understand the politics of science communication (and occasionally indulging myself in practicing science communication, that is to say – writing blog posts). Others within the team with more expertise in STS will hopefully continue to write thought-provoking posts that deal with other (and possibly related) features of the science-politics nexus.

Image: Millennium Garden, University of Nottingham

Posted in LanguagePersonal ReflectionScepticismScience CommunicationUncategorized