December 19, 2014, by Brigitte Nerlich
Making science public: A compilation of blog posts – 2014
It is time again for my end of year blog of blog posts. Unbelievably, this is already the third time I am doing this. How time flies! Strange — so far we haven’t had a post about time! This is quite surprising, as otherwise we have had posts about more or less everything under the sun. (Here are the blogs from the last two years, 2012 and 2013)
This year, in 2014, climate change is still an issue discussed in our posts, as the topic is/was linked to two research projects in which I am/was involved. One, funded by the ESRC, has ended in the middle of this year and I provided an overview of some of the blog posts I had written for it; however, the other one funded by the Leverhulme Trust Making Science Public programme still continues.
The new and fast growing kid on the blog is Responsible Research and Innovation. Lots of voices made themselves heard around this and a related topic, responsive research. Another topic we’ll probably hear more about, because I am now moving into that field, is synthetic biology, and, alongside this, epigenetics. Other biological topics also made it into the blog, together with space exploration, GIFs, and other more incidental topics.
More central to the programme are posts around publics and policy. And finally, a conference organized in the middle of the year by the Science, Technology and Society Priority group in collaboration with the Making Science Public team provided an occasion to reignite discussions that in the olden days we would have called the ‘science wars’.
The year started with several lectures and events around climate science and society issues. A visit by Mike Hulme also stimulated a collaborative post (Mike Hulme, Warren Pearce, me) on ‘global heating’, a new phrase which seems to indicate a shift in the climate change debate. Related to this, the issue of climate sensitivity was discussed in one of Warren’s posts. A paper in PLOS ONE by Warren, myself and two colleagues about twitter communities that formed around the publication of the 2013 Working Group 1 IPCC report formed the basis of a short blog post about its results.
As usual, I tried to pin down and dissect (that sounds quite gruesome!) various concepts, such as so-called climate realism, adaptation and certainty, and metaphors, such as extreme weather metaphors. I was also prompted by a Making Science Public blog reader to reflect on the emergence of a new literary genre, namely climate fiction.
Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI)
Responsible research and innovation is a new an up-and-coming concept that is sweeping through research councils like … I am not totally sure what metaphor to use! Our programme was one of the first to notice this new movement emerging, with Stevienna De Saille over in Sheffield and Paul Martin devoting a whole project to it, focusing on the role of social movements and activism on the one hand and robotics for the elderly on the other. Sujatha Raman is now closing in on RRI during a one-year research visit to Arizona State University, where one of our Honorary Associate, David Guston, is editor in chief of the new Journal of Responsible Research and Innovation (to which Stevienna contributed an article and for which Sarah Hartley co-authored an article). David also heads the Virtual Institute or Responsible Innovation, of which Sujatha is now a part.
Warren Pearce and Sarah Hartley were successful in getting a small grant from the University of Nottingham’s Bridging the Gaps fund to map RRI across the University of Nottingham. They produced a very-well-received policy report on the matter. They also established an info-hub. Alasdair Taylor, who collaborated with them and now works as Industry Programme Manager at the Royal Society, wrote a post over at his blog reposted on ours on RRI from a green chemistry perspective.
As part of her work on project for Sciencewise-ERC Sujatha initiated a series of blog posts dealing with responsive research and RRI. Sarah Hartley wrote about GM insects, Danielle Gent about energy for all, Alison Mohr about making energy research more responsive, and Temilade Sesan wrote about issue regarding RRI and the global South. Stevienna De Saille reflected on being a science public in the context of RRI’s ethos of inclusive engagement. For an overview of the topics discussed, see Sujatha’s final post on the matter on responsive and responsible research.
I myself also chipped in to the debate about RRI and wrote a few rather critical assessments of this emerging new research governance policy, which picked up on thoughts I had voiced in a 2013 post about RRI in which I argued that RRI might set itself a bit of an impossible task, i.e. to manage phenomena of the third kind. In 2014 I went on to point out the great responsibilities that come with this new agenda and that it might be quite impossible to achieve in an era of impact. I also reflected on the concepts of anticipation and prediction which are central concepts within RRI.
Not totally unrelated, Hilary Sutcliffe, who knows a few things about RRI, wrote a guest post on not really understanding what people engaged academically with public understanding of science and the governance of science are on about and wishing for a better language and a better approach to the issue.
As RRI is being implemented in the various new synthetic biology research centres dotted around the UK, including our own Synthetic Biology Research Cenjtre here in Nottingham for which I am the social science lead, I, of course started to think about RRI and also about synthetic biology.
Beginning to interact more with synthetic biologists within the SBRC, I wrote a post about synbio, the history of industrial biotechnology and fermentation, another about synbio and a new discovery centered on synthetic enzymes, and one on the challenges of making synbio a topic for public debate. When I tried to understand both synthetic biology and particle physics, it became clear to me that I am probably condemned for ever to paddle in the shallow end of knowledge.
Biology and genetics
Some other interesting topics popped up during the year and provoked other posts on biology and genetics/genomics. I wrote one post on designer babies and one on junk DNA. Two guest posts also contributed to this strand of blogging. Richard Helliwell wrote about thinking with animals – in this case the microbe. Freya Harrison also went micro – and looked at sensationalism, hype and the erosion of trust in science with a focus on the media coverage of an advance in microbiology. Shea Robison picked up the topic of epigenetics with a focus on politics. Epigenetics had attracted my attention the year before and is still a very much up and coming topic in the natural and social sciences. Are social scientists overhyping epigenetics’ transformative potential or not? We shall see. This brings us to science, politics and the media.
Science, politics and language
The STS Priority Group, under the leadership of Reiner Grundmann, and some members of the Making Science Public team organized a very well attended conference entitled Circling the Square: Research, Politics, Media and Impact. This conference took place in May this year and prompted quite a few blog posts. Two posts by Phil Moriarity, one of the co-organisers of the conference, provoked a lot of quite heated reader comments. Phil’s first post was written for Physics focus and entitled The laws of physics are undemocratic; a second one for this blog was entitled Science is not what you want it to be.
The debate was picked up on quite a number of other blogs, such as And then there’s physics, for example, in a post entitled STS vs physics, a title that encapsulates some of the feelings expressed by some conference participants and blog readers. But of course there were others who defended STS and I’ll come back to these. So we had a bit of a mini outbreak of the Science Wars.
I myself observed this little skirmish and wrote two sort of meta-posts, one entitled Going round in circles, the other Science wars and Science Peace. Two issues discussed at the conference and then in blog posts also provoked me to write two more posts, one trying to fathom the concept of regulatory science (the topic of Phil’s first post) and one trying to argue that academic jargon can get out of hand in some cases but shouldn’t. A similar feeling was expressed by one of the PhD students who attended the conference and who wrote a post on the challenges and value of using plain language to describe research (see also the guest post by Hilary Sutcliffe mentioned above).
The issue of ‘impact’, one of the topics of the conference, was tackled innovatively by Kate Roach who wrote a short story for this conference to provoke reflection and discussion. For more thoughts on impact, see also my post on black sky research which was not related to the conference though.
A few months after the conference Sarah Hartley picked up the topic of ‘regulatory science’ again from a more decidedly STS perspective than I had done in my blog post – and this brings us back to the core issues of our Making Science Public research programme, policies and publics.
Science, policy and publics
As I am really not a policy person (if there is such a thing), other members of the team tackled policy issues, such as the limits of evidence/data-based policy (Warren Pearce), issues around policy in the context of immigration control and the controversial Go-Home-Van campaign (Roda Madziva) and the equally controversial issue of animals in research (Carmen McLeod). Homing in more on research policy and publics, Adam Spencer wrote about the issue of food sovereignty.
Judith Tsouvalis wrote down her thoughts after a conference on re-imagining publics and politics and Fabien Medvecky and Joan Leach, one of our honorary fellows, wrote a guest post on invisible publics in public surveys. And as the concept of ‘public’ still intrigues me as a linguist and conceptual snoop, so to speak, I spent a few days of my summer holidays writing about public(s) and öffentlichkeit. During the winter, and inspired by Beverley Gibbs, I wrote a short historical and semantic reflection on the concept of scientific citizenship.
Of course, as I always do, I also wrote quite a few more frivolous posts during the year. One focus of my attention became space exploration.
Two events sparked my interest: the Rosetta mission and the controversial announcement that evidence had been found about gravitational waves. Gravitational waves and BICEP2 are still in the science news and still occupy much thought in the sphere of astrophysics but didn’t really become a public issue. Here is me trying to understand what was going on, and here is Harry Collins telling me a bit more about what’s going on and not going on.
By contrast, the Rosetta mission and the landing of the space-robot Philae on the Comet 67P became more of a public event. So I wrote three posts about that, i.e. about Rosetta and the ‘rubber duck’, the sobriquet for the more sober name 67P, about Philae and Agilkia, and finally about the landing on the comet.
Emerging technologies, science and images, and more
I also wrote two posts on emerging technologies that might be of interest, one on 3D printing and one on GIFs. Continuing a theme a started a couple of years ago, I wrote a bit more about science and images in the 19th century in general and with relation to Jules Verne in particular. I wrote a critical assessment of Susan Greenfields metaphor of ‘mind change’ (created in analogy to ‘climate change’). I wrote about science and silence. I wrote about scientific methods. And finally I wrote about worms! As I just bought myself a fantastic book for Christmas that makes the forest public, The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature, this is a good point to stop and start reading.
I wish everybody a good break over the Christmas period and I hope that 2015 will be a walk in the park!
Image: Deer in Wollaton Park, Nottingham