December 17, 2015, by Brigitte Nerlich
Making Science Public blog posts 2015: An overview
This year the Making Science Public blog has been dominated by two topics: climate change and synthetic biology. One topic is on the way out, so to speak, as the climate change focused project within our research programme is coming to an end. It will continue though in a new guise, in the shape of Warren Pearce’s three-year ESRC funded project on online climate change communication, which will start in the new year. Synthetic biology was not originally a topic of research within the Making Science Public Programme. However, Brigitte and Carmen McLeod are now involved with Nottingham’s Synthetic Biology Research Centre and in particular with implementing Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) within it. RRI has become a cross-cutting theme within the programme and so talking about synbio and RRI on this blog in the context of synbio makes sense.
The year began with Brigitte blogging about the prospect that 2015 would be the hottest year on record, which it has now become. She also wrote a post about an article she had written with Rusi Jaspal and Kitty van Vuuren on climate scepticism in Australia and another about climate politics back in the UK in 1989. Inspired by a remark made by the Governor of the Bank of England, she reflected on our shrinking climate change horizons. And yet again, she dealt with the recurring topic of extreme weather. But mostly she engaged in conceptual history and climate linguistics, dealing with various controversial concepts and phrases, such as ‘lukewarmer’, ‘consensus’, ‘carbon pollution’, ‘climate wars’, ‘the pause’, and ‘doubt’. In her final climate change blog post of the year Brigitte returned to two topics tackled before, namely so-called alarmism and climate fiction and asked whether climate science and climate fiction are ‘really’ alarmist or whether events happening in ‘reality’ show that both can be described as ‘realist’. The blog post was written just before the major floods in Northwest Britain.
Warren’s posts focused on an article he and Greg Hollin published in Nature Climate Change in which they analysed the 2014 IPCC press conference and which made them reflect on methodological issues of cross-disciplinary research. One more blog post dealt with the importance of culture in the context of climate change.
Brigitte and Warren contributed posts to the Media Watch Blog set up by a team of social scientists around Professor Michael Brüggemann at the University of Hamburg to report on the climate summit in Paris in November/December this year. Brigitte wrote a post entitled: COP21: A new chance for common sense and common action? Warren wrote a post about public meanings emerging in the context of the Paris climate summit, such as the issue of palm oil extraction for example. The University’s press office reported on these blogs.
Biology (and, of course, CRISPR)
Brigitte explored a variety of biological themes this year, most importantly synbio, but also a few other ones, such as why the colour blue is used when talking about biotechnology, why the microbiome is important, why we still have no good metaphors to talk about epigenetics, why something has to be done about drug resistant infections using science fiction stories, and so on. The biological topic of the year 2015 is however CRISPR, a new gene editing tool that is causing a lot of debate. Brigitte wrote a post as soon as it appeared on the cultural and media horizon and has been adding links to subsequent articles ever since. It’s now coming to the point where it’s difficult to keep up! Her post dealt with the issue of RRI from Asilomar to CRISPR. She also wrote a quite opinionated piece on synbio and RRI in which she argued that it’s time for social scientists to stop calling for responsible deliberation on CRISPR and tell people how to do it. However, Brigitte also wrote a rather more fun post about #crisprfacts.
And what about synbio? Brigitte began at the beginning with a little history of biotechnology and fermentation, followed by two posts looking more into the future of the bioeconomy and synthetic biology markets. She also attacked the topic from a more literary angle and mused about synbio and the Modern Prometheus. Intrigued by a Nuffield Council on Bioethics inquiry into the natural/artificial dichotomy, she wrote a post about that, and inspired by a Nuffield Council on Bioethics inquiry on genome editing she wrote a post on the history of the book of life metaphor. More playfully, she wrote about synbio on Mars and in Nottingham – when announcing a synbio and RRI debate that took place in Nottingham as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science and was chaired by Adam Rutherford.
Following a recent summit devoted to human gene editing and an article on gene editing and metaphors that came out on the last day of the summit, Brigitte scrutinised gene editing metaphors a bit more and wrote a blog post pleading for responsible language use and a ‘ban’ on the metaphor ‘designer babies’.
Brigitte continued to indulge in some reflections on and contributions to science communication, with one post on political science communication, two less serious posts, one on ants (but well worth a read!) and one on the French phrase ‘vulgarisation scientifique’, two historical ones, one based on holiday reads and the other on a 1946 article by Alfred Schütz entitled ‘The Well-Informed Citizen’. This article should be read by everybody interested in knowledge, citizens, publics and expertise!
In terms of practical science communication Brigitte focused mostly on space with posts on Pluto (one on Kant and Pluto, one on Pluto and pareidolia), the New Horizons Cassini mission to Enceladus, and one post which was more of a personal space odyssey in the realm of nano images.
Brigitte also published an overview post on previous posts dealing with STS concepts, concepts she had explored during the year; for example ‘imaginaries’ (with Carol Morris), ‘co-production’, and ‘citizen science’. And putting on an STS hat, Brigitte asked ‘are we all RRI experts now?’.
Posts by team members
Other members of the team wrote a number of really interesting blog posts on a wide variety of topics. Of course there were discussions on RRI, such as a report on a very successful workshop that took place here in Nottingham at the beginning of the year and was preceded by a public lecture by Richard Owen, but there were also others.
Judith Tsouvalis wrote a very well-received post on ash dieback, free trade and the technocracy of biosecurity, which led to various invitations and a further post at the LSE politics and policy blog which was published on 16 December.
Adam Spencer wrote about the ritual slaughter/halal meet debate that took place in the UK at the beginning of the year.
Sarah Hartley asked: who is responsible for GM moths, a topic that links up with her research into GM insects, which brought her to the House of Lords as a science policy expert. She is gradually becoming THE social science expert on GM insects. She also wrote another post on expertise and the changing nature of universities following a recent European Ombudsman ruling.
This year we also published a number guest posts for us. Athene Donald (Physics, Cambridge) wrote about what the role is for a scientist in political science communication, a post that links up to Brigitte’s on a similar topic. Mark Carrigan (Digital Sociology, then Warwick) wrote about the challenges surrounding making sociology public. Maura Flannery (art, science, communication, New York) wrote about images of cells in art and science. And Richard Helliwell (Biosciences, Nottingham) reflected on how RRI can deal with the mundane consequences of the unintended.
Have a Happy and Healthy New Year!
Post written after this compilation but within 2015
One on the semantic origins of the El Niño event that is being discussed so much in relation to extreme weather events around the world (and daffodils)
One on how do deal with flooding using insights from the Dutch
One on the metaphorical origins of the term ‘gene drive‘ (think locomotive!)
And one by Philip Moriarty on a new project and a new look at impact