December 15, 2017, by Brigitte Nerlich

Making Science Public: End of year round-up, 2017

This is my sixth end-of-year blog post for the Making Science Public blog. A lot has changed since I posted my first one at the end of 2012 (and this post is my 307th). The Making Science Public programme, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, has virtually come to an end but the topics it began to tackle in 2012 have not. The opposite is the case: relations between science and politics and publics have never been tenser; issues like transparency, openness and public participation have never been more debated than they are now.

There is another change too: from being a team blog, supposed to report on events and activities related to the Making Science Public programme, the blog has become my own platform and my blogging has covered a range of research projects from ESRC funded research into climate change to BBSRC/EPSRC funded research into synthetic biology and responsible innovation to EPSRC funded research into 3D printing with atoms.

Besides talking about topics related directly or indirectly to such funded research, I have also, as in previous years, written posts about anything else that took my fancy. As this year has seen many political upheavals, my first post of the year 2017 was about ‘building bridges’ in science and society. At the end of 2017 many bridges have unfortunately been burned rather than built.

Science and politics

Some of this year’s posts reflect on events where science and politics intersected in unexpected and worrying ways, such as the spread of alternative facts, the emergence of resistance and rogue organisations standing up for science and politics, and, related to this, the organisation of a world-wide science march. ‘Truth’ looms large on the horizon, especially as it seems to be slipping from our hands. This inspired a post about ‘iconographies of truth’, images that we associate with truth and philosophies of truth. I also wrote a semiotically inspired post on the (un-truthful) Brexit bus, entitled ‘signs and society’.

The other science and politics posts were a bit more in tune with our original programme of research and focused on busting the myth of the decline of public trust in science and the language and politics of hope. One post took stock of what it might still mean ‘to make science public’ in a post-truth world.

Puzzling concepts

Concepts that have always cropped up within our ‘Making Science Public’ programme, but which still puzzle me, inspired me to think and blog a bit more about them. One concept is that of the ‘deficit model. In order to clarify its meaning, I tried to track down its history. Two other concepts are ‘responsibility’ and ‘openness which I tried to pin down a bit more using inspiration from the two Ronnies! Yet another concept is that of ‘expertise’, which has been much debated since last year and Brexit. I had never really thought about it that much until I fell ill. The blog reflects on my ‘encounter’ with expertise and my own acquisition, or not, of it. This issue is still ongoing, unfortunately….

Biology and metaphors

Genome editing, epigenetics and microbiomics came to the fore in 2017, with genome editing being a real poster child of advances in genomics. As usual, I focused my little essays mostly on issues around language and metaphor.

After the publication of a popular book by one of the inventors of CRISPR, I looked at the language used in the book and the stories told. I took issue with the story of the creation of ‘unicorns’, a case, perhaps of irresponsible language/story use. I also took issue, yet again, with the story of ‘designer babies’ which has been told ever since the turn of the millennium and every time advances are made in genetics and genomics; and of course the story was told again in the context of genome editing and CRISPR. A recent advance that goes beyond CRISPR is ‘base editing’, a more precise type of genome editing. So I wrote about that too, just to get it clear in my mind.

After organising a conference in which I claimed that metaphors matter for synthetic biology and responsible research and innovation (which should include thinking about responsible language use), I read a few articles which made me ask whether metaphors really matter. I still think they do though! They are not only used by scientists and journalists to make science public, but also by members of the public when they talk about genome editing in public. In the context of a recent attempt to carry out genome editing within the human body, and after seeing a bioart exhibition, I wrote a post on the intriguing metaphor of ‘invisible mending’.

In the context of synthetic biology, bacteria and related issues still feature large in my thinking and my collaborations with others. So I wrote a post on bacteria and stewardship (based on a paper that I wrote with Carmen McLeod) and another one on turning bacteria into passwords which tried to capture what the Nottingham/SBRC iGEM team attempted to do in this year’s iGEM competition.

As I have been interested in the microbiome since 2005 and since Carmen is now working with researchers in Oxford interested in the social dimensions of the microbiome, I also wrote some posts on this emerging topic, a topic that might be slightly overhyped, just like epigenetics, but is still really interesting. I wrote one post about how the microbiome went viral and another one on popular visualisations of the microbiome.

The many misuses and misunderstandings of epigenetics are still on my mind, especially within the alternative/wellness industry. So, I wrote a post on epigenetic woo. I don’t think this will deter those who want to misuse the concept of epigenetics though.

Related to this is the question as to whether epigenetics is perhaps over-exploited by people working at the interface between biology and sociology. As some of them use the concept of the ‘biosocial’, I delved a bit into the history of this concept as well as into the relationship between biology and sociology, sometimes portrayed as estrangement, but probably more based on entanglement.

Finally, I wrote a post on a topic that falls outside these large themes, namely on hybrids and chimeras in science, history and mythology.

Physics and space

Another topic to which I have returned again and again is that of space and space exploration. This year, yet again, spectacular things happened, especially with regard to Juno, the space craft, and Jupiter, the planet, as well as Cassini, the space probe. The former made me think about citizen science, the latter’s exploits made me write about space probes and women in science.

But not only space probes did fantastic things. There was also much excitement again about gravitational waves (and scientific collaboration and communication [while I was drafting this they were awarded the Nobel Prize) and perhaps a little bit less about the use of X-ray free electron lasers!

As our graphic novel about 3D printing with atoms is moving forward (at a nano-scale pace, I am afraid to say), I also wrote two posts about this, one in which I channel Latour and write about laboratory life, and another where I reveal the colour art work that is going into the graphic novel. We are still trying to find a publisher!!!

Climate change

I thought I had done with writing about climate change a few years ago. But the topic still bugs me. This year in particular one couldn’t get away from it. There were hurricanes galore stimulating debate about climate change and climate change communication. There was, yet again, a debate about false balance on the BBC. And, of course, debate still surrounds the issue of consensus. I had written about consensus before, but that blog needed updating.

Two other blog posts needed updating too, one on the concept ofrealism’ and one on the concept of ‘alarmism’ in the climate change debate. Last but not least, I tried to inject some new theoretical thinking into the field of climate/science communication research, by talking about reception theory, which focuses on how we understand messages, rather than just give them.

Science communication

Most of my posts deal with science communication in one way or another. However, three posts focused on scicomm in particular, one telling the story of the science writer Mary Somerville, the first person to be called a scientist, the other reflecting on the issue of ‘time’ in relation to sciomm and the last one reporting on my endeavours to contribute to A Pint of Science and Creative Reactions, i.e. doing a bit of real scicomm.

As usual, I branched out a bit into the history of science and science communication. I wrote some historical perspectives on science and metaphor, involving Darwin, Smart and Faraday. I also looked at how science was popularised in 19th-century France. A new book on Milton made me explore affinities between Milton and Galileo and art and science. A bit out on a limb, I wrote a post on the history of popular depictions of Martians, focusing on some missing Martians that people seem to have forgotten, but who were quite interesting in terms of science in society. And finally, to continue the more frivolous theme, I wrote something on ‘nothing’ involving Kepler, snowflakes and Pluto’s satellite Nix.

Guest posts

As usual, the Making Science Public blog also published some guest posts; by Carmen McLeod on making microbes public, Rony Armon on the use of scientific metaphors in interactional settings, and Richard Helliwell on why NGOs are sceptical of genome editing. I also cross-posted a post by Nicholas Staropoli on separating hype from health with relation to the microbiome.

The future

I am not totally sure what to do with this blog. I have made the Making Science Public Blog my own, but is it still useful to continue with it? Do people enjoy reading it? Advice welcome!

Have a relaxing Christmas time and a healthy New Year!

[I am glad I wrote this post a week ago. This week was taken up dealing with a rather bad recurrence of an eye problem, but this times I finally got antibiotics. Now I feel guilty throwing away the little single-use vials which still contain a few drops of the stuff….Oh, and I am seeing yet another expert today]

Image: Munich, January, 2017

Posted in Uncategorized