December 20, 2018, by Brigitte Nerlich
Making Science Public: End of year blog round-up, 2018
2018 is the year that the Leverhulme Trust funded programme ‘Making Science Public’ really ended (today our director Sujatha Raman is submitting the final report to the Leverhulme Trust). My last post on the programme, entitled ‘Making Science public: six years on’, mentioned one of the most important milestones of our work, namely the publication with Manchester University Press of our open access edited collection: Science and the Politics of Openness: Here be monsters. This is a topic that still haunts science and politics today; indeed, we are living in what one may call, after Carl Sagan, a ‘demon haunted world’.
2018 was the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and lots of things have been written about the role of science in society during that anniversary year. I wrote a rather critical post about one of the many books published about Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, in which I argue that laying the responsibility on STEM people alone for making science less Frankensteinian is misguided, as ‘Frankenstein is us not STEM’. It should also be said that, unfortunately, at the moment, political, rather than scientific, demons are haunting life on earth in far more threatening ways than Frankenstein’s monster ever could.
The rest of the blog posts this year fall into the usual categories of reflections on science communication, climate change and issues around genetics and genomics, which also touch on my favourite topics of metaphor and responsible language use. Some posts deal with other topics and there were also some guests posts and re-posts.
My broadly labelled science communication posts have tackled quite a variety of issues. One post dealt with science communication more broadly, entitled ‘Science communication what was it, what is it and what should it be?’. Another dealt with the thorny issue of communicating issues around antimicrobial resistance. It also touched on issues of governance and responsibility. Yet another focused on emerging technologies, such as nano, synbio and AI and when and how and with whom one should start communicating about them, while at the same time anticipating people’s reactions to these emerging technologies. A bit of a dilemma!
In two posts I went historical – which was really enjoyable. One post, inspired by Bradley Steffens’ brilliant novel about the 10th-century scientists Ibn Al-Haytham, was about historical fiction as a neglected aspect of science communication. Another blog post, first published on the History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences blog, dealt with three interconnected science communicators, Michael Faraday, well-known lecturer at the Royal Institution, Jane Marcet, relatively well-known populariser of chemistry and Benjamin Humphrey Smart, a relatively unknown elocution teacher and rhetorician. In this post I made the point again that focusing on the ‘deficit model’ and only framing it in a negative way is counterproductive, as demonstrated by the interconnected work of these historical science communicators.
A few years ago I thought I had said my last word on climate change. But it appears I had not. This year we had a very cold winter and a very hot summer. So I had to say something. I wrote a blog post aptly titled ‘Groundhog day in the hothouse’. In another I asked whether we are all alarmists now, at a time when climate facts are beginning to speak for themselves. I also railed against aircon, a rather personal moan, but a moan that highlights real dilemmas surrounding this life-saving technology. And finally, I belatedly discovered an important climate change metaphor, that of the ‘fingerprint’. I could have written many more posts, especially about latest COP meeting in Poland. I could have called it COP and coal, but I didn’t have the energy.
Most of my posts dealt with genetic, genomic, biology issues. As people know, I and many other social scientists deal with these issues through the lens of responsible innovation. However, we rarely see actual scientists writing at length about these issues (I might be wrong). I was really pleased to see that Marcus Dymond (a Senior Lecturer in Physical Chemistry, multidisciplinary researcher in membrane biophysics and in vitro synthetic biology) had published a chapter (in a book!) entitled: “Synthetic Biology: Culture and Bioethical Considerations”. So I wrote a post about this. Other blog posts dealt with various issues du jour, one of them obviously being gene or genome editing.
I wrote a post on a novel genome editing metaphor, ‘greenfield genome design’, one going back to Frankenstein, on mapping and manipulating genes and genomes, and one dealing with current affairs, namely trying to keep up with genome editing news. At the end of the year the news was full of stories about the genome editing or rather germline editing of twin babies. So I wrote a quick post about the dangers of doing science by publicity stunt.
Other posts dealt with a diverse range of topics. When an announcement was made that two monkeys had been cloned, I compared this to the framing of Dolly the sheep more than 20 years earlier. Inspired by some tweets by Victor de Lorenzo, I wrote a post on the way bacteria are framed through the lens of war and game theory in many recent scientific articles. Organoids, mini-brains etc. were in the news, especially in the context of research undertaken with and disseminated by Philip Ball who had a piece of his skin grown into a mini-brain. He has now written a book about this which is fantastic: How to Build a Human. I just wrote a little post about the cultural narratives surrounding such endeavours. You’ll find many more such narratives in Philip’s book.
When the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine was announced, I became interested in a prominent metaphorical mapping between cars and cancer and wrote a post about this. The point I was trying to make was that metaphors are weird. They are crucial for the expansion of human knowledge. However, they don’t really impart knowledge. They only tell a story. And that story can only be understood by people who already have some knowledge, in this case about cars and cancer.
At the end of the year there was some discussion of the ‘blueprint’ metaphor in genomics after Robert Plomin published a controversial book called Blueprint. I wrote a post about this metaphor linking it to a discussion that scientists were having about its inadequacies. I argued however that some uses of the blueprint metaphor, as for example by George Gamow, for the actual work genes do, rather than what they are grandiosely believed to be, namely our destiny, is still justified.
I also wrote about microbiomics and warned about the hype that is starting to surround that field. Another post dealt with the various definitions of epigenetics, from cautious scientific ones to rather misleading popular ones, popular in advertising and some parts of sociology. This links up with a post in which I sound a critical note on the way epigenetics has infiltrated parts of sociology, a post prompted by a review article published in French about various sociological books dealing with epigenetics.
I had a bit more fun with another (upcoming) topic, namely bacteriophages or phages when I tried to fathom their history in science and in fiction. Just look at them. They are fantastic.
At the SBRC here at the University of Nottingham, we are trying out various ways to engage not only members of the general public but also working scientists with issues around the risks and benefits of synthetic biology. To make this more enjoyable and productive, we used a method called ‘Lego Serious Play’ and asked scientists to ‘model’ various aspects of risk. The results were surprising and we published them in EMBO reports. I also published a post about all this, giving a few more details, entitled ‘Synthetic biology: Modelling joys and fears brick by brick’, playing a bit on the overlap between the Lego brick and biobrick metaphors.
A highlight of the year was the publication of a thematic series of articles on synthetic biology, metaphors and responsible language use for the journal Life Sciences, Society and Policy. We wrote an overview blog post for BioMedCentral about the whole enterprise which we hope will kickstart more thinking about responsible language use in the life sciences and beyond.
My last post this year was again on ‘biology’. It presented a rather critical reading of a new book written by Sheila Jasanoff, entitled Can Science Make Sense of Life? And by science she refers to ‘biology’. The answer to the question posed in the title was ‘no’.
I also wrote some posts on diverse other topics, such as the concept of ‘promise’ in STS, the importance of evidence in evidence based policy making, the issue of trust in science advice, the metaphor of ‘harvesting’ in the context of big data,
Guest posts and reposts
As I was sporadically unavailable to write posts, I was lucky to find some people who wrote guest posts or who let me repost posts they had written. Chris Toumey wrote a post about an intriguing visual artefact, namely the vertical rod that was initially drawn in the centre of the DNA molecule. Andrew Maynard wrote an overview of his fascinating new book about science fiction movies as a guide to responsible innovation. Mike Schäfer wrote two guest posts for me, one on climate change, China and the role of soft power, and another on the history of science communication research based on citation analysis. Luke Collins let me repost a post about a joint article on investigating the public’s role in AMR as represented in the UK news media. Charli Vince let me repost a post she wrote on her work planning and drawing the illustrations for our graphic novel on 3D printing with atoms.
I am not sure whether there will be another end-of-year round up in 2019. However, if you want to read previous ones, published between 2012 and 2017, you can do so here.
Have a good and restful break and a happy and healthy new year!
Image: Wollaton Park lake, December 2018, sunrise