December 17, 2019, by Brigitte Nerlich
Making Science Public 2019: An overview
Every year I think: This will be the last year I write something for this blog… and each year I write a bit more. And so it was this year. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I really don’t know. But it distracts me from life’s increasing troubles and keeps me sane.
As usual, I have written about biological topics, such as gene, genome and germline editing and epigenetics, about climate change (a bit), and about metaphors. I have also ventured out or rather back into a bit of history of science and even history of linguistics, a territory I had left behind decades ago. And, of course there is a bit of science communication sprinkled over all this like Christmas glitter.
When I had no time or had no inspiration, a few guest bloggers filled in some blogging gaps for me. Thank you!
Let’s start with biology. My focus this year was on ‘gene drive’, as I was lucky enough to be a co-applicant on a Wellcome Trust funded grant directed by Sarah Hartley that focuses on how we talk about this new biotechnology intended to, amongst others, deal with mosquitoes that spread malaria, dengue fever, Zika and so on. I wrote a post about the project overall, based on its press release.
However, my interest in gene drive started before that, when I listened in to a radio programme and tried to trace the etymology of the drive in gene drive – and found it actually stems from a metaphor relating to the driving of locomotives! Talking to people about gene drive, in English, German and French, I also discovered how many roadblocks there are to what one may call ‘gene drive communication’, over and above the obscure etymology.
Once the project started, I tried to gain a better understanding of the concept of ‘gene drive’ and the more I looked the more confused I got. So I wrote a post about the link or not between gene drive and GM mosquitoes and another about the link or not between gene drive and microbes like Wolbachia. GM mosquitoes and Wolbachia have been used in the wild to deal with the threat of malaria and other diseases, but actual gene drives not yet.
When starting to do some media analysis with Aleksandra Stelmach, the research fellow working on the gene drive communication project, I discovered a confusion or rather disruption of a different kind relating to the reliability of a database that we normally use for our research. The blog also delves, like my first one, into the beginnings of what one may call ‘gene drive talk’, which began in the 1990s, but has accelerated since 2014.
While I was exploring confusions and probably confusing people in the process, Aleksandra wrote an excellent, clear and non-confusing blog post about the emerging metaphors around gene drive which she extracted from a 2019 Nature article. This complements nicely an earlier post I had written about metaphors and mammals and gene drive.
Another topic that preoccupied my thoughts this year was, or rather continued to be, epigenetics, which has been appropriated not only by people who want to sell wellness products but surprisingly also by people who want to establish a new way of studying biology and society. I thought this through a little bit in a post on epigenetics and the solid fundamental science that’s going on but is competing with fantastic expectation.
Epigenetics in academia and advertising
Seeing the nuanced way that epigenetics is discussed by scientists, I was surprised to see how much less nuanced the uptake of epigenetics has been in social science academia, let alone by advertisers and marketers. So I collaborated with Aleksandra Stelmach and Cath Ennis on an article detailing the way in which epigenetics can be used to do things, be it advertising alternative wellness products or promoting alternative ways to do sociology, in particular to explore the so-called ‘biosocial’.
Our article, exploring all this in detail through the lens of social representations theory and metaphor analysis, has now appeared online and will be part of a special issue that will be published in print early next year.
Epigenetics in popular culture, advertising and academia
Some of the other epigenetics posts focused on the over-hyping of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, others zoomed in on epigenetics in popular culture: for example turkey dinosaurs and pancakes, the emergence of he metaphor of witness marks in a popular article, epigenetics on Pinterest.
This last post was written in collaboration with Cath Ennis who also wrote two important guest posts. One dealt with the use of epigenetics as a metaphor or analogy to think with, i.e. to think about cultural phenomena like sacred texts or even inequality; the other explored the way epigenetics has been portrayed in science fiction (and it has the best image!).
In the middle of the year, a confluence of events, brought about by blogging, led to a brief collaboration with the historian of science Andrew Reynolds, which led to him giving a joint paper (but I really didn’t contribute a lot) about chromatin landscapes at a history and philosophy of science conference. I wrote a short post about this venture.
And finally, I also wrote a post about the great way in which some scientists, in this case doing research on epigenetics and worms, use twitter threads to make their research public. I still haven’t done that myself! For another great example of how threads can be used in science communication, here is one by Ewan Birney on ethnicity and genetics.
Other biological posts
One post continued my interest in gene editing which dominated my posts last year and also tapped into my fascination with the interaction between science and culture which also came through in some of my own and others posts about epigenetics. In this post I tried to look more closely at the interaction between CRISPR and culture and the longstanding or novel tropes that are used to link the two.
Two other posts dealt with collaborative projects, one undertaken with Achim Rosemann on heritable genome editing and the national and international governance challenges and policy options posed by this new biotechnology; another undertaken with Carmen McLeod and Rusi Jaspal on emerging media and social representations of faecal microbial transplants, an emerging treatment of diseases of the gut and microbiome, such as Clostridium difficile.
I also returned to one of my longstanding topics, namely the military metaphors used in the context of drug resistant infection, also called antibiotic resistance or AMR.
As I was in a mood for reflection and restrospection this year, I also wrote a post summarising all my articles published in the journal New Genetics and Society. These include papers on cloning, genomics, the human genome, the microbiome, synthetic biology, epigenetics and faecal microbial transplants.
Many of these NGS articles were written in collaboration with other people, such as Aleksandra Stelmach, Carmen McLeod and Rusi Jaspal, but in particular Iina Hellsten. 2020 will be, in a way, the twentieth anniversary of our various collaborations over time, from genetics and genomics to climate change, to bird flu and beyond.
Metaphors, science and cells
Of course, I couldn’t resist meddling in metaphors. This year I focused on metaphors relating to cells in particular and wrote one post on machine metaphors for life, another about an orgy of metaphors for organelles, and one asking when in all this is a metaphor actually a metaphor?
I still wrote a few posts about climate change, although this is no longer my research focus. It is however a topic that has finally become the focus of public debate even public movements.
I wrote one post about a now vanishing, i.e. no longer needed icon or symbol of climate change, namely the polar bear, inspired by the work by Saffron O’Neill on climate images. I wrote another on the now no longer controversial, but increasingly important, topic of extreme weather.
Despite the fact that climate change is now speaking for itself, some climate change communication experts still feel the need to debate the best ways to communicate climate change, with some opposing the setting of deadlines or targets and others contesting the usefulness of strategic messaging. So I wrote a blog post about that.
And finally, I came back to a topic that interested me at the beginning of my blogging career a decade ago, namely ‘climategate’. This November was the tenth anniversary of this attempt to misdirect climate communication and in my post I came back to some of the issues I had raised in an article published in 2010, especially the denigration of experts, consensus and truth through using the metaphor of ‘science is religion’. This is still going on!
History of science and history of linguistics
This year I came back, briefly, to some of my really old passions, namely the history of science in general and the history of linguistics in particular. One post dealt with the first ever article published in the journal Nature, 150 years ago, an article by Huxley on Goethe’s aphorisms on nature. It was fascinating to explore this whole episode in more detail, including the language and style used, the connections with Darwin and so on.
I also wrote a post about a rather forgotten woman philosopher of speech and language: Grace Andrus de Laguna, one of the fore-mothers of pragmatics as a field of linguistics, a field that studies language in action. That was the topic of my PhD and my first job here in England as a JRF at Wolfson College, Oxford. Ah, the good old days….
I also tried to write something on the way new insights into DNA have been communicated from the 1960s onwards, focusing in particular on the mystery as to why cybernetics, so influential in the creation of molecular biology, did not inspire more metaphors.
Another post explored early efforts to foster public understanding of science in the 1960s, triggered by finding an old magazine squirrelled away in my husbands office.
And finally, I wondered whether social science (jargon) helps or hinders science communication. This musing was provoked by a wonderful tweet by Alice Bell in which she said: “Drunk suit fell over getting on the tube, exclaimed ‘Gravity! That’s physics! That’s the cleverest thing!’ and then started asking people in the carriage if they love physics and whether or not it’s better than biology.” And went on to ask: “Sci commers: You can facilitate all the fancy pants coproductions of upstreams you want, but drunk middle aged men arguing with strangers about whether it was gravity, vodka or the Northern Line that made them fall over is public engagement with science and technology.” (Italics added) Think about it!
I wrote a few blog posts about subjects and topics that are not easily classifiable, for example about metaphors, society and Brexit, about the division of social knowledge and its breakdown, about the exposome (not to be confused with exosomes), about astrogenomics, about black holes, about space as solace for the soul and about science and poetry
This year was and continues to be quite fractious. There were quite a few family and other crises I had/have to deal with. It was therefore a relief to find that other people wanted to contribute guest posts to the Making Science Public blog – some of which, by Alexandra and Cath, I referenced above under epigenetics. Beyond that:
Chris Toumey wrote interesting reflections on his new book about nanotech and the humanities, followed by description of the value of qualitative methods, prompted by a comment to the previous blog post. Joachim Allgaier wrote a wonderful overview of his article/research dealing with science, science communication and YouTube. Penny Polson, Carmen McLeod and Eleanor Hadley Kershaw wrote a report on their workshop on the circular economy. Jim Dratwa and Barbara Prainsack discussed a call for a moratorium on germline editing, and Michael Morrison contributed to the debate surrounding a controversial tweet relating to genome editing and human enhancement.
I would like to thank all my colleagues and friends who have helped me with this blog and much more. I would also like to think my readers, especially those who have emailed me with comments and thoughts. I wish you all a healthy and happy 202o.