Open debate and greater critical analysis of the scientific endeavour would promote public engagement with science
Science is not uppermost in the minds of people in the UK. In fact, Brits are pretty shell-shocked. First, we voted to leave the EU. Then, we defied the new architects of the process by nearly defeating them at the ballot box on 8th June 2017. We are also reeling from four recent terror attacks. Hence, the recently completed inquiry on science communication, undertaken by the UK House of Commons select committee on science and technology, went largely under the radar.
Published on the 24th March 2017, the deadline for the response from the UK government has already been missed. Whatever the government says once it has been re-formed, scientists are unlikely to allow a public debate about serious issues that affect the way they work and communicate. And this is becoming increasingly problematic.
Evolving science communication
At the same time, life goes on in the world of science communication–at least for the edutainment-style coverage of science. TV and radio, and to some extent the national press, continue to cover new scientific research, often in an imaginative and engaging manner. Broadcasters such as naturalist David Attenborough and physicist Brian Cox present lavish documentaries on TV. And there is a regular stream of excellent coverage by BBC radio on national networks and the World Service. The print press–now declining in the face of the rapid access to news and blogs over the internet–not so much.
Information about the fruits of the scientific endeavour is widely available. Nowadays, non-scientists who wish to find out more about particular topics–out of curiosity or possibly for practical reasons such as how to deal with medical conditions–can indeed find plenty of information on the internet. Research-based organisations can put up vast quantities on information about their work and indeed this kind of activity is sometimes supported by a group of ‘science communication’ professionals who advise on and carry out projects designed to attract the attention of the public.
For example, the Science Museum in London is now collaborating with the BBC on a programme called Britain’s Greatest Invention where seven celebrities each champion a technology invented in the UK. They can visit specially fitted out galleries in the museum or watch the associated TV programmes. At the end, members of the audience will be invited to vote for the technology that has made most impact on society.
Meanwhile, scientific researchers are more willing than maybe they have been in the past to provide information about their findings via both the old and new media. This sharly contrasts with their previous attitudes. For several generations, scientists were brought up in a culture of silence, reinforced by gagging by the Official Secrets Act.
Not surprising when the Second World War was underway and scientists backed up military efforts by designing weapons and deciphering messages. But even during the Cold War, to talk about your work might amount to treachery. As indeed it did, in the case of the physicist Bruno Pontecorvo, who gave away secrets of nuclear research to the Soviet Union.
Today, the generation that was instilled with the need to say as little as possible because ‘loose talk cost lives’ has mostly given way to a generation where individuals crave constant attention for what they are doing. And yet the ‘powers that be’ in the world of science still conduct their business very much behind closed doors. And the technical advice they give to government is still an ‘official secret’.
You could have seen my jaw drop when back in April, when former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, David King, actually admitted on national television–on Channel 4 News–that he was hoodwinked by the car industry into recommending that fuel duty on diesel vehicles should be cut.
For the most part, new results make it into the public domain only at the very end of the research cycle. This is not in itself a problem. Competition for credit–a key feature in keeping you (possibly temporary) post and developing your career–is fiercer than ever. This is due to the fact that a large number of people training as scientists and technologists encouraged to embark on a career in research. ‘Leaks’ to the ‘media’ could be a threat to this process.
On the other hand, there is some acknowledgement that less secrecy might be a good thing. Pre-publication discussion of research findings themselves shared in papers repositories with other scientists might allow useful criticism from the community to forestall the publication of erroneous results, going beyond the narrow cliquiness of ‘peer review’.
However, no such reasons explain why any attempt to discuss issues such as the waste of talent that results from careers foreshortened by the cut-throat competitiveness of the world of research results in abject failure. This has affected the lives of many who spent many years and a lot of public money building up their expertise, only to be ‘booted out’ of the ‘nest’. Many, probably most, have been women.
This kind of critical discourse does not usually take place in a genuinely ‘public’ domain, which is what ‘the media’ is supposed to provide. In Britain at least, the idea of science ‘journalism’, where genuine ‘social’ issues in the world of science and controversies about research findings are addressed, is, I would argue, not much in evidence.
Dearth of critical analysis
Many journalists writing about politics and society do indeed take what I would call a ‘scientific’ or ‘analytical’ approach to issues. In the West, we believe in freedom of speech and discourse and that’s what such writers thrive on. People who disagree with them, factually or ideologically, just get up and say so. In the public domain.
The world of science, itself, though, now lags behind this gold standard of open debate. Particularly when it comes to issues that relate directly to the wider world, such as gender inequality. A clear example of this is the recent ‘Connie St Louie’ affair.
Connie St Louis, who used to lead the Science Journalism strand within the MA in Journalism at City University following extensive work as a radio broadcaster, attended the 2015 World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, Korea. There, she heard a talk by an elderly British neuroscientist, Tim Hunt. He made a quip that there should be separate labs for men and women, so that emotions did not get in the way of the work, thus protecting men from distraction from women, who fall in love with them and cry when things go wrong. He didn’t say they shouldn’t be there, just that it was more difficult to cope with than with a–presumably more stoical–male in the same situation.
No sexism in science
The public reaction to the report was strong. Prejudice against women in science is demonstrated by the statistics documenting, not so much their appointment, but more their career progression.
There are many reasons for this, some possibly related to the kind of sentiment reported. Tim Hunt’s mistake was not so much that he discriminated in this way but that his stereotyped thinking was so much to the fore that it came to his lips in the course of banter over lunch. In this sense, St Louis was on point to pick up on it.
The reaction from the institutions where Professor Hunt, a Nobel laureate, worked, was to relieve him of his responsibilities. He then decamped to take up a post in Japan. My reading of this panic reaction is that the institutions that had once been proud to benefit from his participation were shocked. Not so much that he thought that way, but rather that he forgot himself so far as to break the line of the politically correct position that there is no sexism in science.
St Louis’s behaviour in focusing on this particular quote was also roundly condemned. In my view she behaved unwisely in not supporting the telling quote with factual material, setting the genuine issue in its proper context. Nevertheless, the Association of British Science Writers decided after extensive internal discussion and deliberation not to censure or expel her. As a result, its President, Professor Colin Blakemore, resigned from the post. Recently, City University decided to discontinue the science strand in its journalism programme and she no longer works there.
What happened here? What always happens when an important issue such as this threatens to attract public interest in how scientists run their affairs. Those in senior positions, and their ‘communicators’, find ways of closing down the debate.
‘Keep out’ is the order of the day
In the end, opportunities to air and progress discussion of the issue of women in science in a useful way were completely missed. So how are we to capture the scientists’ diffidence in engaging with genuine concerns relating to the way they organise their activities, which are largely funded by the public purse?
Nick Russell, former head of the M.Sc. in Science Communication at Imperial College, London, UK, has elegantly pointed out that the scientific community ‘bridles at any suggestion of direct public influence over science.’ Back in 2006, he wrote that ‘a deficit agenda‘ still rules, persuading the public that what scientists do is beneficial and that public respect is due for the goals set for science by scientists (even if these goals are influenced by the scientists’ paymasters in government and industry).
The debate has moved on since Russell wrote these words–particularly with the introduction, by the European Commission (EC), of the notion of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) and the EC drive towards opening science further, including discussions related to the need of scientists to engage in a two-way dialogue with the public–the message has not yet pervaded all the layers of the scientific community.
Will this make any difference, particularly now the UK is due to leave the EU? The scientific community and its communicators are loudly campaigning that we should continue to benefit from inclusion in its research programmes. But they still bridle at any suggestion of direct public influence over science.
Ros is a science journalist and editor, who has worked at New Scientist and Research Fortnight and written and edited for the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Along with John Durant and Jane Gregory, she established the M.Sc. in Science Communication at Imperial College, London, UK.