Sunday, 22 April 2012

Past and the Future

The history of the editorship of the journal Public Understanding of Science was the focus of a special panel at the 2012 convention of the International Network on Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCST) 2012 convention in Florence this week.
Our guest blogger Jane Gregory continues her earlier post with this report on a special session at the convention:
Past and present editors of the PUSJohn Durant, Bruce Lewenstein, Edna Einsiedel and Martin Bauer came on stage in the main auditorium to talk about the 20 years of the journal. Suzanne de Cheveigne took the chair, and started the event by commenting on the row of green journals that looks good in her office. She noted how, among the plethora of media in which we do our work, journals remain important for our academic work.
John Durant of MIT spoke first, noting that the journal is old enough to have a history that follows trends in our field. He situated PUS research as a second or possibly third order subject, relating as it does not only to science and to society and their relationship, but also to media studies, communication studies and a number of branches of the social sciences, and then to the wide range of practices that sit under our umbrella. Durant argued that a field is healthiest when it retains and fosters close links between theory and practice.
Alongside the descriptive/analytical and evaluative studies published in PUS over the years, there have been important papers problematising the notion of PUS. These papers, John argued, are foundational. But the conception of the ‘problem’ has changed over the years, with the classic description being of an evolution from deficit to dialogue. John drew on the US situation to discuss a further ‘cultural model’ of science in which science emerges in scattered public places such as models, magazines, festivals, cafes, storytelling, stand-up, and new-wave science radio. John recognised the challenges of researching this diversity and stressed that this is one reason why PSCT as a field needs to hold research and practice together.
The next editor, and next at the podium, was Bruce Lewenstein of Cornell University. Lewenstein surveyed the models of PUS – or PEST, PCST or PLUS – and considered the precursor sites, such as the magazine Daedalus and the major science weeklies that have considered PUS issues since the 1940s. Lewenstein also considered the range of ‘sister’ journals such as Science Communication, as well as the parallel literature on science education, formal and informal. He brought the story up to date by considering the prospects of new media and assessing the scope for widening the range of forms of literature, at different speeds and reaching a broader and more diverse audiences, including policymakers and practitioners.   
Editor number 3, Edna Einsiedel of the University of Calgary, showed how during the lifetime of the PUS journal, many other journals have appeared covering various patches of our field. Einsiedel argued for more attention to specific publics, rather than the public in general, and also reminded us that alongside the ‘big’ technologies that attract most of the research money there are many mundane technologies that contribute just as much to the framing of everyday experience of science and technology.
The present editor Martin Bauer asked what a journal can contribute to the technoscientific project. The concerns about the science-society relationship have mobilised resources for actions, such as science communication events, and also for a ‘crew’ for this expedition: not just practitioners of science communication but also scrutineers and critics. The mass media play a crucial role here, which is why media studies are important. The journal, Bauer argued, provides a reflective forum which encourages critical thinking, records empirical results, and links to social analysis.
The journal is publishing around 70 papers a year and has a rejection rate of just over 60%. The space for publishing has grown as has the number of issues. Bauer’s goals for the journal in the coming years are to globalise the coverage, in terms of topics and issues, and to internationalise the authorship. He also is aiming to reduce the time to publication from 12 months to 6 months. Bauer thanked the authors of PUS for their continued commitment, as well as acknowledging the work of referees in the peer review process. The readers complete the process, carrying the results of others’ research into their research and teaching.
Discussion in the hall addressed the problems of embracing new media and getting the results of scholarship to places where it can make a difference, while at the same time meeting the academic criteria by which careers thrive or fail.  
Pouring out into a rare burst of sunshine, the conference then headed for a palace in the heart of old Florence, where delegates enjoyed Tuscan delicacies amid the frescoes and marble.  

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Under the Florentine Sky

The International Network on Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCST) began its 2012 convention in Florence, Italy, this week. The PCST is an important network of scientists working with communities, science journalists, academics, communication professionals working with science and technology institutions, and others involved with science and communication. 

Our guest blogger for this edition is Jane Gregory and here is her first despatch from Florence:

Florence is the perfect city for PCST. In Florence, layers of history lie in strata, some of them exposed and protected as heritage and setting high standards for one of our conference themes, the expression of beauty; and some of them neglected, decaying under the weight of subsequent development (to give it its positive spin, can we call it ‘innovation’?). Narrow streets designed for no more than a handcart are blocked by noisy cars, impeded further by the pedestrians who step off the pavement oblivious to everything except the distant voice on their mobile phone.  Aerials and belltowers bring their different geometries to the sky which, reluctant absentees may be cheered to note, have been relentlessly grey. Whenever a drop falls, entrepreneurs appear from every alley to sell umbrellas. Perhaps because of the rain, or perhaps because of its historical patronages, Florence appears as a private city: its riches are on the inside. In the conference, it is sometimes hard to look at the speakers or focus on one’s colleagues, when there is so much to be seen on the ceilings. 

In PCST our new ideas also get stuck in narrow well-trodden paths. It is not clear whether we retain a fond attachment for the works of the past, or whether we just temporarily forgot them, because we routinely revisit and recognise our old friends during these meetings. There is value in feeling ‘at home’ amid one’s residual culture. At the same time, PCST is about some of the most important problems on local and global scales in the present and in the future. So let’s look there.

On this first morning in one parallel session the notion of citizenship was problematised through various efforts to open up spaces in which it can emerge. Gwendolyn Blue from the University of Calgary, Canada, described the Canadian arm of a global public engagement on climate change in advance of a high-level conference. She identified a persistent dichotomy which associates scientists with facts and laypeople with values, and she argued that this is surely up for negotiation.  For the social contract between science and society to be renewed, the question must be asked of who has epistemic agency in society: who are the knowledge workers in these debates? In a democratic society, laypeople and scientists who aspire to scientific citizenship will have to challenge a system that tethers the public to scientific authority.

Padraig Murphy (Dublin City University, Ireland) commented on Gwendolyn’s global map of participation in engagement about climate change and pointed out that what constitutes ‘citizenship’ surely varies in such widely distributed parts of the world.  Someone who is locally an active or effective citizen may still feel ill-equipped or unwelcome in a global engagement – an event which would be, to some extent at least, vulnerable to the homogenising effect of even the best efforts to respect global diversity. 

In his own presentation, Murphy noted the many factors that frame engagement, and the ways in which these factors can divert it into unexpected outcomes. Events that become popular with children tend to assume a fun aspect and lose their politics; and the economic problems in Ireland mean many engagements about science are oriented towards positive economic outcomes on which everyone tends to agree, in the circumstances, organising the people behind a national agenda.  Murphy noted that as an Irishman and as a science communication specialist, he looks forward to the inevitable debate about the genetically modified potato.

Around the conference centre, sessions are under way in astronomy, on children, on art, music, evaluation, journalism, controversy and science shops. A fascinating session organised by PhD candidate Sebastian Olenyi from the University of Delft probed the concept of sustainability. With contributions from industry (Elise Kissling from BASF) and a lobby group (Nina Haase from WWF), among others, Olenyi positioned the word ‘sustainability’ as a boundary object at which groups with differing agendas can interact. He noted that the growth of the use of the word (as measured in Google books) implies that it will appear in every published sentence by 2100! 

The contributors also explained how sustainability works to align internal agendas in their organisations. The discussion also identified some problems with both the word and the concept: for one thing, its overuse makes it meaningless or unremarkable; but also it is held up as a gold standard which may not be achievable. The contributors suggested that there are times when the best we can do is a responsible solution to a particular problem, rather than a sustainable one.

 Aha! The sun came out! OK, it went in again. We will once again seek illumination indoors.  

Friday, 13 April 2012

Playing Games

When the new action-packed Hollywood blockbuster The Hunger Games made a spectacular debut on the silver screen recently, it catapulted issues of science, society, and politics into discussion forums and teenage chat rooms worldwide.

Based on the first novel of the  bestselling The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, the movie is set in a future world that is hopelessly divided into two broad groups – one of a well-fed, entertainment-addicted ruling elite that uses high-technology to control an impoverished, largely-hungry mass of people. 

So desperate is the situation of the oppressed classes, that each of the 12 districts they inhabit are forced to give up a young male and a young female to go into an arena every year where the 24 combatants fight each other in a televised festival of death until only one victor is left.

So what has this got to do with public understanding of science, you might ask. For one, the movie, as indeed the entire trilogy of novels, places science and technology at the heart of society. Whether the view of science is utopic or dystopic depends at least partly on social and political pulls and pressures that policy makers are under and whether governments choose to use or abuse technologies.

As Alan Boyle notes in his insightful blog, “The technological divide between the rulers and the ruled is at the heart of The Hunger Games”. Within the dystopic setting of Collins’ novels, it is the oppressive ruling elite that make use of new technological innovations ranging from magnetic force fields and genetically-engineered creatures designed to intimidate foes to sophisticated surveillance devices such as tracker jays and humanoid spying birds called jabberjays. In contrast, the protagonists of the oppressed classes have only mundane bows and arrows and knives as their weapons of self-preservation.

As our guest blogger said last week in the specific context of new reproductive technologies, novels, movies, and television shows are for many people a first introduction to unfamiliar technologies and, therefore, an exposure to potential legal, social, political, and emotional implications these technologies have on life and society.

Of all the themes explored in The Hunger Games, genetic engineering is probably the most obvious one. The motif for the central protagonist of the trilogy, a resolute 16-year-old girl who takes on the establishment, is that of a mockingjay – also the title of the last novel in the trilogy. When the genetically-engineered jabberjays deployed by the elite to eavesdrop and transmit recorded conversations of rebels outlive their utility and  are left to die, they mate with mockingbirds to create a new species of mocking jays. 

Clearly, as we have seen with some GM crops, including GM corn, genetically engineered organisms are hard to contain and can adapt to the environment in unpredictable ways.

Genetic engineering has been a major topic of consideration by scholars working in the area of public understanding of science. It is now well established that in Europe, for example, perception and acceptance of GM technology vary according to type of application, with many people tending to be supportive of biotechnology for medical purposes, while opposing or expressing deep ambivalence about biotechnology for agri-food.  

PUS has several recent articles from different parts of the world on the topic. In a forthcoming article (now available online), Henrik Mielby, Peter Sandoe, and Jesper Lassen of the University of Copenhagen, talk about their Denmark-based research that looks into “The role of scientific knowledge in shaping public attitudes to GM technologies”.  The authors found that higher the scientific knowledge people demonstrated, the more likely they were to make a distinction between their acceptance of GM technology for medical reasons and rejection of it for food or animal feed purposes. They were also more likely to ignore differences between transgenic and cisgenic food crops. In contrast, people with less scientific knowledge tended to make a distinction between transgenesis and cisgenesis on the basis of the ‘naturalness’ or otherwise of the respective 

In a Japan-based study (available online), Izumi Ishiyama, Tetsuro Tanzawa, Maiko Watanabe, Tadahiko Maeda, Kaori Muto, Akiko Tamakoshi, Akiko Nagai, and Zentaro Yamagata explore “Public attitudes to the promotion of genomic crop studies in Japan: correlations between genomic literacy, trust, and favourable attitude”. The survey of 4,000 people demonstrated that half the respondents supported “crop-related genomic studies”, while 6.4% disapproved. This research also highlighted significant gender differences in attitudes towards biotechnology, with women significantly more likely to have negative attitudes compared to men. Such gender differences have also been reported for the United States and Europe.

Finally, in Canada, Mary Roduta Roberts, Grace Reid, Meadow Schroeder, and Stephen Norris found, in an exploration (article available online) of the relationship between knowledge and attitudes to trust in science and technology that, among other things, “trust in generalized science and technology  affects trust in specific technologies, but not vice versa.” Thus, it is entirely possible to be distrustful of specific technologies while trusting science and technology as a whole. This research also demonstrated what has been argued elsewhere that greater scientific literacy does not lead to increases in scientific trust. Rather,  trust in science and technology is likely to improve if there are opportunities for the public to engage with scientific experts.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Weaving fact and fiction

Our guest blogger, Rebecca Bollard, who is studying the social, political, and cultural aspects of new and emerging reproductive technologies, rides the tightrope between science and fiction this week as she talks about fictional representations of such technologies. Here is her blog:

Reproductive technology has long been the subject of science fiction and speculative fiction writers. Alduous Huxley (Brave New World) Margaret Atwood (Handmaid’s Tale) Ira Levin (The Boys from Brazil) and Kazuo Ishiguro (Never Let Me Go)are among authors who have imagined dystopic futures involving cloning and artificial reproduction. Similarly, science fiction movies such as Gattaca, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The Island explore a dystopic future where cloning is used to exert social control. 

However, since the success of IVF in the 1970s and the subsequent development of surrogacy and other reproductive technologies, increasing numbers of popular novelists and screenplay writers are using issues around reproductive technologies as devices to explore social and emotional issues. Books, TV shows, and movies now commonly use themes around IVF, surrogacy, and egg and sperm donation as plot points and story lines. These include popular TV shows such as Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Friends, and Brothers and Sisters, and relatively recent movies like The Switch,starring Jennifer Aniston, and Baby Mama, starring Tina Fey. For many people, these programmes and movies are their first introduction to reproductive technologies and the potential legal, social, and emotional ramifications of these technologies. 

The willingness of people to engage with fictional storylines based on reproductive technologies creates an exciting new avenue for science communication. In an article published in PUS, Grace Reid of the University of Alberta, Canada, has taken an in-depth look at the use of a drama-documentary (a fictional but possible story interspersed with factual portions) on cloning in the UK. The dramadoc If…Cloning Could Cure Us highlights a fictional court case of a scientist involved in cloning which was shown on the BBC and viewers were asked to participate in a telephone poll. Two outcomes were filmed but the viewers' response determined which outcome of the court case was broadcast.

Reid’s research with focus groups showed that the dramadoc was largely successful at entertaining and informing those who viewed it  but that there was potential for an even more successful public engagement. 

In their last blog post, Priya and Debashish asked whether public input around the most controversial areas of science was being heeded. Perhaps one way to engage with the public is to be creative in ways of reaching and communicating with them. The dramadoc is an example of how fact and fiction can be brought together to increase public engagement and understanding of science.