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.  

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