It’s a load of balls really. The impact of this; the effect of that. Nothing but billiard balls slamming into each other.
Bang – the impact of science on society.
Bang – the effect of ideology on science.
Society bouncing round the angles after the science cue ball slams into it. Science rolling on its true course until ideology (the red) knocks it to one side. And science communication? Aim your science so that you can hit the public into the top pocket.
It is all a very mechanistic and atomistic way of thinking about people and what they do. Through media studies, history of science and the various incarnations of Science and Technology Studies, we have half a century of taking a critical approach to media and at least half a century of taking a critical approach to science, yet we still seem to be left with this load of balls.
I sometimes wonder whether this jaundiced view is just me slipping into a grumpy old age, but I’m not alone in thinking this. The journal Public Understanding of Science, for example, has just announced an essay competition with the title “In Science Communication, why does the idea of a public deficit always return?”
The short answer: it’s in scientists’ interests.
Slightly longer answers can be found in previous posts. There is an ideological dimension to science communication (it’s in the interests of scientists and funders). It reduces the role of the public to that of nodding or wagging heads to a pre-set agenda. It deflects attention away from science by identifying the public as the problem.
The situation is highlighted by the recent launch of the Longitude Prize 2014. One immediate response has been that finding a technological fix may not be the best or most appropriate way to address most (maybe all) the challenges that were set out. For example, if people are hungry or do not have clean water that is a political, social and economic problem to do with the inequitable distribution of resources. Where is the political will and funding to change that? (See this good piece by Jonathan Mendel for more on this).
The prize is also nicely taken apart by Alice Bell who says that the TV prize show format glosses over the fact that science takes time, money and infrastructure which the UK government is wilfully cutting. “Our choices over what to research are becoming ever-more curtailed and controlled,” she says but the need for greater public discussion is met with a TV vote “as if none of this messy, unruly and sometimes questionable politics of science and technology” existed.
Messy, political, against the interests of scientists and funders – it’s not too difficult to see why we get stuck with a load of balls. It is much easier to have the bread and circuses of the “public engagement with science”:
– the disciplined and docile body (pace Foucault) luxuriating in the rewards of science
– gazing in awe at the wonders of science entertainment
– giving the thumbs up or down to the projects that fight for attention
Much easier, in short, to press the reset button and go back half a century to the factory settings of Snow’s Two Cultures.
It was this idea of pressing the “Forget” button that reminded me of the Doctor Who episode The Beast Below. In the distant future the UK (minus Scotland) is travelling through space on a spaceship. Every five years the population can protest against the unspeakable horror upon which Spaceship UK is built or press the “Forget” button and have their memories wiped.
So, what would happen if we rejected the load of balls and decided not to press the Forget button; to accept the messy, political reality; and (without giving away spoilers) to develop a different working relationship with the beast below?
In this respect I have been struck by the work of NHS Citizen which has been organising a series of events to help towards developing “a participation infrastructure for NHS England, where you can be a citizen of the NHS, not just a consumer of its services”. Key features it seems would be co-production of knowledge, governance, accountability, trust, and simply a general sense of ownership. I don’t know how successful these exercises are but at least the need is recognised and the attempt is being made.
Would that we could have something similar for science, but I suspect that shifting attention from transferring information to transferring power would get too many people reaching for the reset button.