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Archive for October, 2008

STS Department responds to the DIUS Science and Society Consultation

By ucapslo, on 17 October 2008

The following response has been submitted to the Science and Society consultation run by the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills by members of the STS Department.


Response to Consultation document, ‘A Vision for Science and Society’, July 2008

Department of Science and Technology Studies, UCL

The Science & Technology Studies Department at University College London is a centre of expertise and research in issues of science and society. As members of this department, we read with interest the consultation document. We share the judgment of many of our colleagues, national and international[1], that the current document ‘significantly misrepresents the character and underlying relations between science and society’. We would also, however, like to make the following constructive comments and proposals.

First, to re-iterate our colleagues’ concerns, the current document fails to grasp that critical engagement is a positive force for improving democratic processes, authentic dialogue and public policy-making, and indeed for strengthening the UK as an innovation nation. Public, commercial and third sector bodies all gain by welcoming critical engagement as a means of recognizing and building robust and mutually rewarding relations. Second, the examples of good practice in science and society policy were startlingly narrow. A broader and better memory of the UK’s record in efforts to enhance the democratic governance of science and technology would have immeasurably improved the Vision. We fully endorse the position that the Vision, therefore, does ‘not represent an adequate of meaningful starting point for a consultation on a future science and society’.

Turning now to specific questions asked by the consultation report, we have the following constructive responses:

Q. How can good practice in public dialogue be embedded across government?

A. Improve Institutional Memory.

The current Vision notes in passing that the Council for Science and Technology in 2005 ‘identified that a corporate memory of public dialogue activity should be established in government’. The present Vision clearly shows this memory is faulty. There are recurring themes and clichés characterising science, the public, the media and engagement in the Vision that have not only been debunked by scientists and social scientists but also by parliamentary and governmental bodies. Rather than list these lapses, an alternative strategy would be to read carefully the development of policy debates and best practice which has evolved over the past twenty years in the UK, as documented in, for example, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s report Setting Environmental Standards (1998), the House of Lords report on Science and Society (2000), the Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004 – 2014. Effective institutional memory cannot rely on individuals. The crucial point is that ownership of this issue, along, therefore, with knowledge of how this issue has developed, and good practices, is broadly shared – across not only government, but elsewhere.

Q. How can business better engage with society and policy makers about the development and use of science in everyday life?

A. Ensure that business recognises the advantages to business of open transparent engagement.

The treatment of business in the Vision is confused and contradictory. The Vision treats the private sector as having no distinctive or profound differences or interests in its use of science (p.30-31). No-one is served well by wishful thinking. Most UK science takes place in the private sector which exhibits an highly diverse modes of public engagement; furthermore, these modes are qualitatively different from engagement in public sector settings.[2] Much could be learned if only these modes were made more visible. The critical problem is the lack of means – and sometimes will – in private sector bodies to explore this diversity. The companies that do explore this have turned this exploration to their own advantage, acknowledging the benefits of public engagement practices in helping to open up their innovation processes and build positive social relations.  This is in marked contrast to the idea of public engagement in the Vision, which sees it as a means of public relations, and market creation for products and services. 

Drawing on joint research with the RSA, let us briefly illustrate how and why private sector bodies differ in their engagement:

  • Companies, driven by profit, build highly specific relations with customers, which frame engagement activities. The engagement and communication activities in the private sector are correspondingly specific and diverse.
  • Small companies have as much to gain from engagement as larger companies, but do not have the resources, skills, experience or knowledge to engage with their publics. This picture will not change without targeted policies.
  • A company like Smiths (a top 20 UK R&D company by the R&D Scoreboard) sells science-based solutions that work within systems built and sold by other companies. Smiths therefore does not face the public at all, and understandably does little public engagement. Yet the systems they contribute to, in the form, say, of improved aircraft, do indeed powerfully shape our public world. How can a sense of the importance and benefits of engagement be embedded in such companies? How is responsibility for engagement determined and encouraged in companies in R&D supply chains? These are qualitatively different phenomena from those questions felt by public bodies, and must be recognised as such.

Q: How can the media better support society’s need for balanced information that accurately portrays the nature of science and improves scientific literacy?

A: ‘Learn to work with the media as they are.’

Having considered what scope there might be for scientists to influence the media coverage of science, the House of Lords Science and Society report concluded in 2000 that scientists should learn to work with the media as they are and could not expect ‘special treatment’. We endorse this view and encourage scientists to accept that the media and journalists adhere to different professional practices, which may or may not overlap with the goals and aims of science communication from scientists. A mature relationship with the media is one that embraces, and learns from, points of difference; and it recognises the democratic value of media criticisms and controversy.

Finally, in general, the inherent tensions that exist between strands of the government’s science and society agenda need frank recognition and honest discussion. Wanting to excite young people, or the general population about science and technology, to increase recruitment to the scientific workforce, or increase scientific information provision are laudable and achievable goals. However, the aims and objectives of these science communication activities are very different to those engagement activities which develop democratic and critical forms of engagement that allow science policy-making innovation processes to be opened up to, and shaped by, public values, concerns and aspirations. Furthermore, these processes should not be viewed as an opportunity for public relations, through which trust, confidence or excitement for science, scientists, or scientific products is manufactured, but as opportunities for building socially robust and open policy structures and processes.


Dr Jon Agar, Dr Brian Balmer, Dr Jane Gregory, Mr Simon Lock


[2] RSA (2004) What’s There to Talk About? Public engagement by science-based companies in the UK (RSA Forum for Technology, Citizens and the Market)


By Jon Agar, on 15 October 2008

The STS Seminar series got off to a great start with Steve Jones’ talk ‘Is man just another animal?’. His overall argument was that possession of language is probably the best criterion with which to build a distinction (if you wish to). As you might expect there was plenty of demonstration of evolution as both fact and on-going process. And while human evolution is still happening – witness the selection for ccl3l1 alleles under the pressure of HIV and AIDS – Jones suggested that it has slowed down. In a nutshell his view is that our insulation from the forces of natural selection, due to our inhabiting human-built environments and our possession of culture, helps explain this phenomenon.

There is a vast undeveloped academic field here. Sound as Jones is on evolution, his history of culture, landscape and technology is sketchy. Yet there is a fabulous literature on landscapes as intimately artificial environments. The intersection – natural history meets history of technology – is the place where new thought is needed.

Another (new) synthesis is required.

Where would we start if we wanted to read up a new subject like evo-techno? For reasons that I might go into later, the strand of analysis that treats technology itself as an evolved entity is not particularly helpful, even though it’s a scholarly tradition that stretches from Pitt Rivers in the 19th century to evolutionary studies of innovation in the 21st.

Instead let us draw inspiration from two articles. In 2007, Ed Russell in Environmental History wrote a brave and insightful essay that challenges historians to bring evolution into their work. It is speculative in the best sense. He side-steps biological determinism and explains why you can imagine an evolutionary historiography that is not – and should not – be labelled social Darwinism. In conclusion he writes:

‘Scholars in a variety of disciplines and fields have built the foundation for such an inquiry, with biology and history leading the way along parallel, but too rarely intersecting, paths. Evolutionary history offers a way to link these endeavors. To biology, history offers understanding of the social forces that create selective pressures. To history, biology offers understanding of the ways organisms respond to such pressures. Together, as evolutionary history, they offer understanding of the ever-changing dance between humans and nature. The resulting synthesis just might lead us to new understanding of historical episodes as disparate as state building, capital accumulation, geopolitics, industrialization, and domestication.’

Russell’s manifesto is just a sketch. His treatment of technology needs much more work. But it is one pillar of evo-techno.

The second article is by the anthropologist Tim Ingold. I was a colleague of Tim’s in Manchester a decade ago, and I confess that then I didn’t always ‘get’ his project. But his 1993 essay ‘The temporality of the landscape’ in World Archaeology is a beauty. Anthropology, of course, is well placed to work at the intersection of the natural and social worlds. Ingold tells us that the artificial environments are ‘taskscapes’, seamless vistas of human activities. While it is not Ingold’s intention, the notion of taskscapes can be a second pillar of evo-techno. We can then ask, for example, where are the niches in a taskscape? How have both changed over time?

If you are interested in such a project, then email me, or post a comment.

Science ‘Heroes’ and Global Citizenship?

By Jon Agar, on 10 October 2008

The STS department has just launched its global citizenship program, with new courses and new outreach. One of the most innovative parts is a course called Action for Global Citizenship, in which students work together learning activist citizen skills such as organisation and planning, persuasion and engagement.

So it was intriguing to read this week’s editorial in Science. Its title is ‘A populist movement for health?’

 Now unless you have a subscription you can’t read the content online. (Understandable for main content, but surely a shot in the foot for an editorial?). So here’s the key thoughts.

‘One of the most effective science-based movements to raise public awareness of a global problem has been Al Gore’s efforts, complementing the science-based work of the IPCC, to expose the perils of global warming’. Human health is also a global problem. But science-based global health solutions (which the editorial writers equate solely with new drugs that work on new targets as revealed by the Human Genome Project) are not forthcoming at the rate desired. ‘How can we stimulate innovation amd enlightened policy?’ ask Jim Wells and Mary Woolley, ‘Is a Gore-like populist movement possible for global health’? ‘It is time’, they conclude ‘for the scientific community to launch a bold combination strategy, the most important element of which is to identify the “Al Gore(s)” of basic science’. Yes, indeed.

More calls for heroes. Is this a good strategy for global citizenship?

Imagine a different world where, instead of waiting for invented heroes to step forward, every scientist had an ‘action for global citizenship’ training as part of their education. An articulate, socially-aware generation of scientists with the self-possession and skills to organise and persuade…

More Blogs

By Jon Agar, on 10 October 2008

This STS Observatory is a new experience for some of us at the Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS). So what other related blogs are out there? Peter Smith recently sent me this list of blogs that interest him. I post it without comment. I’m planning to put together a brief guide to blogs that relate to science policy, history of science, philosophy of science, SSK, etc etc, so if you have any suggestions, please add a comment. (JA)


These are some other blogs/sites that might be of interest:
Homunculus (P Ball’s blog) http://philipball.blogspot.com/
Old is the New New (science historian Rob MacDougall’s page
Zimmer’s Loom: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/loom/
Question technology http://questiontechnology.blogs.com/blog/
Science books blog http://sciencebooksblog.blogspot.com/
Edge http://www.edge.org/
LabLit http://www.lablit.com/
Thales & Friends http://www.thalesandfriends.org/en/index.php
Museum of Jurassic technology http://www.mjt.org/
Wired Science blogs http://blog.wired.com/wiredscience/
Steven Johnson http://www.stevenberlinjohnson.com/
New Scientist blog
Nature’s blog site: http://www.nature.com/blogs/
Science Blogs: http://www.scienceblogs.com/
Of course SciTech Daily http://www.scitechdaily.com/
has a listing of science sites, blogs & journals (left-hand side of the page) that has a few
more interesting ones. Including:

the Scientific Activist http://scienceblogs.com/scientificactivist/
Science and Society http://scienceandsociety.net/

And there’s Peter’s own Kafka’s Mouse http://www.peterdsmith.com/

New Minister Wants Science Heroes?

By Jon Agar, on 10 October 2008

The new science and innovation minister, Lord Drayson, has come out immediately as a cheerleader for science. Part of the job, of course. But the specifics – enthusiasm for basic science and astronauts, and particularly the need to build up ‘heroes’ – need justification and scrutiny. Yes, space science is a recruitment tool, but there is a whiff of condescension – and nostalgia even – in the idea that it takes humans in space to be inspirational. Speaking anecdotally, Voyager and other purely mechanical missions fired my imagination far more than the International Space Station.

Then there’s the call for heroes. Lord Drayson’s example was Brian Cox at the LHC. But the idea that an individual has a heroic role in such a big science project as CERN is laughable. To pretend otherwise is misleading about the true nature and organisation of modern physics.

A much better heroic story arc is this: ‘A young production engineer, leaves food company (shades of Reggie Perrin here), founds small phama company, hits jackpot, earns millions, and now strides the world stage as…minister of state for science and innovation’.

A Vision for Science and Society?

By ucrhbrb, on 1 October 2008

Two quotes from the on-going public consultation by the Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills, A Vision for Science and Society:  http://interactive.dius.gov.uk/scienceandsociety/site/

“The Government is committed to creating a society that is excited about science and values its importance to our social and economic well-being; feels confident in its use; and supports a representative, well-qualified workforce”


“As the pace of scientific development accelerates, so too does the pace of change in our society.  Our challenge is to make the most of the talents of all our people so that Britain can compete in this globalised world of the future.   Such a fast pace has the potential to have the harshest impact on those least equipped to respond.  We want to ensure that everyone is able to share in the increasing prosperity and the opportunities that scientific progress brings and nobody gets left behind”


Am I being unfair by picking on these two quotes or does the consultation document make a range of assumptions that most people with a rudimentary knowledge of STS would question:


1. The pace of scientific change drives social change (linear model?)

2. Science impacts on society (but apart from direct public engagement, society doesn’t influence science?)

3. The public as ‘consumer’ of science (what about citizenship, critic, advocate, collborator…?)

4. Excited people = ‘confident’ people

5. The aim of science is to contribute to economic competitiveness (only??)

6. Science brings opportunities but not challenges (?)

7. Scientists are autonomous knowledge producers (except insofar as they are ‘engaged with’ or made to ‘communicate to the public’)


Goodbye to gorillas

By ucrhjoe, on 1 October 2008

Following a BBC story this week:

I just don’t see how mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo can survive to see 2050. Too many people want too much around them. Warring groups of humans compete for minerals, land, and food in the national parks. This is economic exploitation of the region in ways all too familiar over the globe, feeding insatiable hungers they (and ultimately we) have for things. History shows a clear pattern: the future is bleak.

Worse, the high value we – here at home in London – put on these animals constructs a value of ‘preciousness’ around them that adds pressure. We all know how precious things become targets for thieves, rogues, exploiters, and publicity seekers. That preciousness adds to the burden already carried by gorillas. Yet another target for exploiters and publicity seekers. Yet another precious thing exploited to destruction. Same old sad story.

Still, my heart goes out to the rangers of these parks. Incredibly hard working, courageous people working on a noble cause. They are the only thing keeping the gorillas from falling off the precipice of extinction.

Someone please tell me what I can do to help those rangers in their work.