This morning I sat down with my 14 year old son and asked him what area of science caught his interest especially. He answered “the future of space exploration”. We carried out a search on the Web of Science for “future + space + exploration”, and the fifth article returned was “Comparing future options for human space flight” by Sherwood Brent (Acta Astronautica 69346-353, 2011). We downloaded the article and he read it. When asked, he said the paper was understandable and interesting – he was glad that he’d read it, and wanted to know where he could read more stuff like this.
There’s a myth that only people who have ready access to peer review papers have any real need or desire to read them, and it’s a pernicious myth.
Here’s an interesting idea – build a free iPad app that kicks off a global conversation about the future of the human species.
The Human Project is the brain child of Erika Ilves & Anna Stillwell. At its core is a yet-to-be-built iPad app that captures the essence of humanity past and future – who we are, where we are going, and how we are going to get there. As Erika and Anna explain:
There are so many challenges that confront the species as a whole. The ones that get a lot of press (like climate change, food & water shortages, poverty, war, overpopulation and economic crises). The ones that don’t (like comets and asteroids, extreme experiments in science, technological terror and error). The ones that we humans don’t even imagine we can solve (like mega volcanoes, mega earthquakes, nearby supernova explosions, a dying sun, an aging universe). And there are plenty of visions too (like a space-faring civilization, transhumanism, zero carbon world, general artificial intelligence, the end of poverty, universal human rights, designing life and matter, zero nuclear weapons, the end of aging).
Everything is so fragmented. Every expert claims their issue matters most. Everyone fighting for their share of attention. So few have the big picture. Nobody seems to have their eye on the species as a whole.
So why not capture the big picture in a compellingly sleek package, make it free, and watch it take off?
Sounds like a great idea. But here’s the kicker – someone has to pay for the up-front development. To cover this, a crowd-funding initiative has just been launched on Kickstarter – if $25,000 are raised by Sept 28, a matching $25k is put in the pot, and the project goes ahead.
Having recently finished Robert Winston’s “Bad Ideas? An Arresting History of our Inventiveness,” I was rather taken by his concluding “Scientist’s Manifesto” – a fourteen-point guide to help strengthen the relationship between science and society. As well as reflecting much of my own thinking, it embodies many of the ideas coming out of the science communication and engagement community in recent years – although thankfully it lacks much of the jargon that usually accompanies these ideas.
I was at a meeting a couple of weeks ago where engaging the public (or “publics” to be more accurate) in science came up. In the course of discussions, I mentioned an initiative by Research Councils UK to involve members of the public in developing a call for research proposals on the use of nanotechnology in healthcare. To which one eminent US scientist responded with words to the effect of “that sounds like a really bad idea!”
The exchange confirmed a suspicion I have had for some time that public engagement on science isn’t taken that seriously in the US. Sure, there’s lots going on at various levels to communicate science to the US public, and to make sure people put science “in its rightful place” in their lives – which to most scientists is somewhere above God and family. But strategic and coordinated action on engaging people – entering into a two-way exchange of ideas that potentially influences both sides – that’s much harder to find. Continue reading Engaging the public on science? Surely you’re joking!→
Reviewing Unscientific America: How scientific illiteracy threatens our future, by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum
My name is Andrew, and I am scientifically illiterate.
Just thought I’d get that off my chest!
And before you protest too much, I do have some pretty convincing evidence. Math makes my head ache. I cannot recite the Earth’s geological timeline from memory. And there’s a one in ten chance that I’ll stumble over pronouncing terms like artemisinin and Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy.
The problem lies of course with what is understood by “scientific illiteracy” rather than my abilities—at least I hope that’s the case.
The idea that modern society only works if it is based on a common understanding, appreciation and use of science has been around for a while. It seems to make sense – in a society that is increasingly dependent on science, widespread scientific ignorance is likely to lead to non-democratic leadership by a scientific elite, or ill-informed (but democratic) decisions that are ultimately destructive.
The solution would seem to be to replace scientific ignorance with scientific literacy. Get everyone thinking and acting like scientists, and the world will surely be a better place.
Unfortunately, this perspective turns out to be rather naïve. Dividing the world into scientific illiterates and literates devalues the many other skill sets and perspectives that contribute to healthy decision-making within society. It also encourages an over-simplistic approach to the challenges of critical thinking and evidence-based decision making—namely that educating people more about science will result in them making the “right” decisions. And it has a tendency to lead to scientific literacy being measured in ways that have little bearing on a person’s ability to make informed decisions… Continue reading Reflections of a “scientific illiterate”→
It’s been a few weeks now since the men’s style magazine GQ launched the “Rock Stars of Science” campaign. I’m a staunch advocate of raising science’s profile, but the whole campaign has had me on edge, and I haven’t quite been able to put my finger on why. Was it the exclusive use of white middle-aged male scientists? Was it the implied message that the science-guys were rock-star wannabes? Or was it the assumption that medical science is the only science worth promoting?
Then it struck me – what really got under my skin was the cultural cargo cult mentality being flaunted.
50 years on, have we missed the point of C.P. Snow’s “Two-cultures?”
50 years ago, long before Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme,” the British scientist, public figure and novelist Charles Percy Snow planted an idea into the collective consciousness that has since grown to have a profound influence on science and the arts in Western society. Sadly, it wasn’t the idea he necessarily wanted to plant. So while the relevance of Snow’s “two cultures”—representing the divide between the scientific and literary elite of the day—has been debated and deconstructed ad infinitum over the intervening decades, Snow’s real passion—tackling material poverty through science and technology—has largely been ignored… Continue reading Cultural smokescreens→
Last week I asked a rather trivial (did someone say trite?) question (the 2-second Two-Cultures poll) about perpetual motion machines – as a gentle lead-up to this week’s 50th anniversary of CP Snow’s Two Cultures lecture. So what were the results and what can be learned, if anything, from them?
I’ve been intending writing about Ray Kurzweil and the technological singularity for some time now. This isn’t that blog—it is a Friday evening after all, at the end of a long week. But it is connected with some of the ideas behind the singularity.
Instead, I’m going to write about the “Fry Event Horizon”—a phenomenon of equal if not greater importance than the singularity, and due to hit us a good few years earlier—March 8 2010 to be precise (see the image below). This is the story of British comedian and raconteur Stephen Fry, and how he is destined to change the world in three hundred and sixty seven days.
The tale starts though with Twitter—a growing web-based vehicle for global social networking. For the uninitiated, Twitter provides an open framework for people across the world to communicate in short messages of 140 characters or less. As a user, you can sign up to follow other “tweeps,” and they in turn can decide to follow your “tweets”—these are your “followers.” Each time you post a 140 character pearl of wisdom, it is propagated around the world through this network… Continue reading Deconstructing the “Fry Event Horizon”→
It’s barely a month since Obama promised to “restore science to its rightful place” and already there has been widespread discussion over what this rightful place might be—spurred on in no small part by science and technology provisions in the recently passed stimulus bill. Not surprisingly, the role science should play in 21st century society has been an important part of this discussion. And one of the more insightful pieces has come from Harvard professor Sheila Jasanoff, writing for Seed Magazine… Continue reading Science, society and the Second Enlightenment→
I’ve been sitting here for over half an hour, trying to work out how to start this blog in an engaging and witty way, but have failed miserably—it’s been a long day! Instead, let me come straight to the point, because it’s quite a simple one—please read Sir Robert Winston’s article “Why turning out brilliant scientists isn’t enough” in this week’s New Scientist. It’s one of the clearest and most compelling commentaries on the need for scientists to listen to and engage with members of the public that I have read for some time.
OK, I guess I should say a little more—that is after all a rather terse opening paragraph!
Reading through the various science and technology offerings on the web this morning, I was struck by a conversation between Houston Chronicle reporter Eric Berger and Neal Lane, former National Science Foundation director and science advisor to President Clinton. Not surprisingly, towards the top of the conversation is President Obama’s commitment to “restore science to its rightful place” and what this might mean. But before this, Neal raises something that he has championed for many years now, and one that I suspect is more than ready for a new lease of life as science and policy come together under the new administration to tackle a tough portfolio of challenges—the concept of the civic scientist.
Civic scientists—according to Lane—are those scientists and engineers who “step beyond their campuses, laboratories, and institutes and into the center of their communities to engage in active dialogue with their fellow citizens.” This is more than science communication; it’s a two-way dialogue between people who generate knowledge, and people are impacted by that knowledge—whether in the decisions they make, or the decisions other make.
As Barack Obama takes the oath and is inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States, many are anticipating a new era of socially relevant science and technology. Having run one of the most technologically savvy campaigns in recent times—possibly ever—Obama’s transition teams continued to break new ground in using technology up open up the process of government. And throughout the campaign and transition, there has been an emphasis on scientific integrity, and using science and technology in the service of society.
The trick is going to be to maintain this momentum in the new administration. Obama has surrounded himself with a top-notch group of science and technology advisors, and this, combined with a desire to get science and technology back on track, bodes well for the new Presidency. As BBC News reported this morning, scientists are optimistic that Obama has what it takes to reposition science and technology within government and society. And yesterday’s USA Today noted that “Scientists are hopeful that Obama, who has called for increased research spending, will bring a new dawn [to science].”
Public engagement was a key feature in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and has been front and foremost in the transition between the old administration and the new. You only have to check out change.gov to see how ideas are evolving on soliciting and evaluating opinions from a broad swath of the population. The latest is the “Citizens Briefing Book”—top-rated ideas from everyday people, to be delivered to Obama after he is sworn in.
This emphasis on open government, citizen engagement, and the use of enabling web-based technology, is expected to spill over to the new administration big-time. And as it does, the public discourse will inevitably encompass science and technology—it already has on the incoming administration’s website. But this raises serious questions: How do you pull people from all walks of life into conversations about science and technology—which are often complex—and how do you empower them to participate in making effective and influential decisions?
“for public input and outreach to be integrated into the [National Nanotechnology] Program by the convening of regular and ongoing public discussions, through mechanisms such as citizens’ panels, consensus conferences, and educational events, as appropriate.”
This resulted in two academic Centers for Nanotechnology and Society being established—one at Arizona State University and another at the University of California Santa Barbara. But apart from the research conducted by these centers, there has been little in the way of true public engagement on nanotechnology in the US, in terms of enabling citizens to enter a two-way dialogue with decision-makers.
Here’s a bit of trivia to brighten your day: Between 2000 and 2007, Chinese scientists published roughly one nanotoxicology paper for every ten million people in the country. In contrast, US scientists published twenty-five nanotoxicology papers for every ten million citizens.
Except that you can’t—unless you subscribe to the Journal of Nanoparticle Research, or work somewhere that does. Or you are willing to fork out $34.00 for the paper.
Since leaving the lab nearly four years ago, my empathy with those without ready access to the scientific literature has grown. With the exception of a pitifully small handful of publications I subscribe to, I now have to beg copies of interesting-looking papers from better-connected colleagues. And I’m not alone in this… Continue reading Scientific knowledge, and the “pay to play” culture→
In 2003, Harvard University’s Sheila Jasanoff wrote about what she termed “Technologies of Humility.” Recognizing the growing disconnect between technological progress and its effective governance, Jasanoff explored new approaches to decision-making that “seek to integrate the ‘can-do’ orientation of science and engineering with the ‘should-do’ questions of ethical and political analysis.” Five years on, her (still radical) ideas resonate deeply with the science and technology ambitions of the incoming Obama administration.
Sitting down this morning, I had intended to write about three papers recently published on-line in the journal Nature Nanotechnology. The papers (by Kahan et al., Pidgeon et al. and Sheufele et al.)—which were widely reported on a few weeks back—consider factors influencing “public” responses to nanotechnology, and challenge long-held beliefs that knowledge leads to acceptance.
However, I became distracted! Searching for an original frame for these studies, I returned to Jasanoff’s 2003 paper “Technologies of Humility: Citizen participation in governing Science,” published in the journal Minerva (Minerva 41:223-244). Reading it, I was struck afresh by how germane Jasanoff’s ideas are, how completely they seemed to have been ignored in US policy making, and how important they are to the science and technology agenda of the incoming Obama administration.
Rather than read a re-hash from me of what is an eloquently written and very accessible paper, I would strongly recommend you pour yourself a glass of good wine (a cup of coffee or fine tea will do just as well), carve out some quality time, and read the original—which is downloadable from here [PDF, 120 KB]. It is after all the holiday season, and what better than a good read to fill the long hours before the grind of work begins once again!
Obama and science – Essential bed-time reading for the next Administration
Finally, the campaigning is over, everyone knows more about fruit flies than they ever wanted to (thank you Sarah Palin), and on an historic day America has “voted for change.” As the country looks forward to a radical change in leadership, the coming weeks are going to be wall-to-wall analysis of what an Obama administration will mean for everything from the economy to energy. And 2020science.org will be there in the thick of things. But after a heavy night of vote-watching, I thought something a little lighter was in order.
So here as an antidote to election fatigue are five good books every “convalescing campaigner” should have by their bedside as they work on regaining their strength. And as you might expect, I’ve thrown in a subtle but nevertheless significant emphasis on good science policy. Continue reading Five good books→
With just over a week to go before the 2008 US presidential election, there’s no shortage of opinions floating around on the key science and technology-related challenges facing an incoming Obama or McCain administration. But while advice swirls around issues like nanotechnology, synthetic biology, the environment, and establishing a top-level presidential science adviser as fast as possible, there is less talk about overarching goals that will underpin the science and technology policy agenda for the next four years… Continue reading Five slightly harder pieces—underpinning sound science policy→
Providing a clear perspective on developing science and technology responsibly