Category: Civic Science

Public universities must do more

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, has been in the national headlines for months, culminating in its central role at a recent debate in the city when Democratic presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton slammed government officials for dismissing the health of residents. Sadly, not every marginalized community can depend on a political debate to highlight its cause. But in the absence of media frenzies and heavy-hitting politicians, to whom can beleaguered citizens turn? Before Flint’s water issues hit the big time, help arrived from two unexpected sources – Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, an assistant professor at Michigan State University and director of the Pediatric Residency Program and Hurley Medical Center, and Professor Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech. Their interventions put the Flint water crisis on the map, ultimately leading to the national attention it’s received. Hanna-Attisha and Edwards both work for large public universities. Yet it was their personal actions – not those of their institutions – that gave the citizens of Flint a voice. How much more could have been achieved if public universities themselves had spearheaded efforts to address the water crisis in Flint from the get-go? This is a question I’ve grappled with for some time – both in my current position at Arizona State University (ASU) and previously. At the University of Michigan, for instance, I led a center that sought to connect academic research on risk to ordinary people who could use it. We were successful, although the only record of that now resides on the Internet archive site Wayback Machine. Even with this success, there were many times that I felt it was despite the institution we were a part of, rather than because of it. ‘Costs of doing science’ for the public good Unfortunately, as I’ve experienced firsthand, there’s a stark disconnect

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Can citizen science empower disenfranchised communities

Early in 2015, a group calling itself the Nappy Science Gang hit the parenting scene in the U.K. It was made up of moms and dads who used cloth nappies – or diapers – with their kids, and wanted to know the best ways to keep them clean and safe. The Nappy Science Gang is part of a growing global movement toward citizens getting involved in science. Over the past few years, there’s been an explosion of opportunities for ordinary people to collect data for researchers, and sometimes help analyze it. Platforms such as Zooniverse, Scientific American and SciStarter are all helping citizens (anyone who’s part of a community, in this context) connect with scientists and get involved with the process of scientific discovery. Without doubt, the movement is enabling more people than ever before to become engaged in science and to contribute toward scientific progress. Yet in many of these citizen science projects, researchers remain firmly in the driver’s seat – asking the questions, setting the agenda and making sense of the data. They’re big on engagement, maybe not so much on empowerment – especially when it comes to issues that directly affect participants’ lives. Citizens setting the science agenda This is where the Nappy Science Gang is different. It represents an emerging trend where citizens partner with experts to do the science that’s useful to them and their community, not just someone else. Partnerships like this can have wide-reaching consequences. One question asked by the Nappy Science Gang, for instance, was: why are biological detergents not advisable for washing cloth diapers? Despite this being the advice given by organizations like the U.K. National Health Service, the group’s research findings didn’t seem to support it. So they asked one of their expert advisers for help. Unable to explain things,

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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 69 346-353, 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. George Monbiot stirred up the debate on access to scientific publications recently in his Guardian piece “Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist“.  In response, Kent Anderson – a long-time publisher and editor of scientific journals – set up this straw scenario, using it to justify limited access to journal publications:

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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. If you are interested in finding out more, check

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2020 Science is something of a labor of love – it’s a website where I explore my thoughts and ideas surrounding the interface between science, technology and society beyond the constraints of my “day job” (currently Chief Science Advisor to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson Center).  I like to think I bring a balanced and, on a good day, sophisticated perspective to the stuff I write about.  So I was intrigued and just a little taken aback when Jim Thomas at ETC Group, recently pointed out that, actually, I’m quite obviously flying the flag for the established pro-technology innovation camp.

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I sat down this morning to write a light-hearted blog about the UK government’s “Science: So what? So everything” campaign.  The angle was going to be: Why write about this when people want to read about this? But the more I dug around, the more apparent it became that this is an initiative that seems to have lost its way – and in need of more than a cheap quip about substance (ab)use…

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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…

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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…

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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].” Of course, realizing the promise of a new scientific dawn will not be easy…

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2020 Science is published by Andrew Maynard - Director of the Risk Innovation Lab at Arizona State University. More ... 

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