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February 17, 2011

A People's Panel? No thanks. We're bigger than that

by Alice Bell

I think we should talk about science policy more. By 'we' I don’t just mean people who read blogs like this. I mean everyone.

So I was interested to see the Science Museum’s Dana Centre were hosting an event last week entitled Whose Science? The blurb promised questions like ‘Who should decide which direction research takes us and what takes priority?’ and ‘Do scientists and politicians know best, or should the public help decide?’. Tom Wakford trailed his talk with a post on Research Blogs.

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December 20, 2010

Understanding Engagement

by Alice Bell

Earlier this week a conference on Science and Citizenship took place in London, organized by the Wellcome Trust, the British Council, SciDev.Net, the Commonwealth Association and the British Science Association.

Research Fortnight's editorial suggested the conference would assess the legacy of the 1985 Bodmer report into the Public Understanding of Science (pdf). The British Council's homepage for the event promised debate over whether we had achieved a democratic model of science communication? In the end, the event seemed more like a tenth birthday party for the 2000 Lords Science and Society report.

In fact, I left the conference thinking there was very little discussion of citizenship at all. Maybe I choose the wrong workshop sessions, but people seemed most keen to talk about Geek Pop, Fame Lab and SciCast: fun with science for those who generally already find it fun, rather than anything more overtly political (not that having fun with science isn't political, or that such projects cannot be seen as a step in increased democratic engagement with science). It seemed to be largely about popular science, with some of the language of democratic involvement stuck on for decoration.

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December 02, 2010

Revolting Academics

by Alice Bell

Whilst many toasted the Spending Review as a sign that government finally realised science as “vital”, other members of the academy stared quite gloomily at what seemed like a very bleak future. At first, it seemed as if looking glum was all anyone was going to do. They might sit and deconstruct the perimeters of what is meant by a notion of “fairness” if they so wished, but the recommendations of the Browne Review seemed, in this current climate, inevitable. It was as if they either didn’t believe the implications, or had given in to it.

There was the NUS/ UCU demonstration. Its date, the 11th of November, looked pretty on placards (10/11/10) but it seemed rather late in comparison to Science is Vital, which had put together an impressive petition, lobby all before the Spending Review. It’s probably worth noting that it wasn’t just the remarkable organisation of Science Is Vital that made their campaign so successful; they were building on networks that run back to the 1980s, even earlier. The Campaign for Science and Engineering, which underpinned much of the Science is Vital action, was founded, as Save British Science back in 1986. Also, in the 25 years since the “Bodmer report” on the public understanding of science, a whole industry for science communication has developed and, though it badly needs to be better, a growing cultural acceptance for engagement within the scientific community. There’s a myth that science has it hard when it comes to public engagement. Science still has huge challenges in this area, but academic humanities and social sciences can be equally abstract, if not more so and just doesn’t have the industry to help it communicate with the public which the natural sciences do.

The 11th November demo came and went, but with “student violence” dominating the public discourse on the topic. HEPI published a “devastating” critique, and Stephan Collini wrote a thoughtful piece in the London Review of Books. Still, there was little action and little debate.

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Alice Bell

Alice Bell

Alice Bell is senior teaching fellow in the Science Communication Group at Imperial College, London. She is also a visiting academic at Warwick’s Department of Sociology and does some freelance science communication.