Well it’s that time of year – the time where if you email an academic, chances are you will get an out of office response. It’s not business time – those aren’t business socks, they are conference socks! It’s conference … Continue reading
Last week on Wednesday the 19th March, I got the chance to attend an event called ‘Voice of the Future’ that allows early-career researchers and students to ask questions about science policy directly to the politicians who make the decisions. This event happens every year as a part of National Science and Engineering Week and draws student representatives of some of the largest scientific societies in Britain. I was asked to be a representative for the Geological Society, and I couldn’t have been more excited! Especially as it seems like so much happens behind closed doors that the ‘air of mystery’ is more of a fog…!
All those who attended had the opportunity to ask a question of the ‘witnesses’ (who would normally have been scientists, economists, etc; but this time were the politicians) and although there were far too many questions submitted than could possibly be asked, most of us at least got a chance to sit at the round table, just like in a real select committee meeting. One of the funny things was that you could be assigned a question asked by someone else, which was a little confusing, especially as you then didn’t necessarily know the background to the question. The questions ranged from public perceptions of scientists, to government funding, to evidence based policy making, and were split into four sessions, each with different witnesses.
The meeting was chaired by Victoria Charlton, from the Select Committee for Science and Technology and the meeting was opened by the Speaker of the House of Commons: John Bercow. Mr Bercow started the meeting by welcoming all the participants, but saying that he had had no interest in science at school – that it frightened him. I’m always saddened when I hear of a subject frightening a person – when knowledge and curiosity are something that is scary; I feel that’s when something has gone really wrong in that person’s educational experience. However, he moved on to say that he now thinks science is an important part of a rounded education (which is true!). He also moved on to describe the two types of politician according to the late Tony Benn; signposts (who have a fixed opinion and never change it) and weathercocks (who have no opinion at all). I was a bit concerned that these were described as the only types of politician as I would much rather have a politician with an opinion, but who was willing to change it in the face of good evidence, but maybe that’s just me!
We were then introduced to the first session of the day, with our witness Sir Mark Walport, the current Government Chief Scientific Advisor. Sir Mark answered questions on medical technology, Care.data, gender equality in science, the UK’s role in the international scientific community, evidence based policy and how to become Chief Science Advisor. The first question he was asked was about how to tackle the current negative perception of science and scientists, which he answered with my favourite quote of the day:
“You talk about the public understanding of science, but it’s equally important that scientists understand the public as well and so I think we are in a world where we need a public engagement actually – it’s about a two way conversation between the scientific community and all the publics.”
He then proceeded to refer to the recently published Public Attitudes to Science (PAS) survey which highlighted that actually the public don’t seem to perceive science and scientists negatively at all – quite the opposite in fact! This kind of question was repeated in the second session as well, which led me to think firstly that maybe scientists have a defensive view of how we are perceived by the public and also possibly that not many of the question askers were aware of the PAS study (either the most recent one, or any of its previous versions) as this seemed an unusual point to be labouring.
Another question Sir Mark was asked was:
“Do you think the media is dangerously irresponsible in the way that it reports on scientific topics?”
His answer to this was really interesting in my opinion, as he said that perhaps it wasn’t that the media was dangerously irresponsible, but more ‘dangerously variable’. That we can’t think of the media as a single element, and that some reporters work hard and are very effective. He also noted that it ‘takes two to tango’ that scientists must not ‘over claim’ and beware of their data being sensationalised.
The second session was with members of the Science and Technology Committee; Andrew Miller, Pamela Nash, David Tredinnick, David Heath, Stephen Metcalfe, Sarah Newton and Jim Dowd. This was very interesting as the panel format gave rise to more of a debate between witnesses and also created my second favourite quote of the day. In response to the question:
“How important is it that the general public understand the true value of the medicines that they take and have the opportunity to have a say on this?”
David Tredinnick brought up the subject of homeopathic medicine in response to this question, but I couldn’t help but think that this was TOTALLY the wrong crowd for that. I mean you are speaking to a room full of early careers researchers, who in many cases have had to fight and claw for the little funding they have managed to secure and they are researchers representing the Society of Biology, the Biochemical Society, the Society for Applied Microbiology, the British Pharmacological Society, the Society for Endocrinology, the Campaign for Science and Engineering – and the rest who may not have been medical researchers, but still tend toward the skeptical end of the spectrum!! Still David Heath stepped in with the brilliant reply:
“I feel like I’m being drawn into an argument I don’t want to have, I just prefer evidence rather than… magic.”
You could tell that his response went down well in the room! Other questions asked in this session related to the Haldane principle, the science curriculum, nuclear reactors, access to scientific information, what researchers can do to become more engaged with Parliament, GM crops and evidence based policy. The panel were also asked:
“What single major scientific discovery would you hope to see in your lifetime?”
The answers were varied and interesting, from room temperature superconductivity, issues around resistance to antibiotics and deep space exploration. David Tredinnick suggested electricity transmitted ‘through the ether’, and whilst David Heath initially plugged for supermarket packaging that you could actually open, he actually wanted to see medical tri-corders invented (extra points for the Star Trek reference). Stephen Metcalfe wanted a better understanding of the origins of disease and Andrew Miller finished with a big picture wish – to better learn how to manage the limited resources of our planet.
The witness for the third panel was Liam Byrne, the Shadow Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills. He answered questions on life science investment, evidence based policy, Scotland’s potential independence, MP’s access to scientific advice and retention of young scientists and engineers. He also answered the question:
“If the Government’s ambition to obtain highly skilled professionals from all backgrounds was real, would the first step not be to extend student loan funding to Masters level students, enabling a greater number of students to undertake professional postgraduate study?”
Mr Byrnes answer was yes, as he understood now that in some fields in order to distinguish yourself you need to have postgraduate study, and that we cannot leave our workforce’s career development in the hands of the large banking corporations.
The fourth session was attended by David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science – who was late. When he did arrive, he was quite short with his answers (and I understand that it was Budget Day, but a) I think that applied to everyone else as well and b) if he was too busy he should have just said no), but answered on the topics of science teachers, the focus of funding research, the privatisation of NERC research centres, encouraging diversity, development of space technology, immigration and the skilled researcher brain drain.
The meeting was concluded by Andrew Miller saying that whilst the meeting was a good start, it was incumbent upon us to keep in contact – tell our MP’s about our research, send in evidence for consideration and to keep talking about policy that we value.
“We need your help” he said, and of course, he is right.
So I know this was a long post, but I think it was worth it. The photographs were used by kind permission of the Society of Biology (contact Dr Rebecca Nesbit) and if you want to see the meeting, the video of the session is avalible here.
Last week I attended a training session on science communication and one of the things we discussed was the value of truly representing what a scientist is and does. Part of this was the idea that the public is never going to be interested in scientists, because they are boring. Now whether we should give up on communicating just because we don’t think people are interested is another matter, but this idea of scientists being boring as off-putting is something that I found quite interesting. Is science boring? And should we only communicate something when it is interesting?
As a PhD student, I am right of the thick of scientific research – ok so mine is a combination of psychology and geology – but still, I go through the daily grind of reading journal articles, collecting or generating data, analysing said data and preparing it for review, be it as a part of a report, article or presentation. In my last data analysis phase I ‘cleaned’ just over 4,500 words for a thematic analysis of people’s first words that they associate with ‘geology’. I thematically coded the data, then quantified the number of occurrences of each word and calculated the dominant trends.
What that means is I started out by going through all the words that were submitted for my survey. I checked them all to make sure that they were spelled correctly and if I couldn’t work out what word they should be, I flagged them for attention later. I took out the incomplete datasets; where people hadn’t answered all the questions (because an incomplete set could change the way my data calculated the statistics) and the ones where the respondent was clearly taking the mickey. I then looked through the words to see if there were any themes; any words that represented the same ideas that could be grouped together, and counted the number of times those themes were mentioned. I then went through and calculated how many times each individual word was mentioned and looked at which were the most common. Then I split up the data by some of the other information I had been given, whether people thought they had experience of geology or not, their gender and what their educational level was and ran those tests again. I then looked at all these results and tried to work out what they were telling me.
And that’s just the data analysis!
Was it boring? Well I can tell you that whilst I was going through it my answer to that question would have been YES. When you have read the word ‘rocks’ for the 2,378th time, you start to wish for a magic wand to do all this data analysis for you. But despite the repetition and unending lists of information, I wouldn’t give up doing the data analysis myself, because what you get with reading it all yourself are the really interesting little sparkles in the data that you didn’t know were there. The seeds of discovery. I don’t even know what the discovery will be yet and I can feel it fizzing away in the back of my mind every time I see a surprising word or trend. Why would someone use a word like ‘strata’ rather than ‘layers’? Are the different ways that people represent time important? Does the fact that volcanoes are mentioned a lot refer to the influence of the media or formal school education? Or something else entirely!?!
It’s exciting. And having to go through the boring bit makes the little flashes of exciting even more thrilling! I suppose the thing is with discovery is that quite often you have to walk for days hacking through the jungle before you spot the swirling cloud of orange monarch butterflies, or look through thousands of pebbles on the beach before you spot the corner of bone that turns out to be a new species of dinosaur.
Discovery is very rarely something you can do without a bit of drudgery and mind-numbing effort and I think this is an important story to tell. Science isn’t all explosions, vaccinations and rules of the universe. Most of it is slow and steady – you have a question you want answered and the answer might take years, or centuries to come, or it might never be found at all. This is why some research might not seem to have a point; if the question is very specific or hard to answer it might look like someone is burying their life in useless information. A lot of people might even say that was a waste of time, but I can think of at least one very good reason that it’s not.
As a species one of the few characteristics that define us, in my opinion, is curiosity. We are explorers, questioners, challengers, discoverers – we want to know why, how deep, which way, when, with who and she said what?! As children, we are constantly questioning (some children very persistently – how many of us were the ‘why, but why, but why, but why?’ child?!) and we don’t mind if the answer takes a little bit of digging, sometimes literally, to achieve.
In our adult world immediacy becomes everything. Time is money, don’t you know and if a question takes too long to answer it is thought that we won’t wait for the solution. TV shows present scientific concepts as done deals; the climax of what, behind the scenes, may have been years of painstaking work. Newspapers encapsulate discoveries into sound bites. And scientists are just as much as fault as those attempting to tell the stories; many scientists will not disseminate information about their research until it is published in order to keep priority on the discovery. Science communicators look for the most exciting story to tell, to ‘hook’ people in to listening.
When you communicate your research before it is completed, it is called ‘upstreaming’. Upstreaming tells the story of the science method rather than the science facts. It’s the story of how most of the discoveries we value were made – not with a whizz-bang, but with tedium and effort. So yes, my research is sometimes boring. And sometimes it’s exciting and sometimes I have to dance round my office with the joy of what I see being revealed in my data.
Don’t dismiss boring; if you head upstream you might just make a discovery of your own.