Monday, 25 February 2013

STEPS Seminar this Wednesday: climate and resettlement in Mozambique

This week's STEPS Centre seminar will be with Alex Arnall of the University of Reading. Alex will discuss how, in one area of Mozambique, narratives about adapting to climate change are being used to justify the resettlement of farmers to higher, less fertile ground. Event details are here.

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Wednesday, 20 February 2013

What role does the scientific community have in post-2015 debates?

ECOSOC, from unisgeneva's photostream on Flickr
by Pedro Telles, MA student, Institute of Development Studies

Those who work in the development field currently find themselves in tricky debates around the future of the MDGs, the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Post-2015 framework as a whole. Having to deal with numerous disjointed and confusing processes, hundreds of meetings, and an astounding amount of information, it has been hard to dedicate enough time for proper reflection, analysis and planning.

Fortunately, the STEPS Centre Symposium helped to shed light on the role of science in this important moment for the future of development.

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Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Fear of flying: the uneasy marriage of numbers and risk

STEPS Centre co-director Prof Andy Stirling has written an article for the Guardian's new blog, Political Science, about how using numbers to communicate risk can create a false sense of certainty.

The new Guardian blog offers insights into the interaction of science and politics, with guest posts and regular contributions from Alice Bell, Kieron Flanagan, Jessica Bland, Mariana Mazzucato, Jack Stilgoe and James Wilsdon.

Andy Stirling: Fear of flying and the hazards of communicating risk (The Guardian, 14 February 2013)

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Thursday, 14 February 2013

STEPS Symposium 2013: S is for Society

Susan Owens.
Photo: Lance Bellers
Guest blog by Sandra Pointel, Doctoral researcher, SPRU

The last session of the STEPS Symposium on Credibility Across Cultures was promising. Its focus on “power, plurality and uncertainty” promised to shed light on how to open up expert advice, improve the governance of the science and technology decision-making process and engage with the wider public, all recurrent themes throughout the two day event.

The presence of some surprise participants - a group of students concerned with the current wave of privatisation and its impact on education - gave further resonance to speakers’ calls for opening up expert advice and allow questions to be asked by all voices. Don’t get me wrong: the debate was not about privatisation either at the University of Sussex or within the wider education system in the UK. But the participation of newcomers to the high-level discussions on scientific advice for sustainability offered an interesting curtain raiser to explore power and the role of social movements in widening a debate that has mainly taken place in closed circles of scientists and policy-makers.

When faced with uncertainty, power and plurality matters, Professor Andy Stirling, STEPS Centre co-director, reminded the audience.
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Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Contested agronomy: low-level evidence, high-level claims

 Demonstrating 'impact' has become a strong imperative for those involved in agricultural research. But this pressure has led to some large-scale claims for techniques that have only been tested at farm level.

Techniques like Conservation Agriculture (CA) and the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), for example, have shown much promise in experimental trails. But is the 'success' of some techniques being over-stretched when it is applied at the scale of countries or continents?

In a post on the Future Agricultures Consortium (FAC) blog, STEPS member Jim Sumberg examines the risks of this trend, and how such claims come to be accepted among researchers and farmers.

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STEPS Symposium 2013: Beyond Rio+20 - Improving global structures for scientific advice

Lidia Brito.
Photo: Lance Bellers
Guest blog by Ruth Segal, Doctoral Researcher, SPRU
In recent years, global initiatives have attempted to co-ordinate scientific advice and assessments – on climate change, biodiversity and agriculture, among other topics. The second day of the STEPS Symposium on the global politics of scientific advice opened with a panel looking at these global structures.

Prof Ian Scoones, co-director of the STEPS Centre, introduced the session by asking how assessments should be organised; who is included, who decides and what are the underlying politics?

The two panellists, Prof Lidia Brito, director of UNESCO’s science policy division, and Prof Sir Robert Watson, former Chief Scientific Advisor for DEFRA, drew from their extensive experience to address the question of what makes for effective and successful international engagement between scientific advice and policy making.
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Tuesday, 12 February 2013

STEPS Symposium 2013: Science and developing countries - whose expertise counts?

Dipak Gyawali at the symposium.
Photo: Lance Bellers
Guest blog by Rachael Taylor, PhD student, SPRU

The second session of the STEPS Symposium on the global politics of scientific advice asked 'whose expertise counts?'

In his opening comments, Professor Brian Wynne (University of Lancaster) turned this question around by asking "whose questions count?" He described how sheep farmers in the UK asked relevant questions of scientific advisers and made observations following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster (as discussed in his paper from 1992). Prof Wynne explained that in this context the questions and observations from farmers were largely ignored by scientists.

This analogy made me think of farmers in a very different, developing-world context. Read more

Anne Glover on science advice in Europe

The STEPS Centre's symposium on the global politics of science advice looked at how evidence informs decision-making. The speakers included Prof Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Adviser to the President, European Commission, who gave a public keynote lecture at the end of day 1.

Under the title "What is the right balance between respecting evidence and living in the real world?", she spoke about how scientific advice structures operate in the EU.

Here's the video of her lecture, which included questions from the audience:

You can also view Prof Glover's slides, as well as those of the other speakers, on the STEPS Centre website. Read more

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

#steps13 social media roundup

Following Alice Bell’s insightful post on the recent history of social media and science campaigns, I had quick look at our symposium speakers’ online profiles (the full list of speakers is here).

I’ve shepherded their Twitter profiles and blogs together into the list below. Looking down the list, there are plenty of opportunities to engage.
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From MDGs to SDGs: aspirations, evidence and diversity in setting global goals

By Adrian Ely, STEPS Centre Head of Impact and Engagement

This week’s STEPS Centre Annual Symposium will be looking at the tensions between scientific advice and policy-making across international borders.  I’ll be chairing a session on the Thursday morning that will hear the views of leading development experts on the role of aspirations, evidence and diversity in the post-2015 international development agenda.

A couple of weeks ago, the uses of evidence in development decision-making were debated in a great set of posts on Oxfam’s blog ‘From Poverty to Power’, written and maintained by Duncan Green.  My colleague Nathan Oxley gave an overview of the debate in a blogpost last week .  To some extent looking through the other end of the telescope, Thursday’s session will be about how political aspirations can be turned into measurable goals and targets (upon which evidence can later be built).  Defining the directions of development that we desire (what Jeff Sachs recently called “writing the future”) will be a complex interplay between technical and political considerations.

The Millennium Development Goals were crafted over years of debate amongst a relatively small number of (primarily donor) actors around the OECD’s development assistance committee (DAC).  The DAC’s 1996 report ‘Shaping the 21st Century’ proclaimed “we believe that a few specific goals will help to clarify the vision of a higher quality of life for all people, and will provide guideposts against which progress toward that vision can be measured.”  As a baseline for donors to focus their efforts and measure their impacts, the resulting goals have played an important role.
The post-2015 international development framework, including discussions around ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ is already involving a far larger and more diverse range of actors and interests than its predecessor.  Participation in goal-setting is being emphasised and welcomed as part of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon’s high level panel of eminent persons (co-chaired by David Cameron).  The Participate initiative co-ordinated by colleagues at IDS and Beyond2015 and the MyWorld survey are just two approaches that are opening up this process in very different ways. The Overseas Development Institute is now tracking proposed goals.  The ONE campaign is running an SMS-based exercise in Southern Africa, and in a recent report argued that the outputs of this and other ground-level initiatives should be included in the High Level Panel’s report.

The UN Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals that was set up following Rio+20 comprises 30 members (countries across the world including traditional ‘donors’, emerging economies and some of the poorest).  In his initial input to this group, Ban Ki Moon wrote “overall, the SDGs should seek to envision a more holistic and integrated agenda for advancing human well-being that is equitable across individuals, populations and generations; and that achieves universal human development while respecting the Earth’s ecosystems and critical life support systems. Strengthening the interface between science and policy can contribute to defining one set of appropriate goals, targets and indicators of the post-2015 development agenda.”

But how do we begin to come up with one set of goals, targets and indicators for global sustainable development?  Should we focus on absolute poverty as the MDGs did, or adopt a focus on equity, targeting and measuring relative poverty – and if so, at national or international levels?  In education, do we focus on ‘bums on seats’ (easier to measure) or educational quality and – our real aspiration – learning amongst girls and boys in primary schools around the world?  Beyond attending to the needs and wants of poor communities around the world, how do we ascertain the accurate and appropriate emphasis on environmental objectives?  Can science form the basis of such decisions and if so which environmental targets and impacts do we prioritise?  Absolute resource use, pollution or biodiversity loss, or alternatively energy-, resource- or carbon-intensity (of economic growth)? 

Whilst various earth system science frameworks (for example around planetary boundaries) offer guidance at the international level, decisions around SDGs will need to address diverse local perspectives and be flexible enough to allow prioritisation and implementation at national levels.  Scientific evidence and advice can help us to make these decisions, but at the base of them are political value judgements that should be influenced by, and accountable to, citizens.

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Monday, 4 February 2013

Science policy, social media and skepticism

Science is Vital protest outside the Treasury, 2010
By Alice Bell, Research Fellow, SPRU - Science and Technology Policy Research
The Royal Institution is up for sale. There are many interesting things about the fuss this has caused. One of which is that Harry Kroto has taken to Twitter.

It’s what happens now when scientists get angry. Social media is increasingly playing a role in science policy campaigns: All Trials Registered, All Results Reported (or the more 140c friendly alltrails), the anti-anti-GM Don't Destroy Research, homeopathy-awareness project or the pro-funding Science is Vital being just a few notable examples. It's an interesting development which, as scholars of the field, we should look at in more detail. From a more normative point of view, we might also welcome it as a sign of a greater openness in lobbying around science; making it more scrutinizable, more accountable and possibly more able to learn from a broader, more diverse, set of perspectives. Still, there are reasons to be skeptical and critical of such practices too.

In particular, I think it’s striking that although many of the online science policy campaigns have a grassroots-y feel to them, a sense of public voice, they are promoting rather traditional top-down expressions of scientific expertise. This in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but certainly worth noticing. In response to some of the online environmental activism around Rio, I argued that – counter to John Vidal’s claim that the end of fossil fuel subsidies and Save the Arctic campaigns were “eye-catching global bottom-up initiatives” – they were more about enumerating the actors of public relations than diffusing political power. I think the same critique could be leveled at a lot of the science policy activity here too.

It's not exactly new. I dug out my notes for a talk I gave on the topic at 2010  Science Online London conference (read text version and comment thread on the blogpost I wrote at the time. There had been a lot of social media activity around the election a few months previous to that talk, largely coalescing around the twitter hashtag “scivote”. I stressed that as a hashtag, it was a hyperlink: clicking on it connected people to others who are using it. It’s a form of what used to be called a folksonomy but is maybe too slippery and playful for such taxonomic comparison. It connected people to events, information, ideas, debates and, quite simply, other people. It let individuals develop knowledge and interest and fostered community.

Yes, the connections were largely a matter of people who  agreed with each other and arguably there was a rather limited view of what the sci in scivote might amount to. Identifying “science friendly” MPs, simply asking for reassurance of continued funding or labeling a policy “anti science” felt like a simplistic game of goodies and baddies which belies the subtitles of science in British society. Still, it helped connect individual grumbles to build a larger (albeit still small) movement which was slightly more diverse than usual actors of the science lobby: Post-docs, or more senior scientists who had only had a passing interest in policy before. I think it’s fair to say that a lot of people learnt from the experience, even if they didn’t necessarily change their mind about much.

We also have to remember how much of a role much less public lobbying plays, even around and applying these online campaigns. Science is Vital gradually gathered expertise and steam from a few tweets and blogposts, resulting in a protest outside the Treasury just before the comprehensive spending review and the delivery of a petition to Downing Street. Although David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science, credited the campaign with helping him make the case for continued science funding, we should be careful of reading too much into a story of grass roots activism. It's true that not everyone involved in the campaign was a professional scientist and even those who were scientists weren't necessarily the usual science lobby faces. However, many were well connected (the original blogpost was hosted on Nature Network) and they quickly picked up the profile and political expertise of former MP Evan Harris as well as the infrastructure of the Campaign for Science and Engineering. They were also working alongside and on top of months, if not years, of work on the issue

That's not to say Science Is Vital had no impact, it arguably let the more traditional lobbyist express a constituency that cared about these issues. That's powerful political rhetoric; why Willetts would mention it, even if it wasn't true. I think that's how we can see some of the recent Sense About Science campaigns too; they have no particular interest in canvassing opinion, but they do want to find ways to show that there are large numbers of the public who might not be activists on the topic, but do care. We might add things like the 38 degrees badger cull campaign here too, though it doesn't seem to be running from the scientific community in the same way. I'm not sure if we'd therefore say it was different or not. Similarly we might ask if and how we might productively compare Don't Destroy Research with Save the Arctic.

I'm also not sure if this is something to complain about, other than recognize grass roots campaigns and PR for what they are, but most people in the field are canny enough to do that (John Vidal’s post-Rio comments not withstanding). I’m personally not necessarily against this sort of PR either. Opening up science policy may still be a good thing, and it may still be facilitated by social media, but I don't think we are there yet.
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