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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