Scientists: anti-political and arrogant?

The climate change movement may well be correct in their argument that every year counts in changing global processes. But in past years that has served as an excuse for not building the slow and remorseless mass campaign, deploying all the campaigning skills and rhetoric of older progressive campaigns (much of which, in style anyway, is being used by the anti-climate-change group). It has to abandon the idea that truth somehow communicates itself.

It’s fitting that this argument – by Crikey columnist and person-who-my-wife-accuses-me-of-having-a-man-crush-on Guy Rundle – came almost simultaneously with a recent national policy forum held by Universities Australia at Parliament House. Entitled ‘Climate Change: Bridging Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy‘, the forum was yet another in a series of disappointing events that singularly failed to bridge any gaps between science and society and between science and policy.

There were, of course, excellent speakers talking about excellent science in the forum; skilled presenters who could talk about the evidence for climate change and the great multiplicity of its effects. Anthony Hogan talked of some fascinating work the National Centre for Population Health and Epidemiology at ANU are doing on the mental health impacts of climate change; Jenny McAlister of the NSW Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water talked of how action is being taken in NSW government policy; Amanda Lynch of Geography and Environment at Monash University spoke intelligently on the scope for action that is available to us.

Yet despite what was on the whole interesting, excellent science, the forum gave the overall impression of what Rundle described in his eerily synchronous column as ‘elitist arrogance’:

… the great flaw in the climate change movement has been an elitist arrogance that is, at its worst, anti-political. Some of that is due to the asocial political naivete of scientists — ‘I mean, it’s obvious, why are these people being so stupid’ — some of it is due to the technocratic spirit of the age, whereby something is seen as a mere technical problem to be fixed, and some of it is due to the fact that the abstract/systemic nature of climate change ideas are most easily accepted by people trained in abstract-systemic thinking.

In essence, the forum was dominated by the idea of scientists asserting their priorities, devoid of any semblance of listening to the issues faced by politicians, journalists, or the public at large.  It was asserted, for example, that science should take the dominant lead in the policy formation process; that other sectors of society (journalists, politicians, the public) were obliged to accept and respect the knowledge of scientists. It was argued that the most important thing at hand was defending the place of science in society; it was argued that the public should respect the wonders of the peer review system.

Don’t get me wrong – I heard a lot of interesting and useful ideas at the forum. But I’m on the team. If we want to build a solution to the effects of climate change, then we’re going to have to stop preaching to the choir. Indeed, we’re going to have to stop preaching and start listening. We need to be open and transparent about how science is done, and we need to engage with everyone that will be affected by climate change in ways that matter to them.

Have a read Guy Rundle’s column. There’s a lot there we can use.

Images by flickr user Gora Gray and Snap Man, used under a Creative Commons license.

The bigger picture: where is the all disciplines conference for Australia?

What is the role of big interdisciplinary conferences? What do events like the recently held annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) provide?

If they are of value, should we reinvigorate something like this in Australia?

A recent Nature editorial has discussed general science conferences, arguing that these conferences allow researchers from various backgrounds – as well as policy-makers, stakeholders and citizens – to come together to discuss issues of broad public import that cut across disciplinary boundaries. Indeed, the editorial suggests that “for researchers wishing to enhance their awareness of the bigger issues and of other disciplines,” these meetings are a gift.

Australia doesn’t presently have such a forum. Yet it used to, and it should have one again.

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Utility: Measuring the Quality of Science

Modern scholarly production runs on the idea that the output of scientists and other researchers should contribute directly to the rewards those people receive. Put simply, academic rewards should be distributed according to the merits of academic work. All in all, fair enough.

Yet current methods of assessing the output of academics – based overwhelmingly on the citation rates of standard journal publications – have been widely criticised as manifestly inequitable and inadequate. As Kent Anderson has asked,

Does scientific attention — as expressed through citations, media coverage, or practitioner knowledge — accrue to quality or reward the real contributors of breakthroughs? Or does attention in scientific publishing create a closed loop? …

One reality of the attention economy in science is the Matthew Effect, named after a Biblical passage and popularized in 1968 by Robert K. Merton. Basically, it’s the “rich get richer” premise that once you start winning, you keep accruing benefits.

This is a well-studied phenomenon for citations. Once an article gets cited, it keeps getting cited. Once an article gets overlooked, it can disappear forever.

Though many have argued that the flaw with this system lies in the method of measurement, I think that current measurements of academic output rest on a flawed metaphor. This metaphor can be presented something like this: Continue reading

Taking science to the people is key

Sue Stocklmayer

The head of the nation’s oldest academic science communication centre has welcomed a new national report calling for a greater emphasis on making science relevant to more Australians.

The Inspiring Australia report on communicating science in Australia was released by the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Senator Kim Carr, at The Australian National University on the 8th of February 2010.

Associate Professor Sue Stocklmayer is Director of the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science (CPAS) at ANU. Founded in 1996, CPAS is the oldest continuing centre in Australia focusing on education and research around science communication.

“We strongly support the recommendations of the Inspiring Australia report, as well as applauding its motivating spirit,” Associate Professor Stocklmayer said. “There is no denying that science is playing a key role in some of the defining issues of our time: climate change, water and food security, and pandemic responses, to name a few. So it’s absolutely vital that there is a broad and ongoing conversation in the Australian community about scientific research and its outcomes.”

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Considering the social network for science innovation

There’s a lot of evidence these days that shows that social networks (the connections you have with your family, friends and colleagues, and more broadly with society at large) and social capital (the extent to which trust is contained within those connections) have an enormous impact on individual, organisational and societal outcomes.

It has become more and more common to apply the knowledge gained from the study of social networks and social capital to the science innovation landscape. This allows us to study the flows of science knowledge within scientific circles, between different disciplines, between scientists and policy makers, and between science and the public.

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Science and Engineering Indicators 2010

The US National Science Board has just released Science and Engineering Indicators 2010, reporting broad trends in the global science and technology landscape to 2008 (pre Global Financial Crisis).

In general, the report shows a continuation of the pattern of the last two decades: an increase in the role of research in developed and developing economies, and the emergence of Asia (and particularly China) within this landscape.  See over the fold for a few selected graphs.

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