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

Science Communicators as Thermostats

Guest post by John Raynor

Question: Why are Science Communicators like Thermostats?

Answer: Because they are both regulators

Science communicators regulate the exchange of scientific information within a community.  A thermostat regulates the temperature within an oven.

We want to affect a community, a network, a society or an audience.  The thermostat affects an oven.  We have means to do it: media, dialogue processes, social networks or presentations. The oven has a heating element.  We have a plan about what we want to share and desired outcomes.  A stove has a dial to set the desired temperature.  We measure or evaluate the actual outcomes and effects upon our community.   The oven has a thermometer.  We close the feedback loop by comparing the actual outcomes with the desired outcomes. The thermostat compares the actual temperature with the desired temperature.  Based on this comparison we modify our inputs so that eventually the desired and actual outcomes match each other, as also happens with the oven.   The science communicator manages the commination system while the thermostat regulates the oven.  These examples are part of the broad interdisciplinary field known as cybernetics. Continue reading

Non-traditional visualisations

Our recent word cloud of the Australian Science Communicators’ Conference Tweets has raised a question: what is the role of non-traditional visualisations in modern science communication?

We all know the value of graphs and maps, but what can we achieve with other visualisations, such as word clouds, network charts, flow charts and so on?  What about online only motion charts, as seen in Gapminder?

What do you like about these forms? What don’t you like? Does a word cloud or an online only motion chart have a role in an academic journal article? What are your favourite new forms of visualisation? Where do you see the future in visualisation?

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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An Atlas of Now

In recent years a dramatic shift has occurred in the collection and analysis of intelligence by government spying agencies. In addition to normal clandestine methods (cloaks and daggers and whatnot), governments around the world have come to recognise the value of ‘open source intelligence’: finding, selecting and acquiring information from publicly available sources to produce actionable intelligence.

What’s useful and cheap for governments can be useful – and attainable – for people interested in the big issues in society.

We are in the process building a system – using both established and novel open source intelligence methods – to gauge, assess and display changes in the online discussion of science and technology issues, controversies and dangerous alternate conceptions. Our goal is to develop a science communication ‘atlas of now’: revealing geographical and temporal changes in attitudes to science and technology issues throughout society. Continue reading

Queer scientists in television science fiction

The Doctor and Captain Jack HarknessThe UK’s public broadcaster the BBC has this month commissioned a study into representations of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people in its fiction and non-fiction programs (BBC News, 2010).

Of particular interest to science communicators is representations of scientists in fiction, and this study seems a timely prompt to ask: are there any queer scientist characters on telly?

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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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