I’m pretty excited about this – Rebecca and I just published our first paper in social-science speak with our co-author, Joanna Goven, who is well-established in this field. Much of it is spent talking about how we (sciencey folk) don’t understand social sciencey speak and therefore ignore it (which, we argue is not a good thing. Once you understand it, it’s actually quite illuminating.). Here’s the abstract:
Calls for greater public engagement with science (PES) are widespread, but there appears to be little agreement on the meaning and purpose of engagement across the various actors calling for it. This reflects a persistent gulf between PES scholars and scientists communicating with the public. We argue that direct engagement between PES scholars and scientist-communicators could, by facilitating greater reflexivity, lead to a step-change in the calibre and clarity of activities that are designed to support enhanced public engagement with science and technology. In this paper, we, as authors beginning from different perspectives, explore the potential of, and barriers to, a conversation between critical social scientists and members of the science community about public engagement. We demonstrate how and why the PES literature does not “speak for itself” to scientists but provides a starting point for conversation rather than a substitute for it. We then explore what reflexivity might mean for PES and argue for three important foci: political-economic context or politics of the field; institutional context; and personal assumptions. We then discuss barriers to, as well as strategies for, fostering such reflexivity, concluding that new models of authorship and publication are needed if this promise is to be fulfilled.
Probably my favourite quote from the paper (Rebecca and I being referred to as the science writer and scientist, respectively) is:
The process of exploring our differing understandings and assumptions of science, and the literature surrounding public engagement with science, highlighted common terms in social science literature that were initially either misunderstood or entirely nonsensical to the scientist and science writer. Half-jokingly, one of them asked, with specific reference to the terms “reflexivity” and “praxis”, “can you just stick an x in the middle to make it sound clever and social-sciencey?” It is with some irony, therefore, that we now find ourselves collectively writing a paper that explores reflexivity.
There were three authors on this paper: myself, Rebecca, and Joanna Goven – without whom we wouldn’t have been able to write this at all. In fact, it’s due to Joanna that this paper, and my thinking around this subject at all, even exists.
A few years ago, when I was working on New Zealand IceFest, I was deeply frustrated, and not a little befuddled, about the fact that so many scientists who I work with invest so much time and effort into outreach activities with very little professional reward or recognition. I wanted to know why this was, and so sought out a social scientist’s help: Joanna.
I liked Joanna immediately. She has a big laugh and warm smile and welcomed my naïve inquiries – not the icy reception I was expecting from my uninformed perception of what a social scientist might be like. At first conversation, it seemed she was interested in the same things as me – the motivations for scientists to communicate. But rapidly, we realised that she suspected scientists of not necessarily having the same lofty and world-changing motivations as I did. Her background, you see, was in GMO science, and she was not a little suspicious of the communication practices of the associated scientists and whoever was paying for their research…
And so began a three year conversation in which we explored how the politics related to a scientific field will necessarily influence how we (scientists) communicate that field, and whether we even want to. And to add some more colour to the story, we invited Rebecca to join us. Thus, between us, we had expertise representing three controversial fields of science (climate change, GMOs, and nuclear power) and three very different disciplinary perspectives (atmospheric science, social and political science, history of science). And so began the story of this paper…
Indeed, I’m particularly proud of having a title that I wouldn’t have understood myself a year ago, and am not yet sure I entirely do – and apparrantly THAT’S OK! We even talk about this:
The science writer commented with regard to “co-production of knowledge”: “It’s scary, because WE DON’T KNOW WHAT IT MEANS! It is so open to interpretation.” This is a further example of science-trained authors reading meanings into phrases and terms used in the PES literature that the social scientist did not expect. It highlighted that much of the language of PES could be described as “under-specified”. But more than that, it highlighted a difference in orientation toward that under-specification. Among PES scholars there is often an (explicit or implicit) advocacy of experimentation and open-ended change in the science-society relationship. Concepts like the co-production of knowledge or a publicly engaged science may be deliberately under-specified as a result of a conviction that much needs to be worked out in practice. While to the PES scholar this may seem logically consistent with, and indeed required by, a goal of greater social responsiveness or democratisation, to the scientist this is understandably much more threatening. Where are the boundaries of this process? What remains of a commitment to and respect for scientific evidence and method? When specific examples of what the social scientist considered coproduction were described to the scientist, they were not perceived as threatening. This suggests that PES scholars, if they want to be more persuasive to scientists, need to take greater account of how scientists will fill in the blank spaces left in these as-yet-to-beworked-out concepts.
If you have access to Springer journals, please follow the Environmental Studies and Sciences journal link. If you don’t, you can email me. Or, apparently, I can share the version that was accepted on this blog.. although the final version is tidier than this. I think we might now rename our blog to R3: Reflexive Rhian & Rebecca! I hope you enjoy.