Monday, May 26, 2014

Circling the Square - an experiment

Last week the conference 'Circling the Square' took place at the University of Nottingham. I was one of the main organisers. The conference wanted to bring together speakers from the worlds of research, politics, the media, and civil society. Have a look at the list of speakers here (there is also a list of panels with abstracts, and the programme brochure can be seen here). The aim of the conference was twofold:

First, it wanted to explore the opportunities and challenges involved with the development of policy-relevant evidence from the perspectives of researchers and practitioners. Researchers can play different roles in these debates, as pure scientists, as honest brokers, or as advocates. They can speak as individuals, or as part of scientific organizations. One major challenge they face is the response to expectations from the media, decision makers, and the public to provide new insights, policy recommendations based on predictions, or simple truths. Key note speakers and panelists addressed the use and abuse of evidence by the media and decision makers.

The second aim of the conference was to foster a much needed conversation between researchers, decision makers, journalists, and engaged citizens. We wanted speakers to explore how relevant actors communicate, and in which contexts, and what they expect from each other. These issues were addressed drawing on recent controversies from the UK and abroad, such as climate change, the economic crisis, and the badger cull.

There was a high level of interest both during the event, and afterwards through communications in the blogosphere (see a list of blogs here). One sticking point at the conference and in blog discussions is the nature of scientific knowledge (another being the role of researchers at the science policy interface). My colleague Philip Moriarty (physics) is sceptical about the claims of Sociologists and the Science and Technology studies (STS) literature, insisting that there is (or should be) disinterested investigation leading to objective facts, based on the scientific method.

At the conference, both Sheila Jasanoff and Roger Pielke Jr. argued that science science advice has always a political, or value component. The soft matter physicist Athene Donald shares this position and takes the historians of science view that there is not one uniform scientific method across research fields. Interestingly, there was no uniform front of scientists v STS. While there was some critique (coming from a scientist) of social scientists deliberately using obscure language, it was a scientist (David Colquhoun) who loathed colleagues for over-hyping publications in a new research environment which is driven by quantitative measures and 'impact' on society (the latter mainly a UK phenomenon).

The difference between science and regulatory science, between mode 1 and mode 2 of knowledge production, between normal and post-normal science, and between advocacy and honest brokering are topics which have crept up here on Klimazwiebel numerous times. It is good to see parts of the science community engaging in the debate. May the conversation continue!

Have a look at the various blog posts and comments. We seem to have initiated an important debate. If you feel there is some stereotyping going on you are not alone. But this is inevitable when starting a conversation across divides. Perhaps the time is right after the unproductive legacy of the science wars.


Werner Krauss said...

Thanks for sharing, Reiner, sounds like a really great conference! I loved to follow the links, very interesting. I read them with the subtitle of "Die Klimafalle" in mind: "The dangerous proximity of politics and climate research", and I appreciate that there is no definite answer how to deal with this dangerous proximity. As an anthropologist, I am always interested in how scientists deal with this in specific situations - because there is always a situation with diverse actors involved (human and non-human, as fancy ANTs call climate, weather, sea-level and people, for example). That's why thinking in dichotomies (nature / culture or activist / honest broker etc) or insisting on abstract rules of conduct often times seems shallow or even self-righteous, especially when situations are complex and messy (and they mostly are when it comes to climate change, right?). Maybe Sheila Jasanoff's presentation on a cultural comparison of science for policy in different countries was interesting in this respect, too? Her abstract sounds really interesting, maybe you can tell us more?

@ReinerGrundmann said...

Werner, thanks for the comment and glad you find the blog entries interesting. The idea of mixing things up, e.g. policy making and research, was seen as problematic. Some STS people and a government advisor defended the idea, but some scientists were highly skeptical. It comes down to such basic questions as : what is the nature of science? how should it be practiced? How credible can it be if it is created with a view to be used in practical contexts?

I am quoting from the write-ip in Research Fortnight: "Chris Tyler, director of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, argued that scientific advice was an inherently politicised process.
“The idea that you can separate facts and policy is complete nonsense,” Tyler said. “Yes, there are some cases where we think it’s more X than Y, but the vast majority of science advice is not taking place in black and white.”

He agreed with Sheila (and Roger also endorsed this view). Some (not all) scientists were disturbed by this view, and Philip Moriarty captures the reason for their worries as follows:

“My concern is this idea that all data is tainted and you can never disentangle scientific evidence from
the values of that person. If so, that’s deeply unsettling”

We will produce online material from the conference, containing video footage and presentation slides, soon.

Watch this space

Pekka Pirilä said...

“My concern is this idea that all data is tainted and you can never disentangle scientific evidence from the values of that person. If so, that’s deeply unsettling”

That sentence contains the implied thought that scientific evidence is linked to a single individual. That's, however, not true at a significant level for the evidence that's typically leads to the notion of "deeply unsettling".

When we consider answers derived using standard methods from textbook physics, we can trust that thousands of people would give the same answer for the same question. For this connection between the question and the answer values of the person doing the calculation are virtually irrelevant (formulating the question may, however, have involved values).

No clear rules can be presented for separating cases where values are irrelevant from cases where they are not. That's typical for science. Many things are accepted universally as certainly true, but drawing a clear line between those and less certain statements is impossible. Scientific truth is not proven formally it's accepted by the community informally, but often without any significant doubt.

Anonymous said...

Of course all scientific advice (to government) is political and politicised. However, if you argue that that advice is based on evidence that is also political or politicised, then you get into exactly the sort of trouble that is endlessly discussed here on the Klimazwiebel, and into a vicious circle to boot.
As for doubt and certainty: "The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darn sure of what the result is going to be, he is still in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize our ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain." And yes, it's Feynman, sorry about that!