Social and Natural Science: Has the Square Been Circled?

Squared Circle
It may be difficult to circle the square, but need it be impossible?

Last month, I was at the “Circling the Square” conference organised by the University of Nottingham’s Science, Technology and Society research group. The meeting’s purpose was to bring together and start a dialogue between natural and social scientists, policy makers, science communicators and the media and public.

Did it help bridge the gap between these at times disparate communities? Perhaps not as much as hoped, but if the debates during the sessions and subsequent blogs were anything to go by, it did start (or at least reinvigorate) dialogue. The metaphor of circling a square may have been intended to imply smoothing relationships, but at this stage it might be better applied to simply drawing a ring around the issues. We are probably still some way from resolving them.

This post is a quick summary of my thoughts about the event and what I think might need to be done to help circle that square further. There have already been a number of excellent blogs that have inspired plenty of debate and discussion and which go into far more detail than I intend or am capable of. A list of attendees contributions can be foundhere and a Storify of tweets made during the conference here.

Be clear what we mean when we say “science”

During the week “science” was used interchangeably to refer to the physical/natural sciences, social sciences or both, and/or the practice of science to give advice or as a mechanism for discovering “immutable” truths (the difference between “regulatory” and “research” science). And, as always in these debates, the disciplines of engineering, mathematics and medicine were submerged into the general field of science, even though there are often massive cultural and language differences between them.

link to attheinterface blog
This post by chemist and blogger Alasdair Taylor first appeared on his attheinterface blogand is reprinted with his permission.

I’m not saying we should do away with general terms but we need to be careful in how they are used and clear on their meanings. We also need to better understand and, I’d argue, welcome cultural differences between disciplines when they arise. (From now on in this post I shall use science to mean the disciplines covered under the STEM acronym and medical sciences).

Finding a common language

In his closing presentation, physicist Phil Moriarty fired a shot at the use of jargon and obtuse language by social scientists, and his comments have sparked online debate. Of course, technical jargon develops in any technical field, nor is poor writing or communication the reserve of social scientists (sorry Phil, I’ve read some terribly constructed physical science papers in my time). I wonder, however, if the aim of Circling the Square can only be achieved if those involved are able to communicate the challenging concepts in a manner accessible to all. This wasn’t always the case and some discussions headed too far from the pragmatic into the theoretical. Analogies and metaphors also became false friends, often causing more harm than help as meanings were lost or misinterpreted.

Science is more than Global Warming (or GM, or Nanotechnology or, err, Badgers)

Of course the big scientific issue of our day is climate change and I appreciate that the public response to GM and nanotechnology is interesting, important and informative. However, the majority of scientists do not work in these fields and risk being alienated from the broader debate if the focus is too narrow.

Education, education, education

UCL’s Jason Blackstock, acting head of the new Department of Science, Technology, Engineering, And Public Policy (STEaPP), is attempting to educate a new generation of science policy makers to understand the complexity involved in making decisions. Another speaker, Suzy Jarvis of University College Dublin, runs an Innovation Academy which teaches entrepreneurial leadership to scientists and others. Athene Donald wonders ifyoung scientists should undergo media training. Chris Tyler of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology believes policy training should be embedded into science PhD programmes.

It appears, we are moving to a future where our research scientists are well versed in the types of topics discussed at Circling the Square. In general, I am a supporter of a broader training programme for scientists, such as those proposed above. It always surprised me that I could complete a degree in science without knowing anything about its philosophical, historical or social context. Giving perspectives beyond just the science will hopefully challenge preconceptions and develop new approaches and ways of thinking about research. Of course, the students still need time to do that research too.

Be honest about why we do what we do

If Circling the Square was a guide, stereotypes and generalisations still hold sway and were at the root of some of the ensuing “heated” debates. Jason Blackstock wanted to know how best to get the different groups around the table to develop policy. I suggested being honest from the outset about people’s motivations was important.  Why study physics? Why go into industry or policy and not academia? How are these decisions linked to people’s attitudes when it comes to policy making? There may not be enough time to answer these types of questions on every government panel, but surely academic conferences or research programmes are ideal places to do so.

As Reiner Grundmann illustrated in his closing remarks, the expectations placed upon each group in the science policy “square” need to be considered. This also highlights a source of difficulty – communication surely breaks down when expectations are neither understood nor met. The clear message I took from the conference was that if we want to circle the square, we must be more honest with each other and to achieve this we need more dialogue, collaboration and education.

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Alasdair Taylor

Alasdair Taylor, a self-described “green chemist caring about the planet,” is a business science fellow at the Department of Chemistry at the University of Nottingham.

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