October 20, 2012
Systematically gathered and analysed evidence is important, because it challenges myths and prejudices that we all have a tendency to develop. Sometimes these myths are important for innovation or policy, but other times they are just plain interesting. In the latter class, a fascinating study was reported by the BBC this week. The study shows that, contrary to a widely held myth, flying ants do not all emerge on the same day each summer. In fact emergence is spread over a more extended period.
As well as an interesting and counter-intuitive result, the study caught my eye as it is an example of citizen science. The data were recorded by members of the public, providing the researchers with an extended capacity to observe the ant behaviour. The study would have been far too expensive and difficult to carry out without this contribution from volunteers. This type of engagement is a fantastic way to get interesting research done, and also engage those outside of the research community in the process.
Great as citizen science is, we do need to be careful not to start believing another myth: that citizen science is limited to volunteers acting as data collectors or sophisticated image processors. Citizen science also needs to encompass involving people from outside the research community in shaping the nature and direction of research. While there have some moves to address this, another myth stands in the way; that allowing greater public involvement will reduce the quality or value of the research. Perhaps we need some experiments to put that myth to the test too.
November 21, 2011
High profile prizes for science and engineering have been making the headlines recently. Last week the Royal Academy of Engineering announced a new international prize for excellence in engineering, the Queen Elizabeth prize. Worth a million pounds to the winner, the ambition is to make this the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for engineering. Like the Nobel, this prize has a broad scope and contrasts with prizes focussed on addressing specific challenges. The idea of awarding prizes for advances in science and engineering has an illustrious history, and there is good evidence that prizes can act as strong incentives for innovation (Tim Harford‘s recent book, Adapt, covers this point in detail).
It is also claimed that prizes like this inspire young people, but I am not convinced. The problem is that these big international prizes are so rare that they tend to encourage the view that only a tiny minority of researchers can reach the peak of their profession. This is just not a fair reflection of the process of research, where most researchers make contributions to the advancement of knowledge. Indeed many of the advances celebrated by high profile prizes depend upon advances made by researchers who are not awarded the prize.
But I also think there is a problem with visibility and engagement. While there may be a brief news item when the prize is announced, there is limited opportunity to engage people with the science, the scientists or the prize process itself. I am always struck by the contrast between these science and research prizes, and the coverage of other prizes, like the Turner prize, the Man Booker Prize and even the Stirling Prize. In these cases there is intense media attention, and often vigorous public debates. For example, this year’s Man Booker triggered discussions about the nature of quality literature; is readability and accessibility necessary, sufficient, or perhaps even antagonistic to, literary merit? And of course the Turner prize often leads to discussions about the nature of art. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a science prize could stimulate a similar debate about how science progresses, or on the details and relevance of particular scientific findings?
So how could a science prize generate the media buzz associated with the Turner or the Man Booker? One of the key characteristics of these prizes is that, at least partially, the judging is carried out in the public domain. A short-list is constructed and published in advance. So while the judges carry out their private deliberations, there is the opportunity for the media and the public to form and talk about their own judgements. These public verdicts don’t directly impact on the award of the prize itself, but they raise the profile and encourage active engagement with the content. I can imagine this working perfectly well for a science prize – a shortlist, perhaps a series of TV documentaries on each candidate, and then a big announcement. A potential audience of millions engaged with and inspired by leading-edge research, now that is a prize worth aiming for.
November 28, 2010
Earlier in the week I attended a symposium, Getting Connected: How to achieve effective regulation of new emerging technologies?, organised by the think-tank Biocentre. I have previously posted a summary of my talk, and this post gives an overview of the other presentations.
The topic of the symposium is a challenging one, and the meeting was deliberately designed to bring a diverse range of perspectives to bear. The organisers certainly succeeded in this aim, with a set of speakers from a range of disciplines and backgrounds.
The meeting was opened by Chamu Kuppuswamy who discussed regulation from the perspective of international law. She stressed particularly the important relationship between binding international legislation, like treaties, and more advisory approaches such as international declarations. The next speaker was Charles Raab who took IT privacy issues as a case study for regulation. He covered the range of approaches that can be taken, but made the central point that we need to consider both the regulatory instruments and the policy environment in which they operate. Andy Stirling addressed issues of risk and uncertainty in the regulation of emerging technologies. He called for an approach that opens up, rather than closes down, options and emphasised the importance of taking into account as wide a range of views and approaches as possible. Later in the afternoon Andrew Miller MP, Chair of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, explained the role and work of the Committee. In scrutinising science and technology in Parliament, the Committee play an important part in keeping the development of regulation in touch with new technologies. Finally, the meeting was concluded by a presentation from Julia Manning of the 2020health.org think-tank. She introduced their recent report on emerging technologies in healthcare.
Although there was a diverse set of inputs, a set of common themes emerged from the discussion:
- The regulation of emerging technologies needs to be global, and to take into account the global context, especially the increasing connectedness of the world.
- Given the pace of change in technology it is becoming more important that a wide range of view points are integrated for the development of effective regulation.
- And more broadly, we need to make sure that the development of new technologies is not just driven by science, but is also responsive to societal need.
At the end of the meeting I was left with a feeling of the challenge of getting this right. With technology developing at an ever-increasing pace, how we can we take the measured and thoughtful steps needed to maximise the benefits, and mitigate the risks?
November 22, 2010
Earlier today I spoke at a symposium organised by Biocentre on the regulation of emerging technologies. In this post I am going to summarise my own talk (slides below), and will report on the other speakers’ presentations later.
My talk focussed on the relationship between public engagement with research and the development of effective regulation for emerging technologies. This is an essential and central linkage because most, if not all ’emerging technologies’, emerge from research. The only way we can ensure that public engagement with emerging technologies happens sufficiently early in their development is by bringing that engagement right ‘upstream’ into research itself. This concept has been around for a while, and there is a growing library of engagement reports that have sought views on emerging technologies and related research.
There are a couple of key conclusions run through these reports. First. the need for appropriate regulation is a common theme in discussions of new technologies. In general people see the benefits of new technological developments, and they see regulation as a way of managing the potential downsides. I don’t think you can argue with this point given the history of technological innovation where there are plenty of examples where it would have been much better if the negative consequences had been managed in advance. But more than this there is valuable information contained in these dialogues for framing the development of regulation. For example, the extent to which technological innovations are, or could be made reversible is a potential guiding principle. And the need for truly international regulatory frameworks is also clearly appreciated.
While there is undoubtedly plenty of evidence that dialogue about research has the potential to be helpful in designing appropriate regulation there is less evidence that it actually does so. The challenge is to feed the thinking that emerges from public engagement into the processes that develop regulation. Of course regulators need to balance risk and benefit, and take care not to stifle the development of new technologies. But I believe it would help if they were more open to and involved with public engagement with research.