I had a brief discussion on Twitter yesterday about science communication, in which the other party seemed to be suggesting that we should recognise that lots of science comes up from the streets and that we should have more people involved in the process of doing science. I may misunderstand what was being suggested, but if I do, I find it a somewhat odd suggestion.
Part of it may be terminology, so let me clarify a few things. When I use the term “science”, I often mean research. When referring to those who do “science”, I typically mean those who are engaging in research in a more formal setting; collecting data, running models, analysing the model outputs or the data, publishing their results, presenting their work at meetings and conferences. There are real issues relating to diversity that we still need to address, but I think this is distinct from a bigger public involvement in the scientific process.
I do think that there is great deal of merit in a better understanding of science and, in particular, the scientific process. Also, many people do a form of science in their daily lives. We observe things, interpret our observations, and make decisions. However, I do think there is quite a vast difference between utilising the scientific method, and undertaking formal research. The latter typically takes some amount of training and expertise, and we shouldn’t think anyone can simply step into it, at any time. Lets also not forget that those who become scientists/researchers are still members of the public.
Of course, there may be some disciplines where a broader public involvement would be good. Research that will have a direct societal impact, for example. More involvement in decisions about what research to undertake, or what to fund might also, in some circumstances, be good. However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that research is meant to be somewhat independent; how we interpret the results shouldn’t really be influenced by public perception.
So, why am I slightly bothered by the suggestion that there should be more public involvement in the actual research process? Well, one is very simply that it implies that research is easy. It’s not. It can take 10 years of studying before someone starts a formal research career. I’ve also now been publishing research papers for more than 25 years and I’m still well aware that there is much that I don’t know and don’t understand. I’m very much in favour of encouraging more people to consider research careers, and making it more accessible to a much broader range of people. We shouldn’t pretend, though, that this is an easy career option.
There’s another reason this bothers me; the idea that anyone can do “science” and that it’s all equivalent. In the climate context, there are people who will download some climate data and then draw strong conclusions about climate science. They’re often wrong. Interpreting data requires some understanding of the system being studied, and some understanding of the data itself; it’s not just numbers. It’s very often the case that the correct interpretation is not obvious.
A concern I have in writing this is that it will be interpreted as an argument for elitism, and that is certainly not my intent. I really do think that science/research should be open to all. However, I do think that we shouldn’t be pretending that it’s easy enough for anyone to simply step into without some kind of expertise/training. I’m also not suggesting that there aren’t occasions when the public can make significant, positive contributions to the research process. I’m not even suggesting that people without formal positions can’t do research; there are certainly examples where people have done exactly this. I’m mostly suggesting that it’s not simple and we should avoid suggesting that it is.
There may well be aspects of this that I don’t understand. I may well have also misunderstood the initial suggestion. I’m writing this more to clarify my own thoughts, and am more than happy to be convinced that I’m mistaken in some way. Feel free to use the comments to do so.