January 13, 2009
Public engagement was a key feature in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and has been front and foremost in the transition between the old administration and the new. You only have to check out change.gov to see how ideas are evolving on soliciting and evaluating opinions from a broad swath of the population. The latest is the “Citizens Briefing Book”—top-rated ideas from everyday people, to be delivered to Obama after he is sworn in.
This emphasis on open government, citizen engagement, and the use of enabling web-based technology, is expected to spill over to the new administration big-time. And as it does, the public discourse will inevitably encompass science and technology—it already has on the incoming administration’s website. But this raises serious questions: How do you pull people from all walks of life into conversations about science and technology—which are often complex—and how do you empower them to participate in making effective and influential decisions?
These are questions that have been grappled with in the US for some time—not least in the area of nanotechnology. The 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003 for instance had specific provisions
“for public input and outreach to be integrated into the [National Nanotechnology] Program by the convening of regular and ongoing public discussions, through mechanisms such as citizens’ panels, consensus conferences, and educational events, as appropriate.”
This resulted in two academic Centers for Nanotechnology and Society being established—one at Arizona State University and another at the University of California Santa Barbara. But apart from the research conducted by these centers, there has been little in the way of true public engagement on nanotechnology in the US, in terms of enabling citizens to enter a two-way dialogue with decision-makers.
Which is why I was particularly interested to read Richard Jones’ account of the UK experience, just posted on his blog Soft Machines.
Richard’s blog is a must-read for anyone even remotely interested in public engagement on science, and to make sure you do read it, I’m not going to give away much here. Read the rest of this entry »
December 31, 2008
Science gone right, science gone wrong, science gone social, science gone political—it’s all here in five off-beat book recommendations to kick off 2009. Ranging from Darwin’s Origin of Species to Sir Terry Pratchett’s Nation, the one thing I think I can guarantee is that you will struggle to find an odder bunch of literary bed-fellows! Hope you enjoy them, and have a happy new year!
A new year, a new leaf—time for five more eclectic (some might say eccentric) book recommendations to see you through the hangover and into a brighter future.
As in the previous five good books blog, I’ve eschewed the conventional to provide as unusual a potpourri of literary delights as you will find anywhere. And as before, I’ve tried to inject a little method into the madness—spot it if you can!
I should first apologize because this was supposed to be a quick blog, rushed off before the New Years festivities began in earnest. But it turned into a veritable “slow blog!”
So for those of you impatient to read the recommendations and move on, here they are:
- On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin
- The Two Cultures, by C. P. Snow
- Trouble with Lichen, by John Wyndham
- Cider with Rosie, by Laurie Lee
- Nation, by Sir Terry Pratchett
But please do read on, and discover the why behind the what… Read the rest of this entry »
December 24, 2008
Revisiting Sheila Jasanoff’s Technologies of Humility
In 2003, Harvard University’s Sheila Jasanoff wrote about what she termed “Technologies of Humility.” Recognizing the growing disconnect between technological progress and its effective governance, Jasanoff explored new approaches to decision-making that “seek to integrate the ‘can-do’ orientation of science and engineering with the ‘should-do’ questions of ethical and political analysis.” Five years on, her (still radical) ideas resonate deeply with the science and technology ambitions of the incoming Obama administration.
Sitting down this morning, I had intended to write about three papers recently published on-line in the journal Nature Nanotechnology. The papers (by Kahan et al., Pidgeon et al. and Sheufele et al.)—which were widely reported on a few weeks back—consider factors influencing “public” responses to nanotechnology, and challenge long-held beliefs that knowledge leads to acceptance.
However, I became distracted! Searching for an original frame for these studies, I returned to Jasanoff’s 2003 paper “Technologies of Humility: Citizen participation in governing Science,” published in the journal Minerva (Minerva 41:223-244). Reading it, I was struck afresh by how germane Jasanoff’s ideas are, how completely they seemed to have been ignored in US policy making, and how important they are to the science and technology agenda of the incoming Obama administration.
Rather than read a re-hash from me of what is an eloquently written and very accessible paper, I would strongly recommend you pour yourself a glass of good wine (a cup of coffee or fine tea will do just as well), carve out some quality time, and read the original—which is downloadable from here [PDF, 120 KB]. It is after all the holiday season, and what better than a good read to fill the long hours before the grind of work begins once again!
But just in case you are in a hurry and care to put up with my crude and flawed overview, here you are: Read the rest of this entry »
December 20, 2008
John Holdren is confirmed as the next Assistant to the President for Science and Technology
Barack Obama is serious about science and technology. It was clear in the campaign; clear in the President-Elect’s policies, and doubly clear in the speed with which he has established scientific leadership for the incoming administration.
Today’s official announcement that John Holdren is being appointed Assistant to the President for Science and Technology (which in addition to re-establishing a cabinet-level S&T asvisor, includes Hodren being Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Co-Chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology), puts the finishing touches to what many would consider a “dream team” for leading science and technology that serves society.
But just as important as the team is the philosophy behind it. In today’s address (which as usual is viewable on YouTube), Obama emphasized clearly the importance of science and technology in tackling national and global challenges: Read the rest of this entry »
December 13, 2008
The pains and pleasures of tweeting science and technology innovation, 140 characters at a time.
Five days, 539 words and 3,447 characters later, the Twitter experiment is over. Did I succeed in communicating on emerging science and technology in 700 characters a day? I’m not sure. The whole exercise was harder than I expected. Trying to come up with something interesting and relevant five times a day was a challenge. Thursday was a particularly tough day—and the entries show it!
But at the end of the exercise, I must admit it was fun. And even though tweeting will never supplant full-on blogging for communicating stuff in depth, it clearly has a place.
I’m not sure I would do a five-day stint like this again, but the medium is clearly open to innovative use. And with some thought, could be used to convey more complex information than trivial thoughts and web links. Personally, I think my writing-style took a dive with the constraints imposed by the character-limit and serial-posts. But I was surprised at how much could be crammed into 140 characters, with some thought. And while the experiment had many flaws, I think there is scope to use Twitter and similar formats in ways that lead to engagement on issues with some depth. Read the rest of this entry »
December 10, 2008
The National Research Council of the National Academies releases its review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative Strategy for Nanotechnology-Related Environmental, Health, and Safety Research. And it’s not pretty.
Most people acknowledge that innovation is vital to economic and social prosperity. But what do you do when science and technology innovation are in danger of being stymied by bad habits and misguided thinking? One solution: apply a little tough love. Something a new report from the US National Academies does in spades.
By the end of the next US administration, there will be an estimated seven billion people on the planet, all wanting food, shelter, and water, and most of them striving for a first-world quality of life. With dwindling natural resources and an environment struggling to absorb humanity’s assaults, old technologies are coming to the end of their shelf life. Energy security, curing cancer, quality of life in old age, plentiful clean water, climate change—none of these challenges will be met without science and technology innovation.
More to the point, without a constant stream of science and technology innovation, the economy will be starved of the knowledge-capital so desperately needed for stability and growth.
Given this backdrop, you would think that the US federal government would be on top of spotting and navigating around potential barriers to innovation. Yet according to a new report from the National Research Council of the National Academies, the feds seem to have their collective heads in the sand when it comes to ensuring investment in science and technology research delivers sustainable results… Read the rest of this entry »
December 6, 2008
Getting serious with Twitter
I’m gutted. I thought that blogging was where it is at—the cutting edge of the “new media” wave transforming modern communication. But I now discover that I’m at least four years behind the times—a veritable dinosaur in the world of “Web 2.0!”
Which is why I’m pushing myself out on a limb with a bold experiment in social network communication this week!
November’s edition of Wired Magazine ran a story entitled “Twitter, Flickr, Facebook Make Blogs Look So 2004.” And just in case you didn’t get the message about blogging from the title, the opening paragraph rammed it home:
“Thinking about launching your own blog? Here’s some friendly advice: Don’t. And if you’ve already got one, pull the plug.”
The blogosphere is being deluged by a stream of “paid bilge” according to the article… Read the rest of this entry »