Public engagement and open science

Yesterday I was on a panel at the ‘Science in Public’ conference in Cardiff, asking the question, what is the contribution that open science can or should make to public engagement in science. The other panelists were Steven Hill (Research England), Paul Manners (NCCPE) and Melanie Smallman (UCL). However, the session was very interactive, and these are just a few of my personal reflections.

Being from Jisc, I made a few introductory remarks about the relevance of technology, for example:

1. Technologies can enable new forms of engagement between society and research, eg through putting research openly online for all to use (open access, research data, software, up to and including open notebook science), through citizen science platforms such as Zooniverse, and through platforms like MOOCs and blogs. I noted examples such as the Digital Panopticon, and highlighted some concerns that its creator has expressed, that in configuring resources to support public engagement, decisions have had to be taken about the structure and presentation of the data that might not be optimal for research purposes.

2. Technologies are changing how research is done, eg big data, machine learning, semi-autonomous software agents, unaccountable algorithms. Various publics have an interest in the ethical and epistemological implications of this. That is, how are the truth claims of science now justified, how is the evidence arranged and scrutinised and how can we infer findings from that evidence? What are the ethics involved in using machine learning in academic research to infer or deduce findings on which for example drug discovery or public policy might be based? Open science has arguably got an important role in helping us address these concerns, as one part of a much wider programme.
There are clear relationships between these concerns and elements of the widely recognised ‘responsible research and innovation’ framework, which it would be worth exploring. However, it is also worth noting that the evidence that open science does contribute to public engagement in these ways is anecdotal and patchy, at best.

Those at the session highlighted some critical questions, including:

  • Is the argument that taxpayers have a right to see the research they have funded sufficient to justify the investment in open research? How do we handle the fact that research may be partly funded by non-public sources, or that academics’ time is at least partly paid by student fees? Who are academics accountable to?
  • Who would use open research data? Would other researchers be incentivised to do so? Is anyone else?
  • Does open science, or even citizen science, really reach civil society in any meaningful way? What factors influence this?
  • There is both a financial and administrative / time burden in making research open in ways that are useful for public engagement. How are resources made available for this?
  • Who are the publics being engaged here? Who would want to, or need to (by some definition of ‘need’) engage with research, who does not currently do so? Why would they?

Melanie reminded us that it is not enough simply to open research artifacts, but that scientific knowledge is continually constructed through a range of practices, networks, cultures and traditions, and that the political economy of both open science and of public engagement can be interrogated. For example, can we see a genealogy of open science that draws on libertarian market individualism, that perhaps ignores the social side of scientific knowledge and expertise? Can public engagement be used as a programme to promote the adoption, or at least the acceptance, of particular technologies by particular publics? There is often a profound difference and disconnect between somewhat utopian narratives of science and engineering rescuing society from particular ills, and the lived experience of people where science, engineering, social and economic relations and ethical questions are all entangled – for example, think of the role of research in developing automation and control technologies in the workplace. In that context, objections to scientific utopian narratives are not irrational or anti-science, but call for much more nuanced and deeper commitment by research and policy communities.

From a ‘technology’ perspective, I was struck by one possible component of this commitment, whereby commodity tech such as smartphone apps can, when combined with open data and analytic skills and understanding, enable people to become much more active researchers than they typically are in some citizen science projects. For example, people are collecting, analysing and using data on air quality to challenge environmental policies and their implementation. Less obviously political, but another example of activist citizen science is the parenting science gang, supported by Wellcome.

No one in the room believed that simply making research open is a panacea, or constitutes public engagement by itself. But there was a strong sense that it can find a place in a much wider set of activities that can help research break out of the bubble in which it can sometimes seem to exist.

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