Work with me! More details of a job opportunity


Two exciting new Research Associate (post-doc) positions are being advertised in my department (Science and Technology Studies) at UCL. Both positions will be working on the RRI Hub that I and Jack Stilgoe run together, which will mean helping us organise events and carry out research and teaching relating to RRI, but each position will have a particular focus on one of the two EU funded Horizon 2020 projects that we are participating in.  I wanted to give some more details of the SISCODE project that I am leading.

Over the past ten or more years, Public Engagement (PE) and Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) has called for multiple actors, including the public to be involved in decisions around science and innovation.  This has proved to be very challenging in practice however as this has been interpreted by many as simply market testing or asking the public to provide conditions for acceptance of new technologies.  Involving wider actors rarely goes beyond consultation.

At the same time,  methodologies and tools to involve users in innovation and development process have become well established in the design industry and these design methodologies and tools are emerging as valuable approaches to dealing with these problems of co-creation.

SISCODE aims to bring these perspectives together, to understand co-creation as a bottom-up and design-driven phenomenon that is flourishing in Europe (in fab labs, living labs, social innovations, smart cities, communities and regions); to analyse favourable conditions that support its effective introduction, scalability and replication; and to use this knowledge to crossfertilise RRI practices and policies.

To reach this aim SISCODE will: run a European study to compare co-creation ecosystems and describe effective dynamics and outcomes of the integration of society in science and innovation; experiment with design as a new system of competences capable to support the development of implementable RRI and STI solutions and policies; and understand the transformations needed to embed co-creation in STI policy making, overcoming barriers and resistance to change and considering organisational transformation.

UCL will be one of a number of partners in this project, which is led by the Politicnico di Milano, which is one of the leading design schools in the world. Other partners include the European Network of Living Labs and Fab-Labs, as well as the Danish Design Council and ECSITE.

The project held its initial kick-off meeting last week (3 May) in Milan and it promises to be an exciting and innovative approach to putting RRI into action.



UCU Strike: Our pensions are about your futures too


To all my students,

As you are aware, the UCU is planning strike action over the next few weeks (starting on 22 February). This is likely to cause annoyance and disruption to you and so I wanted to explain why I am supporting the strike.

I love my job and enjoy teaching you – I even took a dramatic pay cut to come from the private sector to work at UCL. But when I signed my contract in September 2017, I was guaranteed a pension of £10,000 a year (if I contributed to the USS until I retire), which made up for some of the loss of income now. Less than 6 months later however the University Employers are proposing to change the pension scheme so that even if I continue to pay a substantial part of my salary into the scheme for the rest of my working life, I will be guaranteed a pension of just £2,000 a year when I retire.

This raises a number of problems for me. You will have probably noticed that I have a very strong sense of right and wrong. And I just can’t see how these changes to my pension can be right – I am being asked to do the same work, take home the same wages and pay the same into the pension fund, yet I will get paid less when I retire. The simple unfairness of this situation is the first reason I am striking – if my employers do not want to keep up their part of our bargain, then I will not keep up my part.

But there is something more important than that at stake. No-one can live on £2000 a year. If the University Employers get their way, there is a risk that I will not be able to put food on my table or heat my home when I am older. And unfortunately the burden of taking care of me will fall upon you. Just as you will have finished paying your student debts, you will be lumbered with the cost of supporting an older generation who tried to take care of themselves, but who couldn’t. Future governments will have to choose between investing in education and healthcare for you and your children, or in making sure that my generation does not die in destitution. I am striking because it is unfair to pass this burden onto you when we should – and want to – be able to provide for ourselves.

Finally, I am striking because the USS pension is a legacy that was hard fought for by previous generations of academics, and a legacy that we must protect for future generations of academics too. Far from facing a crisis, the USS fund has made a surplus of 12% over the past five years and has enough income to pay its current liabilities for the next 40 years. It would be a dishonour to the great people who came before us and to the generations yet to come if we let an academic career became the preserve of the wealthy.

So while I am regretful about the impact that my decision to strike will have on you over the next few weeks, I hope you will understand, respect and perhaps support my reasons for doing so. A strike is always a last resort, but this is as much about your futures as it is about mine.


Read more about the  the strike and how to support us here

If you want to know more about the changes being proposed to our pension scheme, I have live tweeted from the recent UCL USS Town Hall Meeting (@melaniesmallman)






Make innovation more equitable to restore trust in experts


In the past year, since the arrival of Brexit and Trump, much has been said about public trust in science and experts.  Below is my take on it.  In an article published in Research Fortnight in November 2016, I argue that people aren’t abandoning rationality, they’re challenging the world that science and technology has helped to create:
In my day job I study public attitudes to new technologies. But for more than 10 years, I’ve lived a double life as a local councillor. When colleagues repaired to the pub, I went to advice surgeries and residents’ meetings, listening to my neighbours’ daily troubles.

It was perhaps an unusual, and certainly stressful, way to spend my spare time, but it has given me an insight into the lives of people who will never set foot in a university, and a first-hand view of whether, in Michael Gove’s phrase, people in this country have had enough of experts.

Rather than irrational people ignoring the facts, I saw people reacting to the evidence around them. Regardless of what statistics, economists and politicians were saying, they were finding that life hadn’t become better.

Look back on the interviews in the run-up to the European Union referendum. Time and again, “ordinary” people expressed the same sentiment: if being in the EU is so great, why am I not feeling the benefit? If being in Europe boosts our economy, why am I struggling to make ends meet? If Europe offers jobs and opportunities, how come I am stuck with minimum-wage and zero-hour contracts? And if Europe makes us safer, why do I feel less safe?

Any growing suspicion of experts is likely to have had less to do with disrespect for authority or a move away from truth and rationality, than with a dissonance between what the experts were saying and peoples’ experiences.

In this context, the Brexit vote—and the wider draw of the extreme left or extreme right across Europe and the United States—is more than a sign that scientists need to defend their territory. People may not be rejecting expertise or the principles and value of science, but they are definitely challenging the kind of world we have built and are building with science and technology. This is something we need to come to terms with and address.

Globalisation, liberalisation of capital markets and the decreased power of trade unions have all contributed to creating an economy that leaves large numbers of people undervalued and disenfranchised. But evidence is growing that science and technology has also played a significant part.

Think about how antibiotics have transformed healthcare, the way cars have changed the shape of cities, and how the internet has changed business, work and even friendship. The modern world and its institutions have been powerfully shaped by science and technology.

These effects aren’t equally spread. High-paying tech companies are staffed mostly by men; to install solar panels, you need to own your own home; modern medicine makes rich nations healthier, but has little impact on the diseases of the poorest.

It is easy to see these as purely political problems of deployment and regulation. But this raises two difficulties for science.

First, in my research I have found that the public see the downsides of science and technology as inherent parts of the research. Suggestions that these can be separated out and regulated elsewhere are unlikely to cut much ice.

Second, even economists are beginning to point out that the problems of an increasingly polarised economy—particularly those stemming from digital technologies, such as the difficulty of taxing the biggest tech companies—don’t look like they’ll be solved with the taxation and worker-subsidy policies of previous ages.

So what can we do? To begin, we need to increase our understanding of the economic effects of particular technologies, and work out how to account for these effects during the R&D process. Ideas around research ethics or responsible research and innovation will help here, but need to go much further.

Beyond that, we also need to rethink the economic models behind science and innovation policy, to start to pay attention to the spread as well as the size of the economy that we are building. We can no longer afford to assume that a rising tide raises everyone’s boat.

This requires the re-examination of ownership models and technology transfer. The gains of technology should be shared more equally among customers and employees, as well as investors and innovators.

Science and innovation have transformed many lives for the better. But to keep public support for the Enlightenment values that underpin such amazing developments, we need to make sure that the benefits of science and technology—and the economy and world we are building with them—are shared fairly.

Science and Innovation for the many, not the few.

Innovation for a fairer future, science policy

I was asked by Research Fortnight magazine to write an article imagining what a truly radical science and innovation policy for the UK would look like.  The article was published in the magazine today, but I below is a slightly longer (and less well-edited) version that escapes the paywall:


What would a truly radical science policy for the UK look like?

For decades, most developed countries including the UK, have seen science and innovation as the engine to economic development. While this has arguably resulted in money being pumped into science when times are good, and protected it from the harshest cuts during austerity, this view has also masked the real power of science and technology to transform our lives. From extending our lives and enabling global communications, to shaping the future of work and influencing the outcomes of elections, the most profound changes in our lives are increasingly brought about by technologies. So what would a radical science policy for the 21st Century look like?

To begin, we need to recognise that science is more than just a driver of growth, but is one of the most powerful shapers of our world today. We also need to acknowledge that particular technological pathways aren’t inevitable. They are constructed and decided upon by deliberate policies and decisions, as well as by the hidden values and visions of those designing the technologies – which may or may not reflect the interests and values of everyone. A radical science policy would first take back control and focus innovation on the values and visions of our society, rather than the views of a handful of technical experts. This doesn’t mean turning our backs on science and becoming a nation of luddites – science and technology is undoubtedly an engine of the economy and has and will continue to deliver untold benefits. But it does mean opening up science and technology to much wider voices, perspectives and values, drawing on the lessons from movements like Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) and Citizen Science, so that we can use science and innovation to develop socially robust technologies that not only address the problems we want to address, but also to build the kind of social structures we want too.

We are facing a post-antibiotic age, a crisis in funding of the NHS and the spectre of climate change. We can’t afford to keep our fingers crossed and assume that science will one day produce the solutions. So as well as building in wider perspectives to help focus on the challenges of most concern in our world, a radical science policy would also use mission-driven funding to make that link between science and its social purpose much stronger. Some scientists are likely to be resistant to this, but many of the European researchers we spoke to during the recent RRI Tools project were enthusiastic about relating their work more closely to social needs. They argued that it might make scientific careers more appealing, drawing in more diversity to the field and making science stronger and more important in our world.

Focusing on social goods alone is not radical enough. Digital technologies continue to enable companies to benefit from ‘stateless profits’, in turn depriving the public purse of much needed tax receipts. Industry, healthcare and the job market is being transformed in ways we have never seen before by the advent of Artificial Intelligence. And the gender pay gap gets bigger as high-paid hi-tech jobs continue to go to men. A radical science policy for the 21st Century will challenge the economic orthodoxy that a rising tide lifts everyone’s boat, and instead recognise the important role that technology is playing in driving the new – and highly polarised – economy that is emerging. In a technologically advanced world, as well as being able to hide profits from states, companies are able to make the same (or more) profit while employing fewer people. There is a risk that technology creates historic numbers of billionaires, but at the same time growing disenfranchisement amongst the rest of the population.

Building a progressive taxation system in this context is going to be one of the biggest challenges for Treasury policy in the 21st Century. The role of technology in creating this problem – and its relationship to basic, state funded research – must not be ignored. So while the treasury looks at taxation, a radical science policy could look more upstream at the options for ownership of technologies.

To begin, the state could take a stake in companies that exploit basic, public-funded research. In her book ‘Entrepreneurial State’, Marianna Mazzucato argues that ‘traditional’ ideas around the state being a reluctant risk-taker are wrong and instead, without the role of the state, developments like the iPhone would never have happened. By seeing itself as a more active partner in the innovation process, the state could ask for a return on its investment and a stake in innovations that draw on basic state-funded research. As well as producing a potential income stream and addressing at least part of the problem of stateless profit, this approach could potentially open up new funding though borrowing, since it would be borrowing to invest, rather than borrowing to spend.

Alongside that, the problems of polarized wealth and stateless profit could be dramatically reduced if workers and customers were given stakes in the companies they interact with. If workers had a share of the payouts that company founders get, we could be less worried about where profits are made and how profits could be taxed, as some redistribution would already be in place. And there is a growing movement of tech-coops, technology companies owned and controlled by the people who work or use its services, that are leading the way and showing alternative paths to business success. A radical science policy would mainstream these ideas and models of ownership, upgrading technology transfer and startup support – as well as corporate tax policy – so that potential entrepreneurs were encouraged to build equity and social responsibility into the structures of their enterprises.

Finally, a radical science policy would dramatically overhaul education and training to be fit for the 21st Century. Automation and AI will change the job market and a traditional training in the ‘3Rs’ – an approach to education that was developed to run an Empire, long before we had computers – will not do anymore. We don’t need millions of people to document and tabulate – that’s what we’ve taught machines to do. We need millions of people to innovate and create.

Just as science and technology changes in the 21st Century, so too must the UK’s science and innovation policy. Science and innovation is becoming more than an economic driver, but also a powerful shaper of our world. A radical science and innovation policy for the 21st century needs to recognize that and make sure we are using science and technology to building the kind of world we want – not just the one we might get.



The science and technology committee shouldn’t be filled with scientists, female or not

Politics, science policy

A few weeks ago, the new membership of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology was announced. It included no women.

A number of science campaigns issued statements calling for more scientists to be in parliament, with some even threatening to boycott the committee. I agree that it is outrageous to have a scrutiny committee with no women in 2017, but I don’t think this approach is helpful or shows much understanding of how Parliament and politics work. Instead, I want to encourage female politicians – regardless of whether or not they are scientists – to come forward and to participate in a topic that to many is difficult, scary and seemingly technical.  To do this however, we need to take a hard look at what the committee does -and should do.  I argue this case in an article published by The Guardian this week:

On Saturday, hundreds of Labour women – politicians, stakeholders and activists – from across the country met in Brighton, in advance of Labour party conference, for the annual Labour party women’s conference. This year was special, because for the first time it had a formal voice in Labour’s policy-making processes. But as we debated issues ranging from housing and the NHS to the economy and fair pay, I kept thinking about the irony of the recent announcement by the parliamentary select committee on science and technology that the committee will not have any female MPs sitting on it this year.

As someone who studies the impact of science and technology on society, it was clear to me that whatever issues motivated us to get involved in politics, they were going to change dramatically over the next five to ten years thanks to science and technology. Digital technologies are already making it harder to fund public services, as they enable companies to benefit from “stateless profits”, depriving the public purse of much needed tax receipts. It will be impossible to come up with a realistic business tax policy for the 21st century without engaging with this. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the advent of robots is going to rapidly transform industry, healthcare and the job market in ways we have never seen before; we need to think deeply about what this means for the skills and education we should offer future generations. And the way highly paid jobs in the tech industry are usually men’s jobs means that the gender pay gap is likely to widen as these industries grow in the future. In short, in the 21st century, science and technology is one of the most powerful drivers of change and shaper of our society. And we cannot govern the country if we don’t understand how to govern these technologies.

So during the coffee breaks, I sought out Labour women to sound them out about volunteering for the committee. In response to the committee announcement, in the past few weeks a number of science campaigns and bloggers (such as Athene Donald’s recent piece for the Guardian) have called for more female scientists to stand for election, or listed the MPs they consider to be suitably qualified to sit on the committee. Aware of these campaigns, a number of women told me they weren’t qualified to do the job as they weren’t scientists and didn’t want to sit on a committee where they would read out questions written in advance by a committee clerk. 

But the view that we need to fill the committee with scientifically trained people completely misses the point of a scrutiny committee. If science and technology is shaping our world in profound ways, then the best people to scrutinise it are the people who experience the effects, not those creating them. Because we know that the values and visions of those designing the technologies become deeply embedded in the technologies themselves, and in the societies shaped by them. We cannot have our future built upon the dreams of a handful of technical experts. Nor can we allow decisions that will change every aspect of our lives in the most profound ways, to be made by a small group of men. This is why we need women – and people from all walks of life – to sit on the science and technology select committee. 

And since science and technology is more than a driver of the economy – it is powerful shaper of our world too – the role of the science and technology select committee has to be about so much more than checking that the government is putting enough into the science budget, or using evidence in the right way. It has to be about scrutinising and holding to account the individuals, the institutions and industries that are building our futures. To do this we don’t need a bunch of parliamentary scientists. We need people with diverse experiences, from a variety of backgrounds but passionate about the future. 

So, as Labour conference continues in Brighton this week, amongst the discussions of workers rights, the economy, the NHS and public sector pay, I will continue to lobby female MPs to step forward. But I will be persuading them not just to sit on the science and technology select committee, but to take a strong hand in driving the committee to really scrutinise the role of science and technology in our world – and the kind of world we are building with it. It will be a big step for someone, but the reality is, if you really care about shaping Britain in the 21st century, then there cannot be a more important place to be.

(Image Copyright Parliamentary Estate).


Transforming Technology: The Self- Driving Cars Debate

Politics, Science and Technology Studies, science policy

CaptureLast week I took part in a Guardian Pubic Leader’s debate on transforming technology. The newspaper had assembled a group of ‘experts’ to discuss driverless vehicles, data and government regulation. The group was made up of a number of those involved with developing driverless and vehicles – and me, billed as ‘the ethicist’.

The discussion was interesting. You can read the edited version of the thread here. The topics ranged from how data from self-driving cars should be stored, to what the government’s priorities should be.  But overall, the gist of the discussion was that driverless cars are coming, they are going to be good and we need the government to help their progress by removing barriers.  One of the participants in particular voiced her view that her dream was for all cars to be driverless by a certain point in the future.

I, of course, had to spoil the party. Because the promise of self-driving cars is far from straightforward. As my colleague Jack Stilgoe has written extensively, there are serious questions about the desirability, practicalities and safety of autonomy.

For me however, the questions are much more around who decides and who benefits. It is easy to see why rich entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley are pushing to develop these cars, but underneath their claims of safety and ease of use are more sinister matters of ownership, power and money. While it makes no sense to spend tens of thousands of pounds on a lump of metal that sits outside your house most of the time, do you really want to hand over your freedom to move around the country to a group of large, unaccountable corporations? If you’ve tried booking a room on Airbnb during a busy conference or holiday period, you’ll have experienced their surge-pricing algorithm – do you want to rely on that to budget your daily commute? And how keen are you on letting Uber or Google know your every move? There is much more at stake than simply who sits behind the wheel.

Communicating Science in Post-Truth Europe

Science Communication


Last week (28th February 2017) I had the honour of giving a keynote speech to a group of science communicators at the British Embassy in Berlin, Germany.

The theme of my talk was ‘Science Communication in a Post-Truth Europe’ and my aim was to reflect on the current political situation in Europe – particularly the rise of populist views, which to many seem to be non-evidenced positions – and to put forward some concrete proposals for things science communicators can do.

I thought I would share my key points:

Firstly, people aren’t necessarily rejecting the science and enlightenment values, but instead are experiencing the world very differently to the way that experts are describing it. I have written more about that previously here and spoken about it at the Wissenschaftcommunikationforum 2016 and in my UCL STS departmental seminar in December 2016.

Secondly, we know that people base their opinions on more than facts. This is particularly true in science – and researchers in science and technology studies have spent decades evidencing and explaining this. I gave a bit of history, telling the story of how, in the 1980s and 1990s, we believed that improving the public’s understanding of science would make them more knowledgeable and so supportive of science. Research in the 1990s however revealed that the relationship between knowledge and attitudes is more complicated than simply “to know it is to love it”. In particular, Durant, Evans and Thomas (1995) carried out a survey of knowledge and attitudes of 2000 members of the British Public and concluded that understanding of science is weakly related to more positive attitudes in general, but it is also associated with more coherent and more discriminating attitudes. They argued that knowledgeable members of the public are more favourably disposed towards science in general, but are less supportive of morally contentious areas of research than are those who are less knowledgeable. This makes sense if you think about (for example) anti-nuclear protestors, who tend to be very well informed about the science and technology, despite being firmly against it. Indeed the more information they get about the technology, the more firm those anti-views become. Something else is driving their attitudes.

Instead, I explained that lots of research in science and technology studies has shown that factor like existing technologies and cultural frames of reference – that is, interests, values, previous experience and ways of responding to and interpreting the world – also shape people’s evaluations of technologies. For example, in my own research, I have found that people’s views of carbon capture and storage technologies (CCS) are strongly shaped by comparisons to nuclear and wind energy, and by trade-offs between particular energy futures (Lock, Smallman, Lee, & Rydin, 2014); and that a sense of ‘naturalness’ strongly affects views on the limits that should be put upon research (Smallman, 2016).

Added to that, trust in sources is important too – and gaining trust isn’t simply a communication exercise, but it involves changing your organisational behaviour to become trustworthy. This, I explained was the approach we took when I was leading science communication for the UK Government Department DEFRA in the mid 2000s – admitting our mistakes, rectifying them and then communicating what we had done to fix them. It was a long slog, but it paid off in the end, because for an organisation like Defra, reputation means more than popularity – as the department in charge of emergency responses to sudden disease outbreaks, for example, it was essential that they were trusted in order to gain support and compliance with actions and policies.

Finally, as well as acknowledging your audience’s values and framings, I highlighted how important it was that the scientific community also acknowledge the values and framings they bring to science. In particular, I explained how my own research looking at public and expert discussions of science and technology has shown that while scientists see science as a problem solver, with social and ethical issues seen as further obstacles to be overcome with more science, the public see these same issues as inherent parts of the science and technology, that need to be traded off with the benefits. To be good communicators, to address this seeming distrust of expertise, we need to recognise the perspectives we bring, and allow them to be opened up and challenged.

Are Robots Rubbish?

Science and Technology Studies

An elderly man was in the queue in the newspaper shop in a busy London station. Seeing that there was a long wait, a shop assistant suggested that the man use the self-service check-out where there was no queue. “Goodness Gracious no!” the elderly man replied “I will not talk to robots”.

This story, shared widely on Facebook, might be comical and apocryphal, but it raised an important point for me. It made me realise that robots are indeed amongst us. But rather than being little humanoid characters that steer our space-ships or even do our housework, their most familiar cry is “unexpected item in the bagging area”. So what happened to science’s dreams of robots bringing us a better, labour-saving future? And does it matter that such high aspirations have produced something so mundane – and perhaps annoying? Should we be less concerned about ‘rights for robots’ (as Nature magazine has argued as recently as March 2015 than just how disappointing they are?

Authors in my field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) have written about how imaginaries of science and technologies play a role in shaping the development of these technologies – and in shaping our worlds too (Jasanoff & Kim, 2009, 2015). These sociotechnical imaginaries also help to make the case for ongoing investment in science and technology, and, at the same time advances in science and technology help demonstrate how the state (in investing in technology) is acting for the public good (Jasanoff and Kim 2009).

Given how these imaginaries help scientists and engineers build support, attract resources and interest, Mike Michael (in Brown, Rappert, & Webster, 2000) argues that promises of technologies become inflated in order to get attention, especially in the early stages of technological development. When the mundane nature of the reality of the technologies comes to light however, the early hype eventually gives way to disillusionment (Nik Brown & Michael, 2003). Arguably this is what has happened with our robots. Rather than producing life-changing applications, technologies which were once imagined to be great – and into which considerable amounts of public money have been invested – now manifest themselves in our lives as ways for large corporations to increase profit by pushing the customer into unpaid labour. While other, more life-enhancing, applications might come along in the future, the risk is that our understanding of what robots are will be forever changed, based on our experience with these more modest versions.

So are we destined to be disappointed with robots and could this lead to a wider disillusionment with science and technology’s power to improve our lives? In his book ‘Our Robots, Ourselves – robotics and the myth of autonomy’ (Mindell, 2015) MIT STS Professor David Mindell argues not. Having spent years working on undersea robotics and looking at military applications, he concludes that the aspiration of fully autonomous robots is both unrealistic and undesirable. He describes how soldiers in the field, looking at autonomous helicopters, reported that they want to work with equipment that is predictable and with a fixed pattern of behaviour, rather than a machine with ‘a mind of its own’. As a result, ‘behaviours’ of robots had to be reduced dramatically, such that they were at best semi-autonomous. And you could imagine this idea working more widely – in self driving cars, for instance. While it would be amazing to hand over control of the car to a machine as you’re cruising down a sun-drenched highway, do you really want a teenage programmer in Seattle to have decided how your car reacts when a cat runs out when you’re driving on a foggy, icy lane? Mindell believes that we don’t. Rather than thinking of anything but fully-autonomous robots as disappointing, he argues that we should be aiming for what he calls ‘a perfect five’ – the sweet-spot somewhere midway between full autonomy and fully-operated robots. In other words, the kind of world human beings really want is not the same as our science fiction fantasies. And that this human world is more likely to be fulfilled by creating less autonomous and more mundane robots.

This might be a very practical and real world adjustment of technological aspirations. But it still leaves a big question for science – what do people expect from robotics and what happens when they realise the mundane nature of these machines? Back in 2007, I was involved in a series of public dialogue events in the UK called ScienceHorizons, which specifically discussed robotics. The robotics researchers who presented their science at these events had to spend considerable time explaining to the public participants that robots were not, nor likely to be, humanoid characters. Nevertheless, participants were enthusiastic about the idea of such characters helping with household chores and continued to express concerns that robots might have quasi-human emotions and intellect. On one hand, these concerns seem to be expressing a desire for Mindell’s ‘perfect five’ of semi-autonomous robots. On the other hand, they are perhaps belying a far more ambitions dream of the potential of robots – as machines that can learn, interact and help us live more fulfilling lives.

And that last point is perhaps the most important. Because it brings into sharp focus a real-world enactment of the STS concept of coproduction – that natural and social orders are produced together (Jasanoff, 2004). In creating robots we are creating a particular kind of world. The elderly man’s view of a robot as a shoddy human replacement, my disappointment in the mundaneness of the self-scan machines and the resilience of the aspirations of the participants in the dialogue in the face of scientists attempts to modify their expectations, represent three public views of robots. And underlying these views, there appears to be a disappointment in the kind of world produced by the boring robots as much as a disappointment in the machines themselves. And this should be of concern to scientists and engineers, because the collective visions of good and attainable futures that science and technology helps us create are not just serving to shape science, but they also serve to legitimate it too. So if people are disappointed with the kind of world that rubbish robots help make, we shouldn’t be surprised if one day, they are disappointed with science too.



Brown, N., & Michael, M. (2003). A Sociology of Expectations: Retrospecting Prospects and Prospecting Retrospects. Goldsmiths Research Online, 15(1), 3– 18. Retrieved from

Brown, N., Rappert, B., & Webster, A. (2000). Contested futures: A sociology of prospective techno-science. Ashgate Aldershot, UK:

Jasanoff, S. (2004). States of Knowledge: The Co-production of Science and the Social Order. Retrieved from

Jasanoff, S., & Kim, S.-H. (2009). Containing the Atom: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and Nuclear Power in the United States and South Korea. Minerva, 47(2), 119–146. doi:10.1007/s11024-009-9124-4

Jasanoff, S., & Kim, S.-H. (2015). Dreamscapes of Modernity: SOCIOTECHNICAL IMAGINARIES AND THE FABRICATION OF POWER. (S. Jasanoff & S.-H. Kim, Eds.). The University of Chicago Press.

Mindell, D. A. (2015). Our Robots, Ourselves: Robotics and the Myths of Autonomy. Viking. Retrieved from


A Science Communication Strategy for Europe

Science Communication

Last week, 25 science communicators from across Europe, gathered in a remote village in the North of Germany to discuss the future of Science Communication. I was lucky enough to be one of the 25, who ranged from university press officers, to freelance podcasters, who made up the ‘Siggen Circle’.

Over our time at the beautiful Gut Siggen, we shared our experiences of communicating science, presented current and future trends and set out to develop a common plan for taking science communication forward over the next 10 years. It was an intensive environment and whether we were hiking to the beach or in workshop sessions, the future of science communication was not off our minds.

During the final day, I worked in a small group looking at the future of science communication from the perspective of the public, or society. Our task was to think about what people want from science communicators.

Up until that point, as is the case in the field in general at the moment, the focus of the meeting had been on public participation and citizen science. But while we all knew that the relationship between knowledge and attitudes to science and technology is much more complicated than the deficit model suggests (or ‘to know it is to love it’), we acknowledged there are still some people with an appetite for more information about science. More importantly, there are instances where it is vital that we can communicate scientific information to large groups of people – during emergency situations such as floods, or in order to protect populations by vaccines, for instance. Discovering more effective ways to give information in these circumstances is a useful activity that has become desperately unfashionable over the past 20 years.

Alongside that there appears to be an unmet appetite amongst some not just to know science, but to get involved too. And the growing potential to process big-data is whetting scientists’ appetite to involve citizens in their research too. We heard from colleagues involved in citizen science projects about how much potential there is to help people understand the process of science as well as the excitement of science.

Beyond that however, my group agreed that it was also important to enable people to have a say in the course and direction of scientific research – not least to make sure that science really does address the kinds of issues that wider society is concerned about. We did however acknowledge that for participation to be truly effective, decision makers have to be committed to taking the views expressed into account.

Pulling these three discussions together, we agreed that a European science communication strategy that meets the needs of the public needs at least three strands:

  1. Letting people know about science
  2. Letting people have a go at science
  3. Letting people have a say-so about science.

These three strands together, seem to offer a coherent approach to science communication not just for Europe, but for National Institutions wanting to clarify their role too.  Rather than forcing a choice between information giving and public participation, with this approach, we can tailor our approach to the needs of the audience by acknowledging that some people want information, while others want more of a say in the direction of science, and others still want to get involved. We can be truly effective science communicators.

At the end of the workshop, we had produced a draft ‘text’ that lays out our aspirations and proposals for the future of science communication in Europe, which we will be refining over the next few weeks, before sharing it more publicly (hopefully) in the run-up to the ESOF Conference in July. So watch this space.

Out of the Loop – why public dialogue finds it hard to influence policy.

Science Communication, science policy

This article first appeared in Research Fortnight, February 2015.

Fifteen years ago, in the aftermath of Mad Cow Disease, the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology looked into the relationship between science and the public. Their report, ‘Science and Society’, published in 2000, identified a ‘crisis in trust’ between the public and science that, if ignored, could lead to technology being ignored or abused. In response, the report called for a ‘new mood for dialogue’, which would ‘help the decision-maker to listen to public values and concerns; and give the public some assurance that their views are taken into account, increasing the chance that decisions will find acceptance.’

Since then the old ‘deficit model’ style of public understanding of science, which focused upon explaining science to the public in order to build support, has largely been replaced in most funding structures by a public engagement/public dialogue approach. In this approach, the public are invited to debate and discuss science with various experts and organisations, through activities ranging from formal debates and Q&A sessions, to consensus conferences and citizens juries. Through programmes like ScienceWise, numerous public dialogue activities have taken place on new and emerging areas of science and technology – from nanotechnology and synthetic biology, to human-animal hybrid embryos and stem cells.

So what have we learned from talking to the public about science and technology and has it made a difference? For the past few years this is one of the questions I have been trying to answer. I have been looking at how the public talk about science and technologies in reports of public dialogue events and comparing this to how ‘experts’ have been discussing the same issues in the various reports from the learned societies, and how policymakers settle the matters in their final policy reports. While there are some echoes of the public’s voice in the policy reports, particularly around the need to anticipate and act upon unforeseen consequences, it is clear that the policy reports are more closely aligned with they way in which scientific ‘experts’ see science and innovation. Interviews with government officials, advisers and politicians have reinforced this conclusion – the views of expert bodies, rather than the outputs of public dialogue, appear to be the key sources of advice for policymaker.

Why is this the case and should we be concerned? One possible explanation lies in the visions of science that emerge from the public dialogues. For the public, science is seen as a source of progress – particularly in biosciences’ ability to produce medical cures. But this sense of progress is tempered with a clear understanding that the benefits that science and innovation can offer come hand in hand with risks, downsides, social and ethical issues and unforeseen consequences. While science represents progress, it has also caused problems and these problems are inherent in the science itself. The experts, in contrast, talk about science as a much greater force for progress bringing about changes beyond medical cures, and offering the power to address the really big problems ahead – particularly around the economy and the environment. Social and ethical issues are seen as being either the result of poor public perceptions or insufficient scientific knowledge. Downsides can be dealt with by more information or more research. For a science policymaker operating under the constant eye of the Treasury, and where science is seen as an important driver of economic growth and competitiveness, it is possible to see how this ‘expert’ vision of science is much more helpful as it offers a way to develop innovation while managing away any associated problems.

Interviews with policymakers tell a more complex story though. All of those I spoke to understood the nuanced nature of the role and challenges of science within our society – and how inter-related they were. They were also clear that the views of wider society needed to feed into the decision-making in a meaningful way. They did however have very different understandings of how this would happen. Firstly, they were keen to take advice from ‘experts’ – whether that was legal advice on ethical matters, hearing the implications of a particular policy from service users or particular faith groups. The outputs of public dialogue, with its focus on deliberately lay views, appear to fall outside this category of ‘expert advice’. Secondly, policymakers rely heavily on their networks for advice and support – and public dialogue activities also appear to be outside these networks. As a result, when public input is needed, other sources of advice are turned to – networks of stakeholders and, for politicians, feedback at advice surgeries and in their post-bags.

So where does that leave those championing public participation in science? Firstly, I would argue that the dialogues to date have helped us develop a more detailed understanding of how the public conceptualise and come to know new technologies. This understanding could and should help to make public policy – and science and technologies – more in-line with wider societal concerns. Secondly, while politicians appear to access alternative sources of public input, officials, arms-length bodies and research scientists don’t have that same regular and direct access to outside voices. Indeed officials made up the group that mentioned reports from ScienceWise projects most often, and they had clearly been affected by them. Public dialogue activities in the UK could perhaps have the most value in supporting decision-making at this level and in building themselves into the policy networks that exist. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, airing inconvenient truths is in itself valuable, regardless of whether they are acted upon by those with power. As science and technology continues to change almost every aspect of our lives, continuing to question and challenge the way in which we come to terms with these changes has to be a vital role in a healthy democracy.