This series started after I read a couple of postings by Richard Jones on his blog Soft Machines and Andrew Maynard on his blog 2020 Science. I have wandered somewhat off the track of their discussion which was about public engagement/consultation/understanding of science outreach projects as a way for scientists to communicate about their work and to get feedback from members of the public about the kinds of practical applications that would be useful and acceptable to the public. Jones’s blog entry is here, Maynard’s blog entry is here, and this series starts here.
One of my favourite collaboration stories is one about Thomas Edison who introduced the gramophone (or record player) to the public as a device for talking books. He went around demonstrating how you could record someone reading a book aloud onto silver foil which could then be played on a gramophone. At the end of the demonstration, audience members were given pieces of the silver foil as souvenirs. (You can find the story in the book, New Media; 1740 – 1915, edited by Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey B. Pingree, MIT Press 2003.) Despite the initial enthusiasm, the public did not accept this talking book concept but the device did gain acceptance as a way of listening to music. I’m not sure you can call it collaboration as such but there was some sort of informal feedback process at work. Most likely it was a case of various innovators/entrepreneurs trying to sell this new listening device for all kinds of purposes until somebody stumbled onto music recordings.
The collaborative process is being introduced more formally and at a much earlier stage than in previous generations (as far as I can tell). It seems to be more inclusive and more interactive as per Jones’s essay where he cites a project where members of the public indicated which kinds of applications they favoured. This information was then used to create guidelines for funding of research projects in the UK.
I think that the kind of interaction is valuable and I hope it continues. I also hope that the more speculative (pie in the sky) work also gets supported.