Tag Archives: John Rawls

UK’s David Willetts discusses the importance of science writing

I’m impressed that the UK’s Minister for Universities and Science is busy talking and writing about the importance of science writing. Here’s an excerpt from Willetts’ Oct. 27, 2011 posting on the Guardian science blogs website,

Meeting the finalists of the Medical Research Council’s [MRC] Max Perutz Science Writing Award recently, I was reminded of the important role of science writing. The ability of science and evidence to transcend tribal loyalties – meeting John Rawls’s test of public reason – make them vital elements of rational discourse in a modern society.

The MRC’s prize and others like the Wellcome Trust’s science writing prize demonstrate that research funders agree. Science writing is all about making information and evidence available and accessible.

Historically, we have relied on a small number of journalists and editors to decide what is important, what is true. Now we have a much greater choice. Each of us is able to choose only the sources we want to hear from. If that means people with whom we already agree, do we risk losing the important function that traditional media have played in challenging our views or preconceptions?

People will differentiate between the many voices, in part on the basis of whom they consider authoritative, who is easy to find and who has been recommended by peers. Both authority and presence can be imparted to an author by the name of the host under whose banner the article is published, a job title, or an excellent track record. That is as true online as anywhere else and, of course, trust is earned slowly and lost quickly.

Independent scientists are consistently rated as well trusted sources of information. But will that hold true throughout a crisis if the major source of reporting is from within a community under scrutiny? Is merely checking copy a threat to “the sort of science journalism that everyone claims they want to see”?

With the trend for more and more online, self-generated material, organisations do have much more control over some of the information available about them. But how is this material produced and by whom? How does a research institute manage its messages if all of its researchers are potential mouthpieces? And what is the interaction between different types of coverage? Is a tweet or blog written for peers, the public, journalists, or all of the above?

I wonder if Gary Goodyear, Canada’s Minister of State (Science and Technology) could be persuaded to post here as a guest? I suspect not.

In any event, David Willetts has spoken previously on the importance of science writing at May 24, 2011 event. From the article by George Wigmore for the Association of British Science Writers on the events page,

Speaking at City University on Tuesday (24 May), David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, talked about the importance of science writing and public engagement.

Describing science journalists as “custodians of empiricism”, and science writers as “more GPs than hospital consultants”. The minister also described parallels between the jobs of science journalist and politician. He went on to describe the pressures that science journalists are under, including “the sheer pressure of time” and the tension “between the scientists doing the primary research, and the newsroom with its demands for a useable story with a vivid headline.”

Touching on a range of issues, including balance and open-access, Willetts stressed the government’s contributions to science writing and engagement. In particular, he mentioned libel reform, transparency, and financial support for institutions such as Science Media Centre.

“Science writing matters,” said Willetts. “It’s about making information and evidence available and accessible. It’s crucial in the public discourse.”

The article page hosts a video of the speech (approximately 55 mins.) and, of course, you can read the rest of the article.

In his posting on the Guardian Science blogs website, Willetts mentions a government initiative, the Online Media Group for Science (from their About page),

Over the next few months we’ll be posing a series of case studies on this site for discussion. They will explore how different people and organisations use online media as they communicate science to a range of audiences. The case studies are intended to be honest and interesting examples of how people and organisations have used online media; what has or hasn’t worked and why. We’re really grateful to the contributors for writing them so honestly.

We’re not intending to create a comprehensive list of what’s out there but the case studies will draw on the experiences of journalists, press officers, science communicators and many others. Rather than defining these familiar roles in an online context, or providing hard and fast rules about how you should use online media, we hope discussions here will help you think about the tools that exist and how they can be used to achieve your aims – whatever they are.

So please take part in the discussion, nominate someone else who you’d like to hear from, share stuff with colleagues or even submit your own case study!

I spotted four case studies from Research Councils UK (RCUK), Guardian News and Media, Wellcome Trust, and Ideas Lab, respectively.  Here’s a paragraph from each,

Research Councils UK:

The website has origins in another age, when it was OK to use it as one big electronic document store.  Even this, if done well, would perhaps have been fine, but now it is so huge that it is just unwieldy.

Guardian News and Media:

What *don’t* we use? We publish things to our website using a homegrown CMS, which also includes our blogging platform. But we use a variety of other sites and services, too. Twitter is an important way for staff to engage with (and contribute to) communities of interest – we have about 50 official accounts (like  @guardiannews, @guardianfilm etc) and well over 500 individual staff members with Twitter accounts. We also use Flickr to publish photos by staff photographers and engage with photography-loving communities, and have a number of fan pages on Facebook. You can also find us at guardian.tumblr.com, where we curate interesting snippets from the day’s news.

Wellcome Trust:

I can’t comment on how much we spend, but we have a communications team of about 40 people that encompasses Editorial, Media Office, Web, Design and Marketing. Together we produce our print and online communications. We have to support the infrastructure to run our websites but beyond this our channels, such as the blog, are run on free services and the main resource is employee time.

Ideas Lab:

We don’t have a written strategy for their [website, Twitter, Facebook, podcasting, & online video) use, but we do work to some unwritten rules:

  • Lo- to-no budget for online (excluding staff time).
  • Having a limited amount of publicly available information. Our online materials are there to encourage communication with us on the phone or face to face.
  • Keeping podcasts and tweets frequent and regular.
  • Keeping all communication very targeted – having a fixed maximum length for podcasts, and no off-topic/general Tweets.
  • Sharing content with third party sites where possible – letting others post our video and podcasts on their sites if they would like to.
  • Cross-promoting everything (such as having our Twitter name on our email signatures).
  • Keeping at it – even if something isn’t fantastic, just doing it regularly and building up a catalogue can pay off. It’s sometimes about quantity as well as quality.

One of these days I’ll have to go back for a longer look.

Intersection of philosophy, science policy, and nanotechnology regulation

After coming across a mention of John Rawls in a July 11, 2010 posting by Richard Jones (Soft Machines blog) and his (Rawls’) notions about how people and groups with diverse interests can come to agreements on social norms, I wondered why I hadn’t heard of Rawls before and how his thinking might apply to nanotechnology regulatory frameworks.

Assuming I might not be alone in my ignorance of Rawls’ work, here’s a brief description from a Wikipedia essay,

John Bordley Rawls (February 21, 1921 – November 24, 2002) was an American philosopher and a leading figure in moral and political philosophy. … His magnum opus, A Theory of Justice (1971), is now regarded as “one of the primary texts in political philosophy.”[1] His work in political philosophy, dubbed Rawlsianism,[2] takes as its starting point the argument that “most reasonable principles of justice are those everyone would accept and agree to from a fair position.”[1]

(The footnote details can be found by following the essay link.) I think the idea of people being able to come to agreements when they operate from a fair position is both interesting and seems to be borne out by a recent study in the US that Steffen Foss Hansen has recently published in the Journal of Nanoparticle Research. Michael Berger at Nanowerk has written an in depth article about the study and multicriteria mapping, the technique used to measure and evaluate interviewees’ positions on nanotechnology regulatory frameworks. From the Berger article,

Multicriteria Mapping [MCM] is a computer-based decision analysis technique that provides a way of appraising a series of different potential ways forward on a complex and controversial policy problem. Like other multicriteria approaches, it involves developing a set of criteria, evaluating the performance of each option under each criterion, and weighting each criterion according to its relative importance.

Hansen interviewed 26 stakeholders, including academics, public civil servants, corporate lawyers, [public interest groups,] and representatives from worker unions, industrial companies, and trade association.

One aspect of this research that I thought particularly useful is that the interviews are structured dynamically. From the study,

Once the criteria had been defined, the interviewee was asked to evaluate the relative performance of the different policy options on a numerical scale (0–100) under each of the criteria one-by-one. Zero representing the worst relative performance and a 100 the best. In order to allow for uncertainty in the estimation MCM allows the interviewee to give a range (e.g., 20–30) and to make worst- and best-case assumptions. The lowest values assigned to an option would then reflect the option considered under worst case assumptions whereas the highest would reflect the same option considered under best-case assumptions. Throughout this scoring process the interviewee was asked to explain the value or range assigned to options and assumptions made. One interview had to be terminated at this stage of the interview as the participant realized that he/she had yet to develop a formalized opinion on the most preferred options. Others expressed some dislike with having to put a numerical estimate on something which they normally only discuss in qualitative terms. Others again found it challenging to have to look at all the options through all their criteria scoring and explaining the scoring of up to 72 combinations of policy options and criteria. Normally they would not have to explain their position in such depth.  …  MCM is an iterative process, so interviewees were free to return to review earlier steps of the process at any stage of the interview. (Journal of Nanoparticle Research, vol. 12, p. 1963)

Bravo to the interviewees for going through a demanding process and putting their opinions to the test. Also, I understood from reading the study that MCM captures both quantitative (as the preceding excerpt shows) and qualitative data, an approach I’ve always favoured.

Berger’s article goes on to discuss the results from the study,

“Adopting an incremental approach and implementing a new regulatory framework have been evaluated as the best options whereas a complete ban and no additional regulation of nanotechnology were the least favorable” Hansen explains the key findings to Nanowerk.

Participants described their idea of an ‘incremental approach’ as “…launching an incremental process using existing legislative structures—e.g., dangerous substances legislation, classification and labeling, cosmetic legislation, etc.—to the maximum, revisiting them, and, when appropriate only, amending them…” and a ‘new regulatory framework’ as “…launching a comprehensive, in-depth regulatory process specific to nanotechnologies that aims at developing an entirely new legislative framework that tries to take all the widely different nanomaterials and applications into consideration.”

Hansen notes that comparing the ranking of the various options by the stakeholder groups reveals that an incremental approach was ranked highest by a majority of the various stakeholder groups e.g. civil servants, public interest groups, industrial company representatives and corporate lawyers.

Who would have thought that the most extreme ends of opinion as represented by public interest groups that usually favour the precautionary principle and industrial company representatives who argue in favour of little or voluntary regulation could agree on an incremental approach? I suppose it gets back to Rawls and his notion of coming to an agreement from “a fair position.”

More work needs to be done, it’s a single study, only 26 interviews took place, the MCM is a snapshot of a moment in time and may no longer reflect the interviewee’s personal opinions, and the regulatory situation in the US has changed since these interviews took place. Still, with all these caveats, and I’m sure there are others, the study offers encouraging news about diverse groups being able to come to an agreement on the subject of nanotechnology regulatory frameworks.

24 regional nanotechnology centres on the block in UK is old news?

From Siobhan Wagner’s July 23, 2010 article on The Engineer website,

Science minister David Willetts told MPs yesterday it is ‘most unlikely’ the UK’s 24 nanotechnology centres will still be in existence in 18 months time.

In the first public meeting of the House of Commons science and technology committee, Willetts said the UK has too many centres that are ‘sub-critical in size’ and resources are fractionalised by region.

‘We have been getting a strong message that especially when times are tight that people want fewer, stronger centres,’ he said.

Given the budget concerns in the UK, the move can’t be any surprise. From Richard Jones’ (Soft Machines), July 11, 2010 posting (made before this potential cut was announced),

We know that the budget of his [Willetts’] department – Business, Innovation and Skills – will be cut by somewhere between 25%-33%. [emphasis mine] Science accounts for about 15% of this budget, with Universities accounting for another 29% (not counting the cost of student loans and grants, which accounts for another 27%). So, there’s not going to be a lot of room to protect spending on science and on research in Universities.

What I found particularly interesting in this posting is Willetts’ reference to a philosopher in his speech made July 9, 2010 and Jones’ discussion of what this reference might mean as the UK government grapples with science research, budget cuts, and finding common ground within a coalition that shares the rights and responsibilities of ruling,

More broadly, as society becomes more diverse and cultural traditions increasingly fractured, I see the scientific way of thinking – empiricism – becoming more and more important for binding us together. Increasingly, we have to abide by John Rawls’s standard for public reason – justifying a particular position by arguments that people from different moral or political backgrounds can accept. And coalition, I believe, is good for government and for science, given the premium now attached to reason and evidence. [Jones’ excerpt of Willetts’ speech]

The American political philosopher John Rawls was very concerned about how, in a pluralistic society, one could agree on a common set of moral norms. He rejected the idea that you could construct morality on entirely scientific grounds, as consequentialist ethical systems like utilitarianism try to, instead looking for a principles based morality; but he recognised that this was problematic in a society where Catholics, Methodists, Atheists and Muslims all had their different sets of principles. Hence the idea of trying to find moral principles that everyone in society can agree on, even though the grounds on which they approve of these principles may differ from group to group. In a coalition uniting parties including people as different as Evan Harris and Philippa Stroud [I assume one is a conservative and the other a liberal democrat in the UK’s coalition government] one can see why Willetts might want to call in Rawls for help.

Jones’ posting provides other insights into Willett’s perspective. (BTW, If you do check out the blog, be sure to read the comments.) As for what this perspective might mean relative to the proposed cut, I don’t know. Unfortunately, I have to wait for a future Jones’ posting where he will discuss,

The other significant aspect of Willetts’s speech was a wholesale rejection of the “linear model” of science and innovation, but this needs another post to discuss in detail.

In the meantime, Tim Harper, prinicipal of Cientifica (a nanotechnology consulting firm), and TNT blogger notes,

The lack of any reaction to Fridays announcement that many of the UKs nanotech centres would be unlikely to survive is because it is old news.

He goes on to speculate that the government is gradually preparing the public for the really big cuts due in October 2010. He also provides a brief history of the centres and some of the peculiar circumstances of their existence.