Friday, 15 March 2013

Big Bang Fair in the Mirror (without Distortion)

Stuart Parkinson from Scientists for Global Responsibility has written this week for the New Left Project in a post called The Big Bang Fair: A Distorted View of the Value of Science. He notes the commercial influence on the Fair (sponsorship, exhibitions, interactive activities) and is particularly concerned about the type of companies involved, highlighting the presence of arms companies, oil companies, uranium miners and other multinationals with dubious social practices (yes, I know that’s not hard to find). This is consistent with SGR’s long-running work challenging the militarisation of science and technology and concerns regarding corporate influences on academic research. If you’re interested in these issues definitely go and visit their website.

With respect to the Big Bang Fair, Stuart feels that these problematic industries and purposes have too great a profile, and laments the absence of – say - renewables developers and the lack of emphasis on more ethical applications of science and engineering. I would be more convinced if someone had analysed all 170 organisations involved in the Big Bang Fair to see whether defence and extraction companies had a presence disproportionate to the number of engineers and scientists employed in those sectors. I strongly suspect they don’t, in which case it is difficult to see what is being distorted.

Science communication is not – and never is - a neutral space. Someone always pays. Someone always hosts. Someone always designs the information. It’s always lacking in some sense. There will always be someone to argue that this display, exhibit, programme or event is not broad enough, or focussed enough, not diverse enough, not real-world enough. It overplays the consensus (a regular comment on climate change stuff) or underplays the consensus (I remember the Science Museum’s Living Tradition exhibit which David Waldock blogged about). Here, Stuart seems to argue it’s not pure enough. Not optimistic enough. Not enough emphasis on the good things that engineering can do. I think this criticism would be better targeted if this were a government sponsored event aimed at telling people what engineering was all about. But of course it isn’t.

Big Bang Fair is now in its 4th year and is a multi-partner, multi-sector event. It has to be in order to meet its objectives. You can’t talk to young people about a career in engineering if you don’t have employers there. BAe, Shell, Jaguar Land Rover (and Nestle!) are all Top 3 employers in their sectors. Like many of the big science festivals, this is not a Fair that was publicly funded and has been captured by industry – actually, they have very firm roots in the commercial world. Quite simply, they would not take place without corporate sponsorship. In the UK science festivals have traditionally been about tourism and local economic development much more than they have been about communicating worthy science (for more on this, read the excellent background summary on the Orkney International Science Festival site). The University science festival, pursuing a public engagement agenda, is a relatively new entrant to the field. Yes, I do realise this is not a science festival per se. But if this …careers festival? … were fully government funded, there would be many people quite rightly asking why science and engineering careers were being given this special treatment by government.

The US National Academy of Engineering (@NAE_DC) recently tweeted “The way that we talk about engineering is it's the art and practice of changing the physical world to improve life for mankind”. This point about changing the physical world is really important and makes engineering inherently challenging in terms of the ethics of engaging people (young and old) with it. What I said earlier about science communication not really being ‘neutral’? Magnify this 100 times for engineering. The defence and production sectors of the UK economy are significant (I think defence + mining + manufacturing is about 35% our economy?), and employ a much higher percentage of our engineers. They all have social and environmental impacts and this will not be resolved by getting in more renewable technology employers – to a ‘general public’ these may well be even more controversial.

So, back to Stuart’s post. You might call it an Uncreative View, or a Pessimistic View, but there isn’t really a lot of evidence to call it a Distorted View. To be honest, I think it looks a lot like a mirror.

6 comments:

  1. Interesting to see a view from someone with an industry background.

    There was a rather surly and prejudiced "distorted view" of the Big Bang Fair from the ubiquitous Alice Bell in the Guardian.

    Through Alice's red-tinted looking-glass, anything related to defence manufacturers or oil companies is irredeemably evil.
    She even questioned the honesty of the whole exercise and said that scientists should question whether it's something they're happy to be involved in.
    Most bizarrely of all, she suggested that Friends of the Earth should have a stall at such events. I don't think Alice will be happy until her own left-wing activist views are thrust into the faces of our young people 24/7!

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