Friday, 19 April 2013

Messy Research and Why I Love Science & Technology Studies

I'm writing up my PhD research at the moment. As I plan to finish by the end of the year it is my current top priority and - as is the nature of these things - I am becoming more absorbed by it as each week passes. Now I come to write in earnest, I'm wrestling with the challenge of how much has changed over the three and a half years I have been looking at public engagement with science in Scotland.

Firstly, the political landscape in Scotland is quite different now to how it was in Autumn 2009 when I started my studentship. In May 2011 the Scottish people elected their first majority government, led by the Scottish National Party. The SNP's victory has impacted my research through their energy policy and their pursuit of independance. The SNP commitment to ambitious renewable energy targets has been an important contextualising factor, as is the role of energy in Scotland's future. I will hopefully have wrapped up my PhD work by the time the Scots come to vote on independance in September 2014, but the arguments are already in full swing, and energy always been an absolutely critical piece of Scotland's economic jigsaw. So, the stakes are high on Scotland's low-carbon transition and - depending on your persuasion - energy has become a symbol of an affluent future or an example of a leadership hell-bent on a policy that will destroy what is special about the nation. To be perfectly honest, when I planned my research, the "Scottishness" of it was not really on my horizon. This niaivity lasted only as long as my very first interview when the interviewee - reflecting on informal science as a leisure activity - said,
"I think it comes from our Calvinistic heritage, this need for things to be useful as well as enjoyable".
The legacy of Scotland's national identity on its current science landscape is a PhD in itself (although strangely, outside innovation studies this kind of work seems a little out-of-vogue), but I have enjoyed thinking about what is distinctly Scottish and what is not (I have found the work of Charles WJ Withers and David Livingstone useful here).

Secondly, the energy landscape has changed. Electricity production from renewable energy rose by 28% between 2009 and 2012, the amount of onshore wind has doubled and The Scottish Government (TSG)'s CO2 emissions reduction and renewables targets have been revised. Now, TSG aim to generate the equivalent of 100% Scotland's gross annual electricity consumption from renewable sources by 2020. This has not been unproblematic and reasons for opposition vary (as I have blogged previously) but it is fair to say that the policy targets have evolved more quickly than the accompanying public engagement programme. In the last few years a Public Engagement Strategy for a Low Carbon Scotland has been promised, produced and quietly forgotten, recently replaced by a Low Carbon Scotland: Behaviours Framework.

And thirdly, the practical exercise of public engagement is looking quite different to three or four years ago. When I started my studentship, I think there was a clearer distinction between science communication and public engagement, and/or there was a greater appetite for distinguishing between the two. Now, it seems any event that has a scientist and a member of the public within 10 metres of each other can be called public engagement. I think this is a shame, and worry we are in danger of forgetting how to articulate the importance of science communication on its own merits. The Beacons for Public Engagement (including the Edinburgh Beltane) had just been launched as I started my research. Now gone, Beltane leaves behind permanent structural and cultural changes. There has been an explosion of informal science communication events from universities and science centres, and over the last 2 years The Scottish Government has sought to reposition its public engagement grant scheme towards projects that are more dialogic and community-based. Public protests against renewable energy projects have become more organised, more networked, the arguments more broadly based, and they can mobilise more quickly.

These are of course just tasters of unstable ground in governance, energy and science-public relations. So how do you do justice to research that has ended up examining a national level live experiment?! In essence of course, this is really just the messiness of social research and in particular the thing we call Science and Technology Studies. The integration of evolving technology, changing political landscape and a study of how that impacts - and in turn is impacted by - different parts of society is absolutely core to the STS philosophy. The way in which these areas are all evolving quickly, sometimes independantly and sometimes linked, is what becomes the interesting question.

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