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October 26, 2009

Call for Papers: Booms of popular science publishing

Call for Papers: Booms of popular science publishing

We are seeking contributions to a one-day symposium on 20th century popular science: the morning devoted to the apparent post-Einstein boom in popular science publishing, the afternoon considering post-Hawking works.

We are keen that this event should help foster connections between the wide range of people who study and think about popular science: historians, science communication researchers, professional scientists, science writers and literary critics.

The event is to be held at Imperial College London on 31st March, 2010. It will comprise of a series of extended 30 minute talks, plus time for discussion.

The mention of Einstein and Hawking should not suggest an interest purely in the popularisation of physics, nor should it imply a focus on biographical details of their lives, celebrity-science, or challenges of relaying especially abstract ideas in text. We are merely using these two iconic names in the history of popular science as a starting point for broader discussion in what can be a very diffuse topic of inquiry and a prompt to interrogate the reality of
so-called 'booms' in popular science publishing.

Papers might explore the impact of other iconic scientists, popular science audiences, marginal scientists publishing through popular texts, the role of journalists and science-writers and/or the role played by publishers, reviewers and bookselling contexts. We should also note that we welcome papers which reflection on both the background context and long-term consequences of 20th century popular science. Papers on 19th or 21st century popular science publishing are still of interest, as long as they speak to themes raised by a 20th century focus.

The broad range of topics potential papers might discuss include (but are not limited to):

* Relationships between scientists and their publics.
* Celebrity, public intellectuals and popular science authorship.
* Marketing and the role of consumer culture.
* Issues of culture and social class.
* Writing for children.
* Implied epistemologies.
* Publishing processes and cultures.
* Outsider-scientist writers.
* Science and Religion.
* The audiences of popular science.
* Popular science's impact on and reflection of science policy issues.
* Humour and comedy in science writing.
* Wonder and the sublime.
* Metaphor.
* Literary renderings of mathematics.
* Illustrations, diagrams, graphics and design.

Potential contributors should email a 500 word abstract (including, if necessary, bibliography) along with a 150 word biography to popularsciencebooms@gmail.com by 11th December, 2009.

We are planning a special issue for a scholarly journal, such as the Public Understanding of Science, based on the event. If you are unable to join us on the 31st of March, but interested in submitting a paper for such a publication, it is worth dropping us an expression of interest. These, and all other queries to popularsciencebooms@gmail.com.

Dr Hauke Riesch, NearCo2 Project, Judge Business School, University of Cambridge.
Dr Alice Bell, Lecturer in Science Communication, Imperial College, London.

October 21, 2009

Open access, research in advertising and the politics of climate change campaigns

UPDATE: see this post.

Have you seen the new advert from the government's ACT ON CO2 campaign? A lot of people have. It premiered during Coronation Street on the 9th October, and quickly prompted a slew of complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority.

The ad is called ‘bedtime stories’ and features a chap reading a picture-book to his wide-eyed young daughter: 'There was once a land where the weather was very, very strange. There were awful heatwaves in some parts, and in others, terrible storms and floods'. This is illustrated with animated picture-book animal characters drowning and crying with starvation. The man goes on 'The grownups realised they had to do something [...] maybe they could save the land for the children.' The girl looks a little scared. 'Is there a happy ending?' she asks, biting her lip and looking expectantly up at her father. The voice-over answers them both: 'It's up to us how the story ends. See what you can do. Search online for ACT ON CO2'.

Cue complaints about scaring children, over hyping climate change and/ or being the wrong approach to cutting CO2 emissions. Glance quickly at the Daily Mail and one might even imagine the Labour party had been drowning puppies in the name of environmentalism. One American climate change sceptic news site actually likened the project to Hitler Youth (I’m not linking to either of these sources, I stumbled across them through googlenews easily enough. If you’re really interested, so can you).

I followed this fuss over to the Department for Energy and Climate Change’s (DECC) press release for the campaign. Interestingly, this starts not with a reference to the advert, but the line: 'Research published today from the Department of Energy and Climate Change reveals that over 50% of people questioned don’t believe climate change will affect them and only 1 in 5 (18%) respondents think that climate change will take effect during their children’s lifetime'. It goes on to state that over 55 year olds are least concerned than the under 24's and 74% of people would take immediate action to change their lifestyle now if they knew that climate change would affect their children’s lives.

Fascinating stuff. I'd love to see this research in more detail. I looked around the press release: all I found was a link to the advert, not even contact details for a press officer and certainly no reference to where this research had been published. I clicked ‘contact us’ to try to track down more. After a good ten minutes of ping-pong between the DECC and the Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs, during which I spoke to two very kind and helpful, but ultimately confused and frustrated telephonists and repeatedly listened a computer voice asking me if I wanted to report a dead bird or learn more about bluetongue, I was spoke to someone who gave me a direct line of someone who had an email address of someone who could pass my message onto to someone who could deal with it. The process was rather maze-like, but reasonably quick.

The reply itself was, I think, pretty rubbish though:

Timely research was carried out just prior to the launch of the new ACT ON CO2 campaign – with over 1000 people responding to a Yougov survey – the results of which included the 52% figure.

This survey carried out was developed with earlier creative development research in mind that had been carried out by DECC which tested the chosen creative route for the campaign. Unfortunately, we are not able to publish this set of research findings.

The results of the survey which you saw in our press notice for the launch of the campaign included all of the topline results so there isn’t really anything you haven’t seen already.

So, it appears that the publication of research which the press release is ostensibly about was, in fact, the bullet point summary provided by the press release itself. How very postmodern.

The cynical sociologist in me suspects this 'timely research' (conducted days before the ad's launch) is just window dressing. Costuming a press release to look like a notification of research, rather than the ad-for-an-ad it really is, lends the project some credibility and provides content which, at least at face value, is slightly more newsworthy than what's going to be on telly during Corrie's commercial break. It is nothing more than a '9 out of 10 cats prefer' marketing exercise; a shampoo-advert ‘science bit’.

Moreover, such stats on social research rhetorically appeal to another idea UK government marketing teams seem to be recently enamored by: the public are influenced much more by each other than any message you might put up on the telly. Read in the newspaper that 74% of the population feel similarly to you, and the experience of watching the advert becomes attached to a bit of social context; the desire to save those puppies is given a small sense of social movement. Again, this is all '9 out of 10 cat prefer' stuff.

This may well be a very unfair analysis. I can’t tell: the details of the research aren't available.

This is research which is about public opinion, it is publicly funded and used to justify the use of further public funding of making and distributing of a (controversial) advert. Arguably, by any of those criteria alone, it should be publicly available. In Open Access Week and everything.

I want to emphasise that I’m largely on the side of ACT ON CO2. I even quite like large parts of the advert. However, if we’re not transparent in our own campaigning style, how on Earth can we successfully critique the rhetoric of our opponents?