There’s a little black spot on the sun today…

By Peter Dearden 13/06/2012 7


Peter K. Dearden

… as The Police used to sing. Currently they are sunspots, but last week, as you all well know, it was Venus transiting the sun. This event was used as an excellent excuse to run a symposium in Gisborne to discuss the future of science and scholarship in NZ, as well as its role in society. This symposium, driven by the late great Prof Sir Paul Callaghan, took up much of my time last week, and much thought this week.

The symposium kicked off with a remarkable day with the people of Tolaga bay, Uawa, that demonstrated the stunning abilities and future that community has. I would really like to thank them for their hospitality.

The next two days tried to address some of the issues around science, scholarship and society and, to be honest, most this was frustrating. Apart from a good session on communication, I think we identified a lot of problems, and provided few answers. The phrase ‘Transiting Venus’ became synonymous with that glazed look you get when someone says they will be brief and then goes on for 20 minutes.

Along with this it became clear that many of the old stereotypes of research were alive and well in the public’s mind. ‘Scientist are bad communicators’, was trotted out a few times. Anyone reading the blogs here would know that many scientists are awesome communicators. ‘universities aren’t part of the real world’ was also stated, which is infuriating to those who try so hard to make them relevant.

Despite this I was excited by some of what I heard, and impressed by many of the people I met. I particularly was interested by the idea that scientists should become public intellectuals. I’m not completely sure what that means, probably more than just doing more thinking in public. If it means more engagement with the public, more comment on topics for which we have expertise, more critical analysis of public matters, then this is great. We do need to ensure that support for this role, and time to do it, is made available by our institutions, but I say, hell yeah!

The other idea, which perhaps was not stated directly, but I think was floating around, is the idea of a ‘new enlightenment’. Its time for New Zealand’s researchers and academics to be more involved, to drive the energy and innovation this small nation needs. To lead, in our own disciplines, to a future where evidence plays more of a role in policy, in decision making, in public life.

Perhaps this is the most important thing I took from the transit of Venus. It re-energised me to increase my links with community, business and society, and I hope others took the same message. It encouraged me to be more critical and to speak out more, as only through speaking out, pointing out where errors are made, and using knowledge and training to improve things, will we bring about the new enlightenment that I think we urgently need. It is a call to arms for all of us.

The next line of the Police song quoted in the title is ‘it’s the same old thing as yesterday’, and I think, if others feel the way I do, perhaps its not.


7 Responses to “There’s a little black spot on the sun today…”

  • If it means more engagement with the public, more comment on topics for which we have expertise, more critical analysis of public matters, then this is great. We do need to ensure that support for this role, and time to do it, is made available by our institutions, but I say, hell yeah!
    yes, YES, YES I think you are exactly right – scientists need to do more of this, and we need to be supported by our institutions to do it
    Your description of the ‘transit’ event as a call to arms is very apt indeed.

  • Yes – I also support you in your conclusions. And yes, we are seeing more scientists out there taking their passion to the world, including yourself. And yes, we are training more young people how to communicate science better, in a myriad of ways, in these institutions that aren’t part of the real world. So kia kaha! Keep your head up and the blogs coming.

  • Some scientists are poor communicators, some are not.
    Some scientists are interested in communicating science, some are not.
    What I think we need to do, in the first instance, is encourage those who are good communicators and interested in communicating to do it as best they can.
    This means getting the whole scientific community to recognise the importance of science communication. I think, in spite of what is said at these sorts of conferences, there are still many scientists who do not appreciate the importance of the public’s opinion of science and feel entitled to potter away in their labs undisturbed, but while still accessing public money.
    The emphasis on the PBRF in tertiary institutions inhibits interest in science communication for many researchers.
    I also think that there are many innovative approaches to communicating science to the public, but often these approaches remain localised. I would love to see someone compile all such approaches and perhaps see if they can be better complement each other.
    Of all the conferences on science that I have either attended or seen, the ToV forum, seems to me to be the most likely to produce change – it allowed far more discussion that many other meetings and if it can be used as a “call to arms” I think it will be a good start.

  • This means getting the whole scientific community to recognise the importance of science communication. I think, in spite of what is said at these sorts of conferences, there are still many scientists who do not appreciate the importance of the public’s opinion of science and feel entitled to potter away in their labs undisturbed, but while still accessing public money.

    So maybe all public money should come with the explicit expectation that the person receiving the money is expected to do something about letting the public knowing what’s being done with that money, in the same way that’s done for Outcome-Based-Investment grants?

    • I think this is a good idea, it is clearly the expectation for more applied funding, why not Marsdens and HRCs too? But I think we need to do more than that, it’s not just about communicating your research, but also commenting and providing expertise on public matters you have some experience/knowledge in. Being an academic scientist is an immensely privileged position, it should come with a responsibility to contribute to our knowledge, expertise and experience to society.

  • […] There’s a little black spot on the sun today – Peter Dearden Sabbaticals – Marcus Wilson The Geek Manifesto: required reading – Michael Edmonds A vision for New Zealand education 2020 – Michael Edmonds Pounamu reflections – Michael Edmonds Transit of Venus forum in review – Elf Eldridge The unseen transit – Gareth Renowden Transit of Venus – Marcus Wilson Transit of Venus: a sight for sore eyes – Peter Griffin Transit of Venus: Live from Gisborne – Peter Griffin  Print This Post Post Tags:SciblogsSciblogs podcastTransit of Venus […]

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