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.