Science and Society dream team?

By Elf Eldridge 04/10/2013

With today’s announcement of the first 3 National Science Challenges (NSC’s) and the opening of their request for proposals*, I’m forced to reflect again on the Science and Society challenge. I’m assured that it’s moving forward behind the scenes (and I actually believe it is!) but I’m going to take this opportunity to prompt a little discussion with the science community about what we might like it to look like and, specifically, who might be some excellent thought and practice leaders to ensure it actually achieves what the Panel intended rather than to simply meet the milestones that will be set out for it (as so many projects end up doing – both public and private).

Who would you pick to keep the science and society challenge on course? – Image from Wikimedia Commons

First off: what aspects of Science and Society is the challenge likely to focus on? We can’t know before an official announcement is made, but we can possibly extrapolate from the latest documentation coming out of the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment. The draft Tertiary Education strategy that’s making the twitter rounds at the moment (document here) is probably a reasonable place to start. I can only provide an overview as I haven’t had a chance to review the entire document yet but it outlines some ‘priorities’ for NZ tertiary education:

  1. Delivering Skills for Industry
  2. Getting at-risk young people into a career
  3. Boosting Achievement of Maori and Pacifika
  4. Improving adult literacy and numeracy
  5. Strengthening research-based institutions
  6. Growing International Linkages

Reading between the lines a little we can imagine that an emphasis for the Science and Society challenge might to promote general science and mathematics literacy (items 2, 3 and 4) and teaching STEM skills relevant to modern careers (items 1,2, 3, 5 and 6).

Would this be a reasonable focus for the challenge – given that it’s impossible for the challenge to try and tackle every science and society at once? For my two cents it seems a reasonable goal – and one that my on personal motivations are closely aligned to – however I’m about as biased as one could get! So I would love to hear others’ take on it.

Secondly comes the big question who might we grab on to lead these sorts of developments?

For general science and mathematics literacy, one could cherry pick any number of organisations to lead the charge – however public literacy is something that is intensely personal, so I wonder if a person rather than a faceless organisation might be best to lead this? If you accept this then who might you choose for such a role? It would require experience, ability, motivation and a certain amount of delicacy. If I’m honest – I think the best person in NZ for the role would be Siouxie Wiles. Quite apart from being a gifted scientist and communicator Siouxie is also knowledgeable about almost every branch of public science communication known to mankind. I think if there were a way to communicate the intricacies of bioluminescence with smoke signals, then Siouxie would have found a way to do it. If you needed to raise money for such an activity Siouxie would have some good ideas on places to start.

This has nothing to do with the article, its just a pretty picture of bioluminescent Gusano luciernaga – Image from Wikimedia Commons

So that just leaves modern STEM education**. Again I’m an advocate of a person or small group of people to lead this rather than an organisation, but this is a tough ask! It will require co-ordination between not only secondary schools and tertiary institutions, but also the ability to synergise between significantly different styles of learning that are developing thanks to technology (i.e. MOOCs, Kahn Academy with more traditional approaches like lectures). The group will have to have fluid goals AND long term visions to keep pace with the requirements of ever-changing industry, and the frontiers of modern science.

So who would I pick? Actually – no one. I don’t know of anyone in NZ that can exemplify all these qualities***. What I would suggest is to take a look how international organisations attract, retain and train their staff. NASA and Google would be my picks simply because they currently rank as the top 2 places in the world engineers want to work[1], they both have large workforces that are consistently at the forefront of modern research, and they employ STEM skilled people from a huge variety of areas and effectively interface them with modern international industry and they support science and technology outreach initiatives at school level. Most importantly though, they attract and inspire the best and brightest from across the planet to compete at the same level as them. Surely we could do worse than emulate that?

Yeah I think emulating that put this little guy on Mars with a rocket crane is the right approach here. Click image for the full video.  Image and Video credit to NASA

This only looks at half the problem though – attracting, encouraging and educating the best and brightest. New Zealand has a unique additional element that I’m not convinced anyone has figured out how to solve – that of our large ‘tail’ of students that are not achieving which is often split along socioeconomic or ethnic lines[2]. And it’s really hard to see how this will change with schools funded on student success, so rather than taking STEM subjects students are ushered towards others if they’re not seen to be able to achieve to make the teacher and the school look better. NZ could respond by altering rules and assessment standards, but unless there is a clear**** correlation between STEM  education and a reduction in social inequalities as Sir Paul Callaghan believed, people are unlikely to change their behaviour.

Who would I pick to tackle this part? Not a clue I’m afraid. But that’s why I’m discussing it here, in the hopes that people will nominate some successes in this area that I might not yet be aware of.

This is all simply opinion and conjecture of course. But I have to believe that perhaps if we discuss this some detail, then it just might get read by someone who is in a position to actually decide in what direction the Science and Society Challenge is headed.


*Go competitive funding models because of pre-existing laws rather than because they work well to get people to collaborate! <- Yes this is sarcasm.

**Yes there are similarities between science communication and STEM education but they are very different beasties. It’s relatively easy to get a group of people excited and interested about science (what I do). It’s far harder to get the information you impart to stick in their heads and alter the way they see and interact with the world long term (teachers get massive kudos from me for actually doing this as a job).

*** Yes of course there are several hundred organisations/people working on this nationally. Sorry to burst your bubble everyone but I don’t think that any one of us have got it entirely right yet. But there are some promising exemplars that I mention here.

****Here I mean clearly communicated to parents, students and teachers.

[1] Forbes article here

[2] The Te Ropu Awhina article on this and what Awhina has attempted to do about it is available here.



0 Responses to “Science and Society dream team?”

  • Hey Elf, thanks for the interesting article.

    The first question, “What aspects of Science and Society is the challenge likely to focus on?” is the one I would like to respond to.

    In my view, the challenge’s push should be to increase the perceived relevance of science. Increasing the relevance will make it much easier to achieve other, more specific goals. The 6 outcomes from the education strategy don’t really seem to be aspirational enough to unify people.

    We should be calming people’s angst by making our scientists less aloof.

    Science seems to be viewed as a technocratic, emotionless process that is sterile and a little stuffy. Could we instead reframe science as something closer to “the process for turning curiosity into knowledge”. Everyone understands what it means to be curious. There are many ways to turn thoughts into beliefs. The scientific method just happens to be a good way to distinguish the great ideas from the okay ideas.

    This reframing process would hopefully make the whole of science more accessible and relevant. The science challenge would hopefully look into the interface between society and science, to create an extremely positive feedback loop.

    • I think you’re right on the money there Tim. Which is a big part of why I push Siouxie for a leading role – her ability to communicate the core of science and specific concepts without coming off as aloof.

  • Hi Elf,

    Actually, I think if you want to improve general mathematical and science literacy that can’t be done but one individual, no matter how enthusiastic. Here you need a cultural change so society values science and hence science is seen as underpinning the entire spectrum of societal endeavours. NZ could learn from countries like Japan, Korea, Denmark and Germany how to have people value science. One person can’t make a cultural change, you need *everyone* to do this. You need people from all over NZ talking about the value of science in fact more than anyone else, you need non-scientists talking about this, rather than scientists who can be discredited easily as simply self-interested. So, great the government has recognised the value of science to some extent – now let’s have John Key, an All Black, a taxi driver, the Mayor of Auckland, a famous musician etc talking about the value of science – that’s how you make a cultural change.

    My 2c worth,

  • Well said Melanie – as usual I think your insight is bang on. I should explain that my comments weren’t intended to get one person to do all this, for a single person it’s impossible as you say, but rather to have a figurehead for the movement that epitomizes the value of appreciating science in a community.

    I take your point about needing non-scientists though. In an ideal world I would actually love to see something like this run on TV – whilst the medium itself doesn’t lend to education directly, the reaching power of having something on at prime-time during the evenings is still pretty hard to beat. However – like everything it requires money. So the next pertinent question is where might we procure money to push something like this (or other ideas) forward?

  • Yes, a TV ad campaign was exactly what I was thinking about when I wrote yesterday. Kinda like the anti-smoking one. I actually think the Government should pay for this. I think if you are really concerned about improving the economy of NZ, you should start by attempting a cultural change which values science and this the Government should pay for it because, again, that sends the message that NZ is taking this seriously as a nation. Of course, TV ads are expensive, but then compared to the cost of NZ society of not starting the process, they are a small price to pay. {I recognise that’s not a strong enough argument to make the Government part with some cash, but if enough people made it, it might get some traction.}

  • We have just had a TV ad campaign for the Great NZ Science Project funded by the Government and there is no reason why they should stop funding this kind of campaign now. In fact, rather the opposite.

  • Well actually Frederik – I would argue against that logic. For starters the science ‘campaign’ was aimed at getting New Zealanders to vote on the National Science Challenges. Now that the challenges are settled (for better or worse) it’s hard to see why the govt would fund the continuation of the campaign unless they expect to keep the challenges democratic and allow them to evolve with time. Secondly – I would argue that that campaign did very little for promoting science and its social value. Most people who saw the campaign that I spoke to knew that it involved scientists (particularly that one with pink hair!) but that was about the limit of their knowledge. Most were unaware it was something that needed to be voted on over a relatively short time frame – and that bore out in the final number of submissions an comments which (if memory serves) came in at under 5000 people.

    Whist I would love to see the govt support an initiative like this – unless it’s through the vehicle of the science an society challenge I’m struggling to see how the funding argument could be made valid. I wonder if instead a better approach would be to use NZ’s existing organisations like NZAS, Stratus, Royal Society, Rotary Clubs etc to try and fundraise for the necessary funds. This has the added bonus of actually getting people involved in the project, which will likely have significant flow on impacts beyond the TV campaign itself.

  • Thanks Elf. I was under the impression, wrong as it may be, that the Great NZ Science Project was aimed at engaging the general public with science and scientist and vice versa and that this was the first step of an ongoing commitment on behalf of the government/MBIE. Surely, it wasn’t just to get a few votes and that’ll be the end of it?

    Has MBIE done a review of the Great NZ Science Project? Did it deliver against KPIs (to stay with MBIE speak)?

  • That WOULD be an interesting Official Information Act request wouldn’t it? (Sorry I’m not meaning to be deliberately dense – but being involved with the NSCs I need to make sure I don’t say too much beyond what I’m allowed to). Frederik I think you make some excellent comments. I dont think anyone would like to see that be the end of the NZ public’s involvement with the National Science Challenges.