Science 2.0

I’ve been thinking a bit about what I have loosely referred to as ‘climate terrorism’ – which chimes with what Paul Krugman has said recently: ‘Terrorism,’ he says, ‘can’t and won’t destroy our civilization, but global warming could and might.’ Yeah. And then there’s the term ‘climate delinquent,’ which Irish politician Eamon Ryan has been using in the Irish press to describe the Irish government’s response to the CO2 question; a nice, albeit not sufficiently hard-hitting, term.

Against this general backdrop, I was excited to hear this week’s Inside Science show on BBC Radio 4, which had a feature about some research coming out of Bristol University. Apparently, researchers there think they’ve found a way to use nuclear waste to produce energy. I won’t go into their process because I’m not smart enough to do it justice. Suffice to say this: one gram of the end product they want to produce, a sort of dark-looking diamond, can make a battery that can last five thousand years. It’s a weak battery; it’d maybe run a pacemaker. But yeah: for five thousand years. Indeed, one of the Bristol team said it’d be the equivalent of one billion AA duracell batteries: from just one gram of this diamond stuff.

Of course, this is impressive news, or so it seems, because (a) it’s conceivably using nuclear waste, which is otherwise a ridiculously-nasty waste product us humans in these parts have irresponsibly dumped on future generations; and because (b) the amount of energy given out over that sort of a life-span seems to outplay anything else we’ve managed to come up with. Win-win? Well, let’s hope so. I mean, if us humans are still here in five thousand years – and the odds on that have to be slim, given the way we’re going – we will probably need to find some sort of solution to the nuclear waste problem: maybe this is the sort of thing that could nail that problem. And given how energy-hungry we are as a species, we’d do well to find new energy sources.

So, hats (at least, partially) off to the Bristol folks.

Now, as impressed as I am about all this, I want to use this space to flag something else. What really bowled me over about this story is the way it seems to have been arranged by the Bristol team. I say ‘arranged’ because it’s just hard not to see it this way. I don’t know for sure, and maybe if they see this they’ll respond in the comments – be good if they did – but the story has been rolled out, massaged, and spun in a striking (and, maybe we need to say, worrying) way.

For many people like me, this story begins with the Inside Science show. Probably weeks in advance of the show airing, the Bristol team were approached (or they approached the BBC?) to arrange a visit to the labs. A visit was indeed made. A report was produced. It was edited (disputed? agreed upon?). And then it aired. But in airing the story, something quite strange happened. Rather than just announcing the story and catching the listener’s attention, the report ended with a call for listeners to send in suggestions for how these so-called ‘diamond batteries’ might be used. They have a hashtag: #diamondbattery. Listeners can tweet their ideas. Lots have. This is akin to crowdsourcing research, or at the very least something close to ‘open innovation.’ [The cynic in me says few of the suggestions will end up being useful to the researchers, although, who knows? In a sense, this is a smart move because it might just be one random suggestion that generates the right clue to move on the research: knowledge needs chance, the accidental.]

But not only is there a Twitter campaign. Rather, someone (maybe even someone on the research team) has made a Wikipedia entry for diamond batteries: the page seems to have been created on December 1st, possibly in advance of the BBC show? It’s certainly quite close in content to some news articles about the research i.e. articles that were based on Bristol University’s Nov 25 press release. Then the team have a web page with an impressive YouTube video. And capping things off here, some members of the team have gone on to Reddit and clearly spent a fair bit of time answering questions from a wide range of people.

What can we pick up from all this? Well, weeks in advance of the press release, I assume, they’ve made the YouTube video detailing more-or-less what the BBC radio show covered. And this means that, months in advance – again, I assume – they’ve sat down to decide what that video should include, how it should appear, who should (get the contract to?) make it. And this, in turn, has to mean that, in advance of that set of decisions, they’ve planned out these sorts of arrangements to ensure the video came out in time for the press release, which had to come out in advance of the BBC show, which then led to the Twitter work and the Reddit page (and probably lots more beyond all this i.e. I’ve picked up on this much but I’m sure there’s more: an Instagram campaign? My God, why aren’t they on Snapchat?).

Ultimately, surely, perhaps a year ago, or even earlier, some money – probably a decent amount – was set aside for all this. In fact, it is entirely conceivable that all of this was built into a research proposal: after all, this is what funders nowadays refer to as ‘dissemination,’ which it is, for sure. But just that this is dissemination on a grand web 2.0 sort of scale. I’d even go so far as to call it Science 2.0 (I wouldn’t be the first to do so).

And the thing about this is: yes, this sort of Science 2.0 is exactly what large scale research projects are increasingly expected to do. Researchers are expected to account for their ‘impact’ and this no longer means simply citation scores or some other straightforward calculation. So it now seems as if the rules of the funding game say: ‘Receiving £2m or £5m funding? Then get out onto the web, communicate with the public, crowdsource your research via Reddit, solicit tweets, interact via Snapchat, etc etc.’

And of course the rules of the contemporary university aren’t all that different. ‘It’s a market; get out there and sell. Want more money, want more staff, better labs? Then disseminate; tell the public why our university rocks, show prospective students, or their parents, why we’re #1 (or #43 or #342 or however we’re listed in the latest rankings). Get onto the radio, the TV news, Reddit, Instagram, etc etc.’ [Indeed, one thing that came to my mind when I consumed all of this content, which really is the only way to see this, was some Dean of Research in Bristol sticking two figurative fingers up to Manchester: ‘you’ve got graphene have you? Well, we’ll see your graphene and raise you diamond batteries.’]

Now, I’m new to Inside Science and so it’s possible this is how the show works, how it ties its content to research in all sorts of (only British?) universities. If I’m being unduly harsh by highlighting what the Bristol team have done, I will apologise.

Nevertheless, what a strange set of skills and actions researchers need to bring together these days. It’s possible that one of the team has all of these skills (after all, many researchers today are incredibly well-versed in using social media: it’s not that hard, really, although how many are proficient in the full range of Science 2.0 arenas: Twitter, FB, Snapchat, Reddit, YouTube?). And so, yeah, it’s possible that they know how to do the ‘lab work’ that makes the diamonds in the first place, as well as the ‘lab work’ on a place such as Reddit. More likely, though, is that research teams like this hire post-docs to do this; or maybe they simply pay sub-contractors? I’m just not in this high stakes, big budget end of the research ‘market,’ so I can’t really imagine what’s going on; but isn’t it fascinating to trace an outline of how the rules of the research game are changing? And doesn’t it beg the obvious question: are the rules changing for the better? Maybe. Public outreach is a good thing, for sure: why shouldn’t it be done this sort of way? I mean, doesn’t this go some way toward dismantling the ivory towers? Why not get onto Snapchat to source feedback on your latest research?

On the other hand, though, when funding for this sort of outreach is conditional on academics being entrepreneurial – on researchers ‘doing their bit’ to raise the university’s profile – it’s ultimately just a form of advertising and this therefore raises some weird ethical issues. I do have to wonder, for example, whether (and if so, why) Bristol’s outreach arrangement was given ethical approval. For one thing, there’s the fact that the information released is incredibly vague. The batteries give off a low current, they tell us, but how low is ‘low’? Then, the research proposes some sort of manufacturing process that must entail moving large volumes of nuclear waste. But which waste and where is it held: which towns or villages will see yet more trucks of nuclear waste passing through them? People living near nuclear waste storage facilities should be alarmed – shouldn’t they? – but they’re not given enough information here to know how alarmed. Finally, how can the lay person / content consumer get a sense for how useful all of this is, if neither the YouTube video nor even the press release provide some sense for what this manufacturing might cost? We’re brought into the research – enrolled in it by the appeal for us to tweet and join them on Reddit – but we’re not given enough information to know whether we should be anxious, or relieved. The university is advertising its expertise, its position – it’s right to draw in more research money. But is it doing this in an ethical way? I’m not convinced.

But anyway: the ethics and the politics aside, this story is worth noting, for the simple reason that it sheds light on the weird way Science 2.0 operates. It might not be all bad, but it’s certainly quite new and it deserves further attention.

Alistair Fraser

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