Science and society – Vancouver Change Camp 2013

I have a new post up at Occam’s Corner on the Guardian website today, about how non-scientists can (try to) influence the course of scientific research.

As I mentioned over there, the ideas in the post originated and evolved from a session I chaired at this year’s Vancouver Change Camp. I thoroughly enjoyed participating in my first Camp in 2011, and went back this year (with a friend who’d been to the first ever Camp, but missed the 2011 event) expecting the day to unfold in similar style. However, before I knew it, I was pitching and then leading a session…

It’s all a bit of a blur, but from what I remember the idea came to me while the other pitches – many of which had obviously involved a great deal of preparation – were already underway. I whispered to my friend that I thought it might be a good idea if we co-pitched a session about what people in science outreach (her) and scientific research (me) can do to help science fulfill its responsibilities to society, and vice versa. She thought it was a good idea – for next year. But the idea had taken root, and (after making my friend promise that she’d at least attend my session, even if she didn’t want to co-pitch it) I decided it was now or never, and joined the very end of the queue to go on stage. I introduced myself, my career path, and the idea for the session, then scurried back to my seat, heart pounding and face red.

My session was scheduled right after lunch, which gave me some time to jot down a few more ideas. I quickly learned that it’s much easier to meet people when you’ve pitched a session – people approach you to say hi, even when you’re sitting in a corner frantically scribbling in a notebook!

I was worried that I might not get (m)any participants, and indeed I was assigned one of the smallest break-out spaces. But lo and behold, we had about ten to twelve people, including my friend and me! I didn’t really have a detailed plan, so I (oh-so originally) started by getting everyone to introduce themselves. There was one mathematician and one high school student with an interest in science, but no-one else was from a scientific background – there were a couple of people interested in environmental issues, a couple interested in medical research, and the rest just thought the session sounded interesting in general. I then went over some basics – grant funding, low success rates, publish or perish, all that – and introduced some of the ideas in the Guardian post. I then just let the conversation evolve organically.

The key theme that emerged was of the importance of good science education – not just for people interested in science careers, but for the whole population; not just in schools, but in science museums, urban community gardens, and other venues. We talked about connecting young people to working scientists, and harnessing all the activism energy present in schools and universities. Someone raised the idea of having a “scientist in residence” in schools, parks, museums, and other less traditional venues. More ideas were bandied around than I could possibly manage to jot down, and the small group size meant that everyone participated.

I would call the session a success, overall, despite a severe lack of planning and a slightly awkward beginning. I enjoyed the conversation, and have often found myself returning to the ideas people raised over the last few months (hence the post). It was a little stressful on the day, but worth it – although I think I’ll just sit back and enjoy the next event from my seat, rather than from the stage!

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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7 Responses to Science and society – Vancouver Change Camp 2013

  1. Frank says:

    Sounds like a stimulating day. That element of ‘inspiration, enthusiasm, let’s do it’ followed by ‘omigod, what have I done’ is what camps/unconferences are all about, imho. Seize the idea and shake it around right then and there.

  2. bean-writer says:

    Sounds like you a led a great session in which people from very different worlds came together! Kudos! (and you’re way braver than me =)

    About some of the comments on your Guardian article. . . I admit I’m a little surprised at the vehemence of the some of the scientists insisting that the ignorant creationist climate-change-denying unwashed masses can’t possibly be allowed to make funding decisions or we’ll all be plunged into the dark ages. You never called for that to happen. You just suggested ways that laypeople can be more involved. And you even explicitly said, “government
    ad charitable funding, and (most importantly) peer review, should and will remain an essential component of scientific research.”

    But I’m heartened by the last comment I see there, someone who says they are not a scientist, and yet recognizes the “happy accidents” and great practical advances made by pure basic research. And I guess I do understand some of the concerns, too. Laypeople (in the form of politicians) can and do have enormous influence over research funding. A senator who believes in “alternative” medicine and wants to push funding in that direction? Someone with a personal pet medical/science cause who can tack on extra state funding for unproven, unpeer-reviewed research proposal in that area just because someone sweet-talked him into it? Or politicians who think some types of health research are “immoral?” That happens in the United States.

    Okay, writing this I do see why some scientists are so cynical. But I am trying not to be.

    • I’m only ever brave when I don’t give myself enough time to think through the consequences of my actions 🙂

      What’s interesting about writing for the Guardian blog is that while only the people with the strongest opinions (usually negative / cynical) bother to register for the site and write comments, the upvotes on positive comments generally (not for this post, but for others) suggest that the readers skew more positive than the commenters. Likewise, the response to all my posts has been more positive on Twitter than on-blog – again, possibly due to a lower barrier to participation for people who are interested, but don’t have particularly strong opinions?

  3. bean-writer says:

    Cath, you are far braver than I am =) Sounds like you led a good discussion that brought together people from very different backgrounds!

    And about your Guardian post. . . Yeah, I’m a little surprised by the cynicism of the scientist-commenters there, even though I also see their point. But you never said you wanted Joe-Schmo to be voting R01s up and down; you even explicitly stated that peer-review should remain the cornerstone of funding decisions.

    The last comment I see there by a non-scientist, though. . . That one is very heartening.

  4. bean-writer says:

    Cath, you are far braver than me! =) It sounds like you led a great discussion bringing people from very different backgrounds together.

    And about your Guardian post. . . yeah, I’m a little surprised by the cynicism of some of the scientist-commenters there. You never said you wanted Joe-Schmo to be voting R01s up and down. You even explicitly stated that you thought peer-review should remain central to funding decisions.

    That last comment, though, by a non-scientist? I found that very heartening.

    • Just a note that bean-writer’s comments got stuck in the spam filter. I let all of them through, even duplicates of seemingly “lost” comments, because I thought deleting the duplicates might trigger the spam filter again next time

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