icm2re logo. icm2:re (I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything) is an  ongoing web column  by Brunella Longo

This column deals with some aspects of change management processes experienced almost in any industry impacted by the digital revolution: how to select, create, gather, manage, interpret, share data and information either because of internal and usually incremental scope - such learning, educational and re-engineering processes - or because of external forces, like mergers and acquisitions, restructuring goals, new regulations or disruptive technologies.

The title - I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything - is a tribute to authors and scientists from different disciplinary fields that have illuminated my understanding of intentional change and decision making processes during the last thirty years, explaining how we think - or how we think about the way we think. The logo is a bit of a divertissement, from the latin divertere that means turn in separate ways.


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Narratives that stink

Another look at public engagement with science

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2020). Narratives that stink. Another look at public engagement with science. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Online)], 9.10 (October). http://www.icm2re.com/2020-10.html

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2020). Narratives that stink. Another look at public engagement with science. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Online)], 9.10 (October). http://www.icm2re.com/2020-10.html

London, 13 September - I have found Sky News documentary on Primodos very impressive. If you have not done yet, I invite you to read and watch the reports. In a nutshell, journalist Jason Farrell team demonstrated that for many years scientists, corporate researchers, academics and bureaucrats collected data showing that the hormone pregnancy tests caused abnormalities and malformations in fetuses. However, for long time before Primodos was eventually withdrawn from the market, nobody acted upon that evidence.

The conclusion of a recent independent review, led by Baroness Cumberlege, is that both the manufacturer of Primodos and the State have an ethical responsibility to compensate the victims who survived with a burden need of extraordinary care. However, ethical responsibility does not mean legal obligations. On top of that, in the meantime, the manufacturer of the drug changed ownership, people in charge of the business retired, others have died. In sum, this is something that resembles the usual pattern of delaying to deny or shrink damages and reduce liabilities. This is the nominal notion of governance that prevails in many corporate affairs.

I look forward to seeing the forthcoming decision of the High Court on the Primodos case. It could be a turning point also for many that look at what works in public engagement with science in the post-politics of truth and social media era. In fact, a wider audience of researchers and policy makers have been operating for a very long time in an almost legal vacuum - in spite of lessons that should have been learned from the Tobacco industry legal saga decades ago - exacerbated now by the problems of communication arisen with the pandemic.

What works: the why and the how

“What works” in public engagement with science and scientists’ understanding of human rights and the limits of their roles and actions has been debated in R&D and media offices, academic institutions and government departments for years. But what are the actual boundaries of scientists’ productions and co-productions with local communities, social groups or selected individual is something everybody seems struggling to come to grips with.

Especially when the professionals are convinced that there is nothing morally or legally wrong in exploiting ambiguities for short term goals, there is no limit to the creative ways in which evidence can be manipulated even in fields like social care and healthcare.

Who should decide what type of chemical experiments or behavioural tests can be safely done on pregnant women, autistic children, people with terminal cancer or other devastating conditions, dementia patients, transgender adolescents, over 90s veterans and so on and so forth?

The Primodos case is one of many in which bad science and bad decisions have prevailed not because of a lack of good data, intentions or even competent scientists but because of a collective blind eye on careless procedures and malfeasance in public affairs.

How do we make change in this field? Of course if I had an answer or a method ready to use I would be probably relaxing on a beach and giving advice on Zoom on how to fight climate change!

What I can say, applying my perspective of an information management consultant with experiences across various sectors, is that how scientists frame communications is always relevant. The golden rule should be “frame yourself before framing the question (or the answer)” so that people can have a hint on the way in which a problem is structured and represented in a certain sphere of influence.

At management levels, controls could help in relation to risks, to mitigation strategies and other variables. But most of the times, when managers and scientists agree about problem representation, measures and controls, they tend to refer to outcomes and therefore on perceptions more than on the how things are actually done - I return on this point in a minute.

Managers and entrepreneurs have responsibilities and should be accountable as well as scientists. Easier said than done when there are no legal boundaries. Another recent American scandal - the Elizabeth Holmes’s Theranos, that for fifteen years raised up to nine billion dollars before it was shut down in 2018 and charged with fraud - could not be more exemplar. In spite of all the academic connections and formal due diligence at all levels - finance, politics, marketing - the Theranos case shows us that horrific endeavours take place in the world of science of the 21st Century with no actual management controls at all. Perhaps, the essence of the governance bottleneck stems from the high number of interlocks existing at board level, both in the public and the private sectors.

In many Countries the regulators are often able to track and measure the damages done by Ponzi schemes and other types of financial frauds. But what about the loss of health and wellbeing because of the fundamental stupidity and lack of humanity in a great portion of the human endeavours to co-produce care solutions, medicines, treatments, vaccines and the like?

Perhaps if we concentrated on the how, instead of the why, the who and the what, we could fix factual inconsistencies, contradictions and imperfections before disasters happen.

We live in an age of increased immaterial businesses that depend heavily on creativity, where formal governance processes play often the part of a catch-up legal game, not really embedded within the design and the production processes.

There is, in sum, a direct link between the creation of wealth and the so called “social construction of reality” by citizens and scientists. What is or should be the role of scientists, knowledge workers and less educated social groups in this world of data? And how their interactions should be looked after or regulated?

If we turn to bibliography, we see ripples of literature about scientific literacy dragged into the specialists’ necessity of talking about the why, avoiding - once again - the humble but often embarrassing details of the how: the practicalities of making scientific literacy viable for commercial stakeholders or philanthropists lead to an overarching, and inevitably contingent, definition of scope that easily becomes crappy and creepy.

The crucial aspects of the how (I mean design, methodology, techniques, standards, benchmarking, accuracy, ownership and responsibility of implementation) tend to fade away or become so narrow-focused, detailed and niched that it becomes almost unaccessible to the great part of the stakeholders.

Both sponsors and researchers often end up congratulating themselves for the size of the audience they have been able to reach, and that’s all. The effectiveness of the communications during the pandemic, about the measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19, shows how terrifically useless can be the ability to reach a great audience that does not understand or does not comply with the given scientific advice (I have talked about this problem in the previous issue of icm2re - 9.9, Aloof from the bickering, close to the core).

More than fifteen years ago I investigated the alternative methods available with the purpose of levelling up and standardise the interventions in lifelong learning (Longo 2004). Unfortunately, unless there are bespoke measures in place, related for instance to activities or tasks, the only general, accepted and practical way to measure quality of results in adults education consists in tracking the perceptions of the quality by the participants -the so called customer satisfaction or experience. But this can be pointless, no matter if positive or negative, when we consider the expected achievements, such as development of skills or understanding of new scenarios.

Looking back to history of scientific literature (Topham 2016), we see the problem is not new at all. In sum, there is space for change.

The politics of science

And in fact, the notion of engagement with science is changing, but… by inertia, more than by policy or by design. It is rapidly converging towards a definition used in advertising that focuses on a status of cognitive affection more than any other variable or rationale. This is an interesting idea, but to what extent can it be used for the scientific advancement of society at large?

In other terms, it looks like the more we are engaged according to the current acceptation, the more likely is that we can be infantilised, patronised, driven by reactions to stimuli to co-produce an highly predictable, expected output that would demand a lot of energy, intelligence, reasoning and time to untangle. It’s hard to believe that any sustainable and scientifically engineered social construction of knowledge can take place on the basis of cognitive affection. In sum, this notion of engagement is the soul of propaganda, not knowledge, and totally at odds with the interests of public understanding of science.

Perhaps, excuse the pinch of bitter humour, the future of public engagement with science consists in the promotion and acceptance of insurmountable learning disabilities for all!?!

I believe scientists should always be able to explain their reasons in plain and factual ways, similar to the way we explain, for instance, how we organise drains or transports.

Stories like the Primodos and the Theranos cases suggest that missing an explicit and legally binding requirement of some sort of overarching and factual clarity, scientists and researchers tend to play a game of politics around data.

Imagine if we had sewers and sewage treatments designed and organised on the basis of an arbitrary set of abstract ideas, corroborated by datasets derived from surveys with a sample of the population, and not at all on the grounds of the actual aggregation of towns and villages.

I guess we would smell that something has gone wrong.

References

Bauer, M., Allum, N. and Miller, S.(2007a) What can we learn from 25 years of PUS survey research? Liberating and expanding the agenda. Public Understanding of Science 16: 79-95.

Brabandere, Luc de (2005), The Forgotten Half of Change: Achieving Greater Creativity Through Changes in Perception, Dearborn Trade Publishing.

Longo, B. (2004), La percezione della qualità dell’e-learning da parte dei formatori. [Article, in Italian] in "FOR. Rivista per la formazione", n. 60, luglio-settembre 2004, p. 80-88.

Farrell, J. (2020) Primodos scandal: 'Significant' changes were made to key report. A Sky News investigation raises questions about the validity of a 2017 study which underwent "significant changes"., news.sky.com Retrieved from https://news.sky.com/story/primodos-scandal-significant-changes-were-made-to-key-report-12025288

Funk, C. and Kennedy, B. (2020) , Public confidence in scientists has remained stable for decades, Pew Research Center FacTank 27 August 2020, Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/08/27/public-confidence-in-scientists-has-remained-stable-for-decades/

Science and society, 3rd report of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, Session 1999–2000, House of Lords, London, 2000.

Thorpe, C. and Gregory, J. (2010), Producing the post-Fordist public: the political economy of public engagement with science, Science as Culture, 19, 273–301.

Topham, Jonathan R. (2016) The scientific, the literary and the popular: commerce and the reimagining of the scientific journal in Britain, 1813-1825, Notes and records of the Royal society, 70, 305–324 Retrieved from doi:10.1098/rsnr.2016.0027

Wilsdon, J. and Willis, R. (2004), See-through science: why public engagement needs to move upstream. London, Demos.