People & Science

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13/07/2014

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‘I’m a Scientist’

‘I’m a Scientist get me out of here!’ is an online event in which participants evict experts from the group until only one winner survives. It shared first prize (with Involve) for the first Sciencewise Expert Resource Centre’s People’s choice award. 

Use it for funding too

It’s only democratic, argues Sophia Collins

‘Interesting but badly paid work on offer’, said the email. As an out-of-work TV researcher, paid work sounded good and interesting was even better. I signed up for two weeks as an online moderator for a youth engagement project called ‘I’m a Councillor, get me out of here!’

It’s only democratic, argues Sophia Collins

‘Interesting but badly paid work on offer’, said the email. As an out-of-work TV researcher, paid work sounded good and interesting was even better. I signed up for two weeks as an online moderator for a youth engagement project called ‘I’m a Councillor, get me out of here!’

The event got young people talking to and voting for their councillors, and it took me by surprise. The young people were honest, earnest, sparky, warm – and frustrated. I began to see that our society scapegoats and marginalises young people, and that this wasn’t the way to help them grow up happy, sane and integrated into society.

During the event I saw councillors and teenagers making connections. I saw young people blossom as we gave them a voice that was listened to. ‘Why don’t we do this for science?’ I thought.

Several years later, we have.  We’ve run two ‘I’m a Scientist’ events, and they’ve worked even better than I’d hoped. I firmly believe we should go further and use events like this to give young people some real input into funding decisions in science.

Learn by doing

I think there are several moral arguments for this. First, young people are adults of the future. They will be affected by the decisions made now far more than most adults, because they will live with the results for longer. Shouldn’t they have some say in the world we make for them? Second, they are today’s young people. Even when they are grown up, there will still be new teenagers. If there are ways that teenagers are particularly affected by science and technology then isn’t it only democratic to have some input from actual teenagers? And third, engagement just has to be two-way. If we want people to engage with science, then it can’t be a one-way street. If we want their attention and their money, we need to give them a say too. This argument applies to young people as much as the rest of the population.

I think there’s a pragmatic argument too: people engage much better if they are included, not lectured at. They take more of an interest in things they can affect, they feel ownership over things they’ve been involved with, and they learn by doing more than they learn by rote.

Road deaths or anti-cancer drugs

So are there risks of giving young people some input into funding decisions? Well, some would suggest young people might make the ‘wrong’ decisions. I’m not sure how we know what the ‘right’ decisions are though. If wrong means ‘not the same as the experts’, then surely all arguments for public participation fall at the same hurdle?

Another objection I’ve heard is that it would trivialise the funding process (and by extension, science). People who have taken part in the event don't think this.

I’ve stood in a classroom observing an ‘I’m a Scientist’ lesson, eavesdropping on a group of young people fiercely disagreeing about which scientist to vote for. One scientist was trying to reduce road deaths, another developing anti-cancer drugs. The students earnestly argued back and forth about the numbers killed on the roads or by cancer, whether that was all cancers or just specific ones, how many a given treatment might save, how to factor in people not killed but maimed.

Most young people take the responsibility they’ve been given very seriously. They appreciate that they’ve been trusted with something, which is not the way they are normally treated by the adult world.  Given the chance, young people are very capable of making informed and considered decisions. So let’s give them the chance.

Better for girls than boys

William Gosling ponders gender difference

William Gosling ponders gender difference

Science has been growing for four centuries, ever expanding its activities and the resources it commands, while the number of people in science has doubled every fifteen years. The benefits to humanity have been immeasurable. Exponential growth must end, though, and Price1 suggested a constraining factor would be the limited proportion of the population having the talent and inclination for science. Clearly he was right — science and engineering numbers are falling short of the desirable in many areas. Science talent goes to waste in underdeveloped areas, but this is only half the world population now, so cannot rescue us.

The ‘I’m a scientist’ website is a good idea, nicely carried through. Initiatives to help young people into scientific careers are always welcome. However, science itself can tackle this problem too. Psychologists research what motivates young people to study science, and some results were presented at our own Science Festival.2 What do they tell us?

Different motivations

There is a significant, subtle gender difference: girls go into science for different reasons from boys. There are many misconceptions. At school, boys are better at science than girls. Right? No, wrong: in UK GCSE and A-level examinations, girls consistently outperform boys in science — yes, even physics — and that seems true world-wide. Sure, girls have some bias toward life sciences and boys toward physics and engineering, but it is neither overwhelming nor globally uniform.

What does differ is motivation at point of entry. Boys are optimistic that challenges have potential technical fixes. For them, solutions to environmental problems lie less in social change than in more efficient vehicles, less waste of energy, practicable low-carbon renewable resources. They want science so they can make things work better, the classic engineer’s impulse toward ‘helping more people fry more sausages’. Beyond that, ethical issues seem secondary — let’s get this damned thing working, then decide the right way to use it. Boys are more ‘earthed’.

In contrast, what contributes to the health, prosperity and happiness of humanity is what excites girls. Seized by social and health issues, they care about the environment, both physical and psychological, and fear bad futures without preventive action based on scientific insight. They distrust excessive rationalisation of problems, wanting feeling and intellectual processes to be evenly balanced.

Science and feeling

Part of our trouble is that in our patriarchal culture we hate to admit how much science and technology is based on feelings, not calculation. Kuhn3 revealed irrationality in scientific ‘progress’ and was heavily attacked for it. In engineering, deep design4 matters as much as technology, yet can never be wholly rationalised. We know, but treat it as a dirty little secret. If we came clean, girls might take to hands-on engineering like ducks to water.

Of course, this is just point of entry stuff. Once in science careers, both sexes face concrete challenges and become aware of ethical dimensions to what they do. Yet it does matter when you are recruiting.

In 'I'm a scientist', participants evict experts from the group until only one winner survives. How is the choice made? All sorts of things must come in, but my guess is that the simple human worthiness of what a scientist is doing has to be in there, a moral judgement in fact.

If so, the site may have 'girlie' appeal but will do less for boys. Also, I have a twitchy feeling that maybe a website, great for now, could turn out, longer term, to be the wrong medium. Future learning may lean more and more on electronic games, used avidly by both sexes. They enable participation in the process in a democratic kind of way, maybe overcoming the sense of a scientific 'them and us'. Very challenging for 'them' that would be.

Ask the people at MIT; they are working on it.

Sophia Collins
Sophia Collins is the Producer of the ‘I’m a Scientist’ event'
William Gosling
William Gosling is Emeritus Professor of communications engineering at the University of Bath
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