Alice Bell, Research Fellow at SPRU, Sussex, responds to a point raised by Stuart Parkinson in the last issue  of People & Science.
I wanted to pick up on a point Stuart Parkinson made about the 20th anniversary of Scientists for Global Responsibility. He said that the involvement of controversial companies – such as arms and oil corporations – in science fairs and museums is unhelpful in fostering public debate about science.
It might seem small compared to larger issues surrounding research funding, nuclear weapons and genetically modified foods, but arguably it’s key to unlocking discussion of these larger questions, and not something to be complacent about.
I don’t think this is a black and white issue. I’ve worked on sponsored science communication myself, several times. It isn’t always a problem. We do often maintain forms of ‘editorial control’ and it’s not as if there are many funding routes available.
Parody and critique
However, we should question whether we want to sell ourselves off to these groups. It lends them credibility and makes us look bad.
I used to work in the BP-sponsored Energy Futures gallery at theScienceMuseum. I’d frequently see visitors walk up, clock the logo and walk away (that logo’s no longer there, in case you are wondering. Despite BP boasting of their role in the gallery’s production, the museum felt that when the contract came down they could remove visible traces, as if it were advertising space rather than a declaration of conflict of interest). And it risks chilling our content. It really does.
The last few years have seen visual, theatrical and sound artists applying their skills creatively to parody, critique and provide alternatives to oil sponsorship of galleries and plays (for example, Liberate Tate , Reclaim Our Bard ). I’m surprised the science communication community hasn’t followed suit. I know it’s passionate, critical and creative enough. There just isn’t the culture of protest. Maybe there should be.