Hot Topics in a Hot City

Submitted by DPP on Wednesday, October 14, 2015 - 12:49

I have sometimes described Atlanta to my British friends as a ‘hot Milton Keynes’ –very green and suburban, lots of criss-crossing motorways, with a large mall in the centre.  It has blisteringly hot summers – daily highs in July average a humid 32C.  It is special to me personally because my great uncle played for its professional baseball team – the Atlanta Braves - then known as the Boston Braves. So I was very glad to return to the city for what I hoped would be a similarly ‘hot’ professional conference.  I was not disappointed; the conference was packed with the luminaries of science and innovation policy, including friend-of-OU Judith Sutz, and one of my particular favourites, Loet Leydesdorff, the man who developed the triple helix theory of national systems of innovation. Susan Cozzens, the ‘founding mother’ of the conference opened the meeting with the observation ‘this is the place where the science and innovation policy research community gathers.’  In this blog I am going to focus on a few sessions that were of interest to me personally, but clearly there is much more that could be discussed.

Opening plenary
Dr Rush Holt, the CEO of the American Advancement of Science (AAAS) and a physicist gave the opening plenary.  The talk focussed on the role of scientific evidence in the American political landscape, and the fact that the American public can be swayed by ideologically-shaped weak or wrong evidence.  Holt was troubled by what he called the ‘war between science and ideology’, in debates such as climate change, vaccination and the justification for war in Iraq based on flimsy evidence for WMD.  Holt defined science as the process of ‘asking questions that can be answered empirically and verifiably’, and is a method for understanding how the world works which can be done by anyone – not just ‘experts’. For Holt ‘the evidence’ is the measure of what is ‘true’, and ‘ultimately the evidence wins’.  Holt’s argument was a reworking of the traditional ‘deficit model’ of the public understanding of science; the idea that if laypeople had more understanding of science, or the scientific approach or way of thinking, then there would be more consensus/rational decision making with regard to technological policy choices.  In his talk he also connected science with democracy and the American way of life.  Social scientists working in science and technology studies will find many of Holt’s arguments problematic; laypeople make technological choices for many reasons, shaped by their social environment and their own history and relations – it is not always simply about ‘evidence’.  Secondly there is not a clear relationship between science and democracy; science has flourished in authoritarian states, and other un-democratic spaces.  Nonetheless the talk provided a set of themes with which session participants could engage over the course of the next few days.

Emerging technologies and star scientists
The sessions and papers I found most interesting through the rest of the conference were broadly around pioneering science and technology.  One of the first was a session on ‘What is an emerging technology’ built around a recent paper in Research Policy. An exciting paper in that session by Richard Klavans and Kevin Boyak reported on research on elite scientists.  They observed that such scientists are masters at ‘spinning 7-10 research plates at one time’.  They are very adept at identifying which plates are potential money sources “without much effort”, in order to save time for the projects that really inspire them, and they are good at getting rid of the plates that don’t seem to be going anywhere.
On the second day Katarina Nordqvist’s papers on Nobel prize winners extended some of these initial discussions of star scientists.  In her qualitative interview-based research she found that Nobel laureates weren’t really interested in patenting or commercialisation of their breakthrough discoveries; instead they were inspired by fundamental or clinical research problems in which no one else was really interested.  They are also really effective at identifying and training future Nobel laureates.  They take on few PhD students and postdocs, but those they do take on tend to do great things.  Finally, interestingly, was the Laureates view that ‘science is about individuals’, which made sense, but also made me reconsider my thinking on the role of teams in science.

This Old Chesnut….
A third set of papers that interested me was on a project led by Jason Delbourne concerning a scientist working on an American Chesnut variet that had been genetically modified to resist a blight which has wiped out many billions of American Chesnuts – making the variety functionally extinct.   The case is interesting in that many of the stakeholders against the development of the technology are Native American groups, and the scientist behind the innovation has incorporated many aspects of the GM foods debate in his argumentation in favour of the GM Chesnut.  The scientist frames the American chesnut as a heritage species in need of reintroduction in order to return the landscape to what it ‘once was’.  This reminds me of many of the arguments put forward by the preservation society of my local park, Hampstead Heath, about the importance of trees on the Heath – when in fact the major species a few hundred years ago was not a type of tree but rather gorse.  In her paper Jessica Barnes, one of Delbourne’s PhD students – in arguing for the importance of narrative in understanding the role of scientists in such debates mentioned a study I would really like to read – Ottinger’s Refining Expertise (see below).

In my own paper, co-authored with Dave Wield and Gordon Wilson, on mapping the terrain of UK engineering and development research, using REF2014 impact case studies as a dataset, I made use of the presentations on elite scientists to inform my discussion of the REF2014 expert panels, and how these had likely shaped the narratives that engineers constructed about the impact of their work in developing countries.  I told the participants that what we found interesting was that most of the impact case studies concerned high tech, best-with-best department connections, rather than those based on inclusive innovation or appropriate technology.  The participants in the session found the dataset we used highly original, and were interested in follow up work that would investigate low-tech high impact research.  Some of the participants in the session suggested we take on board the idea of the 7-10 spinning plates, and look at the whole spectrum of work of selected leading engineers working in the field of engineering and development, to see if there were some ‘best with best’ examples, and some appropriate technology examples.  I found this a useful observation that we can consider as we undertake further research.  So, all in all I felt it was a very useful trip to Atlanta; when you can come away from a conference with some new research ideas, and ways to improve your work, in my mind that is a successful conference.  And an added bonus was that I was able to recapture our lost British summer with a few nice walks around the hot city.

Peter Robbins is a Reader in Sociology of Science, Technology and Development at the Development Policy and Practice group at the Open University. He is currently module team chair for the introductory Development Management (DM) module: T878 - Capacities for Managing Development.