Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Tell the truth: tell it first, tell it all

Image of particle collision from DESY Hamburg

Revisiting my notes on the ERF workshop on the socioeconomic impact of research infrastructures, held at DESY in Hamburg, I’ve had a chance to reflect on some of the positive aspects of the second day of talks. Of course, I’ve had a couple of weeks to think about it! In my previous post from ERF, I drew attention to the difficulty in measuring ‘socioeconomic impact’ as though it were a single entity. The easily quantifiable economic aspect tends to take over, at least at first. So we have to dig that little bit further to get to the qualitative measure of the woolier social impact.

‘Socio-’ itself can be broken down into several subspheres: social, of course; also the environmental and educational. We heard an extremely interesting talk from CERN’s head of communications, James Gilles on Living in the Media Spotlight. CERN fit the ERF membership criteria perfectly, a main stipulation of eligibility to join being that a member research centre should do its science (and everything else) ‘out in the open’. Social media, explained Gilles, had shifted the spotlight away from communications offices, such as the one he leads, onto the scientists themselves. At CERN, and other ERF member institutes across Europe, this is a trend that continues to gather pace. As for doing everything ‘in the open’, that includes mistakes. CERN had observed that, when EU taxpayer money is at stake, there’s only one mantra that counts: ‘Tell it all, tell it fast, tell the truth…’  – even when that truth meant explaining why the LHC broke so soon after it was switched on.

One of the most exciting developments e-science in recent years is citizen cyberscience. Projects such as Fold It, Galaxy Zoo, and now Moon Zoo (and others) have shown that the general public can make a real difference when it comes to big science. Graham Higley, Head of Library and Information Services at the London Natural History Museum explained how natural history was the perfect pairing for citizen science projects. NHM have run several scientifically important citizen cyberscience projects in recent years: tracking the influx of invader bluebell species; assessing water quality through river fly numbers; counting bugs (surely one to excite children of any age), and crowdsourcing envronmental science engagement. Bioblitz was a case in point, finding new species in Alexandra Park, North London. Web technologies have allowed members of the public to make useful contributions to science, but its down to forward-thinking organisations like the NHM to take advantage of them, and be brave enough to make the point that participation in the business of science is for everyone. National research infrastructures that follow the lead of the likes of CERN and the NHM really are having a positive socioeconomic impact, and are prepared to acknowledge that the ‘socio-‘ component is every bit as important as the economic factors when assessing how they’re performing.

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