Science and Society: Voices from the Humanities and Social Sciences

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The School of Athens by Raphael

The School of Athens by Raphael.

Recently Dr. Holly Menninger, Director of Public Science for N.C. State’s Your Wild Life project nicely summarized themes relevant to citizen science emerging from the Science Online 2013 conference. I’d like to add to this discussion by including issues raised for the humanities and social sciences (HSS). Several sessions at Science Online posed questions that have been central to HSS studies of science, including science popularization, science communication, the deficit model, policy questions, and ethical concerns. Session participants called for increased collaboration with HSS researchers to help build strong interdisciplinary programs addressing complex issues of communication, policy, ethics and so on. But what might that look like in practice?

Humanities and social sciences are those fields of study that concern studies of human experience and human nature. There are some distinctions between the two, especially in methodological approaches, but they can be productively blended for interdisciplinary social studies of science. HSS can also be blended with the sciences. A new NSF IGERT-funded Ph.D. program in Genetic Engineering and Society at N.C. State has already begun to form such an interdisciplinary enterprise. The program—now up, running, and recruiting—brings together students from the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Faculty range from entomologists to philosophers, science communication experts, political scientists, Science, Technology, and Society (STS) scholars, and historians. That’s a lot of folks from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

This kind of training and work becomes increasingly important in global contexts, when matters of cultural variation, colonial history, linguistic difference, political structures, and so on, all must be included in the preparation of students for field studies. Experts in HSS can work with professional scientists to improve student preparation and study design to ensure not only excellent data, but good relationships and ethical conduct (an important issue that DNLee at SciAm Blogs recently discussed) in their professional endeavors. Where are some areas that HSS connections could be made through citizen science? Participants at Science Online had a few suggestions especially relevant to citizen science.

Science Studies
Including science studies researchers: “Science studies” is a broad enterprise in HSS. Science, Technology, and Society studies (STS) are probably the most familiar vein of science studies. In addition to this well-established program of science studies, there are also studies situated in other disciplines such as communication and English (rhetoric of science, risk communication, and environmental communication), history (history of science across eras or disciplines), philosophy (philosophy of science and philosophies of particular scientific traditions, such as the philosophy of biology).

While these areas of research have some cross-fertilization, they each have particular theoretical traditions, methodological orientations, and critical interests. What might they offer to citizen science projects? Each area of study is rich with literature considering how scientific ideas have been formulated, argued for and against, and shared with the public. Science communication studies, including environmental and risk communication, explore what has been effective and what has been ineffective in communicating with publics, across professional domains, and even internally to science. Existing research on the social, cultural, and rhetorical dimensions of science communication fills journals devoted to the topics of professional and public scientific discourses.

Institutional Review Boards (IRB)
Collecting data on citizen-participants: this kind of data collection should immediately lead to questions about Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval. The goal of IRB is to protect any participants in biomedical or behavioural research from harm. Before beginning research, before recruiting participants even, researchers submit an application to their respective institutions where a benefit-risk analysis is conducted by experts who ensure participants will not be harmed and that good human-subject research practices are followed. With citizen science it is important to consider whether or not IRB is required. If there is data about humans, odds are that you must be talking to your institution’s IRB office.

Research Methods
Designing for data collection: because HSS researchers are primarily concerned with human participants, many will have some experience in the process of IRB. Importantly, they will also have some experience with designing a study where the data collected supports the kinds of questions we might be interested in asking. Given the nature of this research, there are many perspectives on how to collect the best data, how to ensure a research doesn’t bias a sample, etc. These approaches vary when one might be trying to measure perceptions of risk (as risk communication experts do) or measure learning outcomes (as work in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning does).

Educational Outcomes
Educational goals and outcomes: formal and informal education in science is an ongoing site of interest. For the sake of space here, I’d encourage anyone interested in the topic to take a look at Jean Flanagan’s overview of science education topics at Science Online 2013 on the Sci-Ed PLOS Blog.

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