Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Framing the engagement of science?

By Gill Haddow, Ann Bruce, Jane Calvert and Robin Williams

Consulting and engaging with sectors of the UK population on the development of new scientific and medical technologies, such as GM crops, stem cell technology and DNA databases is considered to be of fundamental importance by some politicians, funding bodies, scientific organisations and social scientists. Social scientists have become involved with these ‘public engagement’ activities – studying their operation and impacts and, often supporting their activities. However the position of social scientists involved in these “engagements” remains rather unclear.

As social scientists, in recent years, we have become involved in public engagement activities with a number of groups (public, regulatory, academic etc) on various new scientific and medical technologies. Again and again, we have come across the problem of how to present complex technical, legal, ethical and social issues about these technologies to our participants. There is after all, a fundamental difference between asking people for their views on a particular topic based on their experience of it and asking people for their views based on little experience or knowledge. More often than not the public/s we engaged with had little experience, awareness and knowledge of these new scientific developments; and to be frank, were often little interested in them.

To reiterate, the problem is one of engaging with lay publics or with specialist communities (politicians, managers, specialists etc) on areas outside their specialism. This is why the issue of “framing” comes to the fore. There has been much criticism from STS colleagues about the disposition of scientists to persuade public/s that the science they are conducting is good and fair by framing the issues in a particular way. A much overlooked issue in these interactions is the problem of “framing” by the social scientists themselves. The role of “framing” in social interactions can be traced back to the classic work of Goffman who suggested that, “definitions of a situation are built up in accordance with principals of organization which govern events, at least social ones, and our subjective involvement in them; frame is the word I use to refer to such of these basic elements” (Goffman, 1974). Gitlin provides a convenient accessible definition: “Frames are principles of selection, emphasis and presentation composed of little tacit theories about what exists, what happens and what matters” (1980: 6). It is this question of “what matters” that has emerged in some of our latest research.

As social scientists, seeking to elicit the views of diverse constituencies in the course of fieldwork or public engagement activities, we may need to convey something about complex technical fields and associated social issues and policy debate. Time constraints, let alone the limits to our technical understanding, mean we can only provide a condensed and simplified account of these complex issues. Such simplification brings a risk of misinterpretation by giving some aspects greater emphasis than others. So no longer is it only about making sure that we do not ask leading questions, but it is the ability to present debates, issues etc that are provocative but reasonable; that stimulate debate but do not antagonise; that do not capture our respondents by our own analytical commitments and vested (critical) interests. Social scientists involved in PE activities around particular scientific or technological developments as “critical friends” of scientists are faced with additional questions such as, “how do we present information that does not alienate and antagonise scientific colleagues through inaccuracies, ignorance or unintended bias, yet allows the social scientist to present contested debates”?

We are also faced with a problem that, at one and the same time, the “picture we present” of such advances are to be inclusive, do not lead to power-differentials, do not “capture” the audience by our (conscious or unconscious) vested interests, do not lead to premature consensus and presents the information in a fair and unbiased way.

Some commentators have tended to discuss the issue of framing as a conscious strategy to lead (or mislead) those being engaged with towards a particular view (McCombs, et al 1997). In our experience this is less frequently an issue for social scientists as the unconscious representation of knowledge that reflects the social scientist’s interests. For example – there is an issue about justifying the involvement of social scientists as paid members of PE exercises; the general concern by social scientists to emphasise their value as intermediaries in techno-scientific change and there is also a question of the social and political personal commitments of social scientists. The solution is perhaps to spend more time reflecting on the presentation of information, more time discussing it with colleagues and more time thinking about the reactions it is likely to produce and to take more care in the results to demonstrate what and where the social science was in the frame.

Goffman, E. (1974). Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience New York: Harper and Row
Gitlin, Todd. 1980. The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left. Berkeley, CA, Los Angeles, CA & London, U.K.: University of California Press.
McCombs, M., Shaw, D. L., and Weaver, D., (1997) Communication and Democracy: Exploring the intellectual frontiers in agenda-setting theory. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

How many scientists fabricate and falsify research?

Press release from PLoS ONE

It's a long-standing and crucial question that, as yet, remains unanswered: just how common is scientific misconduct? In the online, open-access journal PLoS ONE, Daniele Fanelli of the University of Edinburgh reports the first meta-analysis of surveys questioning scientists about their misbehaviours. The results suggest that altering or making up data is more frequent than previously estimated and might be particularly high in medical research.

Recent scandals like Hwang Woo-Suk's fake stem-cell lines or Jon Sudbø's made-up cancer trials have dramatically demonstrated that fraudulent research is very easy to publish, even in the most prestigious journals. The media and many scientists tend to explain away these cases as pathological deviations of a few "bad apples." Common sense and increasing evidence, however, suggest that these could be just the tip of the iceberg, because fraud and other more subtle forms of misconduct might be relatively frequent. The actual numbers, however, are a matter of great controversy.

Estimates based on indirect data (for example, official retractions of scientific papers or random data audits) have produced largely discrepant results. Therefore, many researchers have asked scientists directly, with surveys conducted in different countries and disciplines. However, they have used different methods and asked different questions, so their results also appeared inconclusive.

To make these surveys comparable, the meta-analysis focused on behaviours that actually distort scientific knowledge (excluding data on plagiarism and other kinds of malpractice) and extracted the frequency of scientists who recalled having committed a particular behaviour at least once, or who knew a colleague who did.

On average, across the surveys, around 2% of scientists admitted they had "fabricated" (made up), "falsified" or "altered" data to "improve the outcome" at least once, and up to 34% admitted to other questionable research practices including "failing to present data that contradict one's own previous research" and "dropping observations or data points from analyses based on a gut feeling that they were inaccurate."

In surveys that asked about the behaviour of colleagues, 14% knew someone who had fabricated, falsified or altered data, and up to 72% knew someone who had committed other questionable research practices.

In both kinds of surveys, misconduct was reported most frequently by medical and pharmacological researchers. This suggests that either the latter are more open and honest in their answers, or that frauds and bias are more frequent in their fields. The latter interpretation would support growing fears that industrial sponsorship is severely distorting scientific evidence to promote commercial treatments and drugs.

As in all surveys asking sensitive questions, it is likely that some respondents did not reply honestly, especially when asked about their own behaviour. Therefore, a frequency of 2% is probably a conservative estimate, while it remains unclear how the figure of 14% should be interpreted.

Contact: Dr Daniele Fanelli
Citation: Fanelli D (2009) How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data. PLoS ONE 4(5): e5738. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005738


Constituting Neurologic Subjects: Neuroscience, Identity and Society after the ‘Decade of the Brain’

Are we are brains? Certainly, new research in the neurosciences is providing compelling evidence to suggest that much of what we think, say and do is governed by the brain, at least in part. Through their work, not least of which are powerful imaging studies, neuroscientists provide new ways of understanding ourselves, social relations, and societies. In so doing, the 'new brain sciences' are contributing to longstanding debates concerning free will, morality, and madness. Increasingly, neuroscience research is filtering into other domains and discourses, challenging existing practice and animating new social engagements and relations. Accordingly, social theorist Nikolas Rose has suggested that 'we' have now become 'neurochemical selves' (Rose, 2007: 188), understanding thought, feeling and behaviour as being mediated through the workings of the brain.

Rose's formulation captures well the broad shifts in identity that the meta-narratives of neuroscience and the psy-sciences have entrained. Anthropologist Joseph Dumit (2004) and sociologist Kelly Joyce (2008) have likewise examined some of the cultural practices associated with neuroimaging in particular. It is becoming clear that neuroscience is not a twenty-first century phrenology: neuoscientific narratives about personality and behaviour align somatic and societal registers in sophisticated ways which render problematic simplistic critiques of ‘reductionism’ or ‘determinism’ (Pickersgill, 2009). Yet, there are clearly a number of ‘gaps’ in our understandings of the complex interactions between neuroscience and society that need to be explored. In this project, funded by the ESRC, we (in collaboration with Dr Paul Martin, University of Nottingham) seek firmer analytic purchase on these important issues through empirical work examining the positioning of a range of publics (including neuroscientists themselves) towards neuroscience.

Methodologically, this 11 month project employs documentary analysis and focus groups to reach an understanding of the range of subject positions assumed by publics in relation to neuroscience. Extending Sarah Cunningham-Burley’s work on science and publics, and Martyn Pickersgill’s research into the links between psychiatry and neuroscience, this investigation charts the constitution of neurologic subjects by exploring the shifting understandings of expertise and identity engendered by neuroscience. In the process, we seek to ground theoretical discussion about neuroscience in empirical reality, and create a new vantage point from which we can better engage with the ethics and politics of this potentially transformative science.

Martyn Pickersgill and Sarah Cunningham-Burley
Public Health Sciences Section, College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, University of Edinburgh


Dumit, J. (2004) Picturing Personhood: Brain Scans and Biomedical Identity, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Joyce, K. (2008) Magnetic Appeal: MRI and the Myth of Transparency, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Pickersgill, M. (2009) ‘Between Soma and Society: Neuroscience and the Ontology of Psychopathy’, BioSocieties, 4, 1, 45-60.

Rose, N. (2007) The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century, Princeton: Princeton University

Reducing our carbon footprint: can selective animal breeding help?

Innogen Research Fellow, Ann Bruce has been awarded an ESRC grant:

Mitigating the environmental impact of cattle and sheep: animal genetics and farmers' readiness for uptake

Global warming is often thought as being caused by energy production but the second largest contributor is animal production, with methane produced by cows and sheep a key component. One obvious solution is to reduce meat and milk consumption but this is unlikely to be acceptable to everyone. Moreover, grass-fed animals (such as cows and sheep) can provide other benefits than food, such as managing biodiversity. The UK has a good climate for producing grass and many of the upland regions of the UK cannot be used for cultivating anything other than grass. Grazing animals therefore provide the backbone of many rural communities.

A range of different animal breeding technologies (including but not limited to genetic modification) could be used to mitigate the global warming impact of farm livestock, but adoption of these may be limited by willingness of farmers to purchase these replacement breeding animals. The aim of this project is to:
  • understand how farmers reach decisions on where to source replacement breeding animals
  • understand how the whole system of producing replacement breeding animals impacts on the decisions made by farmers
  • evaluate what changes could be made to encourage the uptake of animals bred for reduced global warming impact

This project will identify key factors that influence the uptake of animals bred for reduced global warming impact. By working in collaboration with a key animal breeding technology transfer body (Genesis Faraday Partnership) this project will be working directly with the people who would be in a position to act on the knowledge created in this project and influence how breeding technologies could be used to mitigate the global warming potential of farm animals.

This project will run from January 2010-Decemebr 2011. For more information, please contact Ann Bruce.

Cross-national technology regulation in Africa

Dr Julius Mugwagwa has won a very competitive and prestigious Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship. Julius will be working on 'Cross-national technology regulation in Africa' and the abstract below captures the essence of the project:

'Building on methodologies and theoretical insights from the doctoral study, the proposed fellowship seeks to make an original and innovative contribution to understandings of how policies and regulatory systems for innovations spread across countries with the mediation of supranational organisations and other trans-national policy actors in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). This will be done through a multi-level comparative analysis of processes towards cross-national governance frameworks for biotechnology/biosafety policies and medicines control regulations in southern, eastern and western Africa'

For additional information about this project, please contact Julius.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Scientific experiment confirms what most people thought, a few scientists quite pleased

By Ann Bruce, Innogen Research Fellow

The social science community often critiques life scientists for over-promising what their work will deliver. This was a strong theme from a recent stem cell conference, ‘Beyond Pattison’.

But what can we really expect life scientists to do?

They are expected to produce academically “excellent science” and to justify the relevance and value of this to publics – who are, after all, funding the research.

No wonder then that the life scientists might talk about their research in terms of potential therapies for say, multiple sclerosis rather than say, understanding how a particular signalling factor is determining whether a cell differentiates or not. No doubt there are occasions when individual scientists over-state their case or when newspaper headlines promise unrealistic cures but I for one am not surprised that natural scientists justify their research, which may be a long-way from producing applications, in terms of cures. We as a society have asked them to do so.

The question surely is not whether life scientists sometimes apparently promise one thing and deliver something else but when does this matter?

As a society we demand that scientists tell us why they are doing the research but we should not do this naively. Instead we need to do this with our eyes open to the myriad possibilities that could arise from the research and the complexity and timescale of the process needed to move from research finding to clinical treatment.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Pharma Futures: The Future of the Pharmaceutical Industry

by Joyce Tait, David Wield, Joanna Chataway and Ann Bruce

The Organisation for Economic Development (OECD) is launching a book ‘The Bioeconomy to 2030: designing a policy agenda’ which summarises the outputs from a major International Futures Programme. Innogen contributed a major scenario report on health-related biotechnology up to 2030 .

Innogen’s research over the past seven years has focused on the interactions between innovation and regulation in the pharmaceutical industry. Unlike most industry analysts we see regulation as the key determinant of the overall structure of the sector, of the nature and mix of firms participating, and also of the relative competitive advantage of countries and regions. Rather than being an immutable part of the background, if we want to get the maximum innovative benefit (public and commercial) from the huge investment in basic life science, regulation is the key variable capable of driving radical change in the sector.

The starting point for our scenarios was a world health care system that, from the perspective of potential impacts of biotechnology, is mainly under the influence of the innovation model of multinational drug companies (big pharma). The scope and inventiveness of this model has been constrained by expensive and lengthy regulatory systems that act as a barrier to entry for small companies that could challenge the industry status quo. Radical regulatory change (smarter regulatory systems for 21st century science and innovation) is seen as a necessary precursor to the emergence of a new, more radically innovative, health care sector.

To achieve these beneficial outcomes for the health bio-economy our scenario suggested that a big pharma company and a major ICT firm could form a joint company to deliver ‘Networked Health Care’ and described how this could emerge, given ‘smarter’ regulation. To succeed, the new company would need to harness a wide range of global networks, bringing together new technology, new types of expertise, surmounting regulatory barriers to innovation, and embracing new competition models.

In this scenario, the most powerful partners would no longer act as technology gate-keepers, inhibiting the development of innovations that did not contribute to a drug-based approach to health care.

Achieving radical change in major industry sectors or regulatory systems is sometimes described as “turning round an oil tanker”. However, even once you have turned the oil tanker round, it is still an oil tanker. The challenge in this case was equivalent to converting the oil tanker into a multifunctional mother ship in charge of a fleet of smaller faster vessels capable of taking off in many directions while remaining well connected with one another. And regulatory change is the essential first step in enabling this to happen.

See: Innogen Policy Brief “Pharmaceutical Futures Health Biotechnology to 2030”; also presentation by Joyce Tait to LSE Complexity Workshop

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Below the radar

By Joanna Chataway, Innogen Co-Director

There was an interesting article recently in The Economist entitled 'Lessons from a Frugal Innovator' (16.04.09). The basic argument is that in the healthcare sector, Indian companies are responding with new products and efficient delivery systems to cost conscious national consumers. In some cases this is leading to superior treatment than can be found in the inefficient West.

This relates to arguments put forward in a new Innogen working paper, 'Below the Radar: What does innovation in the Asian Driver Economies have to offer other low income countries?' In that working paper we suggest that needs of poor consumers in low income contexts might constitute 'disruptive markets' which could in the end have radical implications for innovation trajectories. Our argument is that the needs of these consumers are often missed entirely by companies based in the West (thus below the radar...) and in any case the business models these companies use are inappropriate for addressing the needs of this type of consumer and user. Companies in India and China may be able to respond to poor peoples' needs more effectively and set in motion widespread change in the rate and direction of innovation in different economic sectors.

We would welcome feedback and thoughts.

Something to feel good about

By Joanna Chataway, Innogen Co-Director

I don’t know how significant this is but on the face of it the University of Edinburgh should feel proud of itself this week. The University, under pressure from students, has said it will not license its science and technology to pharmaceutical companies that won’t sell their drugs at cost price to developing countries. Edinburgh is the first university to implement such a scheme. A longer article appears in the Observer (26 April 09).

The potential significance of this scheme is that other universities and public sector bodies might follow. With more and more patents owned by the public sector this might have quite an impact on availability of drugs in poor countries. I guess one could argue that this might be gesture politics but it will amount to more than that and anyway that in itself does not make this unimportant. Real change in making affordable drugs available to poor people in developing countries may depend on multiple factors (see Innogen’s OECD report on Health Biotechnology to 2030 for an idea of some the issues) but schemes like the one just announced by the University of Edinburgh are vital in signalling that the current situation whereby people die in their millions of totally preventable diseases must end.