A few weeks ago I spent a very enjoyable Saturday at the Northern Arts and Science Network annual conference Dialogues, in Leeds. The morning sessions including two outstanding keynote talks. The first from Julian Kiverstein on synthetic synaesthesia and the second from David James on technology enhanced sports. Significant food for thought in both talks. Then Jenny Tennant Jackson and I ran an afternoon workshop on the Artificial Culture project (aided and abetted by 8 e-puck robots) which generated lots of questions and interest.
But apart from singing the praises of NASN and the conference I want to reflect here on something that emerged from the panel discussion at the end of the conference. There was quite a bit of debate around the question of open research (in both science and the arts) and public engagement. In recent years I've become a strong advocate of a unified open science + public engagement approach. In other words doing research transparently - ideally using an open notebook approach so that the whole of the process as well as the experimental outcomes are open to all - combined with proactive public engagement in (hopefully) a virtuous circle*.
So there I was pontificating about the merits of this approach in the panel discussion at NASN when someone asked rather pointedly "but isn't that all going to slow down the process of advancing science?" Without thinking I retorted "Good! If the cost of openness is slowing down science then that has to be a price worth paying." The questioner was clearly somewhat taken aback and to you sir, if you should read this blog, I offer sincere apologies for the abruptness of my reply. In fact I owe you not only apologies but thanks, for that exchange has really got me thinking about Slow Science.
So, having reflected a little, here's why I think slowing down science might not be as crazy as it sounds.
First the ethical dimension. Science or engineering research that is worth doing, i.e. is important and has value, has - by definition - an ethical dimension. The ethical and societal impact of science and engineering research needs to be acknowledged and understood by researchers themselves then widely and transparently debated, and not left to bad science journalism, science denialism or corporate interests. This takes time.
Next, unintended consequences. High impact research always has implications, and the higher the impact, the greater the potential for unintended consequences (no matter how well intentioned the work). Of course negative unintended consequences (scientific, economic, philosophical) almost always end up becoming a problem for society - so they too should be properly considered and discussed during a project's lifetime.
Finally the open science, public engagement dimension. I would argue that the time and effort costs of building open science and public engagement into research projects will reap manifold dividends in the long run. First take the open science aspect, openness - while it can take some courage to actually do - can surely only bring long term benefits in increased trust (in the work of the project, and in science in general). Second, running an integrated open science - public engage- ment approach alongside the research brings direct educational benefit to the next generation. And the additional real cost (in time and effort) has to be much less than it would be for an isolated project seeking the same educational outcomes.
Critics will of course argue that Slow Science would be uncompetitive. In a limited sense they would be right, but it seems to me important not to confuse commercialisation of spin out products with the much longer time span of research, nor to allow the tail of exploitation to wag the dog of research. Big science that takes decades can still spin out lots of wealth creating stuff along the way. Another criticism of Slow Science is to do with pressing problems that desperately need solutions. This is harder to counter but - perhaps - the unintended consequences argument might hold sway.
Slow Science: a Good Thing, or not?
*science communicator and PhD student Ann Grand is researching exactly this subject and has already published several papers on it.