Hello and welcome to my blog! My name is Caroline and I am a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. My research project focuses on Striga - a genus of parasitic plants that devastates harvests by infecting food crops. I am exploring the defence reactions that can make host plants more resistant against Striga. Due to my ongoing battles with anorexia, I haven't made as much progress as I would have liked but I am determined to finish the course.

This blog charts the ups and downs of life in the lab, plus my dreams to become a science communicator and forays into public engagement and science policy....all while trying to keep my mental and physical health intact. Along the way, I'll also be sharing new plant science stories, and profiles of some of the researchers who inspire me on this journey. So whether you have a fascination for plants, are curious about what science research involves, or just wonder what exactly I do all day, read on - I hope you find it entertaining!

Thursday 20 July 2017

From one conference to another - 'Science in Public' comes to Sheffield!

I'd barely got off the plane from Sweden before I was off to another conference - fortunately this time in Sheffield so not so far to go this time! I was attending the annual meeting of the Science in Public Research Network, held on 10-12 th July. This describes itself as a group for 'anyone involved with or interested in academic research about 'Science in Public' in the broadest sense'. Their members include psychologists, social scientists, media specialists besides scientific researchers themselves. This year, big question was 'How do science and technology affect what it means to be human?'. This had promoted sessions on everything from science policy, artificial intelligence, 'post-truth', science in media and even multiplanetary human futures. But perhaps the prize for the most bizarre title should go to 'Beyond the beautiful evil? The ancient/future of sex robots in science fiction  and society' !!!!

As a plant scientist, I naturally went for the session 'Promises and Pathways for Sustainable Food Transitions'. Given the strong social science element, the focus was on ways to convince the public to switch to more sustainable diets, rather than increasing agricultural yields. One idea is the iAnimal campaign, where participants are immersed in a 360degree virtual reality experience from the perspective of animals bred for slaughter. It certainly makes for uncomfortable viewing; little wonder, then, that so many participants immediately pledge to cut down on  meat afterwards. We also heard from Andy Ridgway, who is conducting a project on how food information is exchanged through online forums. He found that MumsNet, with 11 million users, is a particularly important advice hub for topics relating to food waste, including how to know when food has gone off; safely freezing and defrosting food and encouraging fussy toddlers to finish their meals. "We often treat Googled information with caution but information from fellow participants on online forums is generally trusted and accepted" Andy said. Given that an estimated 53 % of UK food waste happens in the home, tapping into these networks could be a key strategy to influence social behaviours. 

The second day of the conference was a nervous one for me as I was helping to give a workshop with the University of Sheffield's Science in Policy group. We are a group of early career researchers with an interest in how scientists and their research can influence government policies. Our workshop, 'Science into Policy, a practical guide' was designed to give our participants a toolkit of practical strategies to get their voice heard in the political arena. My nerves were in a bit of a state: presenting to a group of international researchers is quite different to a small seminar of PhD students - and it didn't help that five minutes before start time I realised that the wrong slides had been loaded! Fortunately we put it right in time and I managed to present my section on working with  Select Committees without stumbling too much. Now my input was over, I could finally relax and enjoy the rest of the conference! For a full summary of our workshop, please see the Science in Policy blog:

That evening, the action moved to the Town Hall for a public debate "Who decides the future? Science, politics or the people?". This was to celebrate the launch of the new iHuman institute in Sheffield, which aims to conduct 'Disruptive research into what it means to be human'. The evening, which had a 'Question Time' style format, was brilliantly hosted by Adam Rutherford, of BBC Radio Four's Inside Science, who kept up a brisk pace on the questions and audience dialogue. 

In a world with so many funding pressures and a public increasingly sceptical of science, how can we convince people of the importance of our work, particularly 'blue-skies' research with no obvious short term value? According to James Lock (who leads the social enterprise Opus Independents), it's an issue of communication, as all scientific projects have intrinsic value regardless of when they deliver results. "Anything that fundamentally changes our understanding of reality has huge immediate value, even if it's not economic. It's up to us to interpret and communicate that value' he said. Meanwhile, Daniel Sarewitz (Professor of Science and Society at Arizona State University) argued that including the public in open discussions on how to best use science to benefit society will be vital. "We need healthy public dialogues with a multiplicity of values and a multiplicity of views" he stated.
Sparking off a debate during our Science into Policy workshop!

We then moved on to 'Should robots, as intelligent beings, have rights?', a question submitted by Pepper, a 'humanoid companion robot'. A ludicrous idea to some perhaps, but the panel were surprisingly open to the idea. "Humans have rights by being an active part of society and contributing to it" said James. "Rights come with responsibilities and if robots are up for it, why not?". But why stop with robots? As Beverley Gibbs (from the University of Sheffield Department of Mechanical Engineering) pointed out, "The time is right for a wider debate about what constitutes 'participation'. What about guide dogs, for instance?" But as we move closer to the brink of humans enhancing themselves with technology, the distinction between 'human' and 'robot' is likely to become blurred. As one audience member commented, "We need to decide to what extent does our DNA make us human. Or is it just coding material?" There were fear that, in a world already rife with inequalities, technologically enhancement would only deepen divisions between human societies. 

When asked if a robot could ever run for office, the panel were quick to point out how great a role artificial intelligence already plays in policies and decision making. As Beverley said: "The bulk of policy making is based on modelling - there is a lot of technology making our decisions". But for this to continue in the future, "the bulk of the population must ask what rules are being used. Otherwise it will just be a small group of people making decisions". Whilst Peppa argued that robots carry the ultimate advantage of being able to make decisions objectively, free from emotional reactions, Daniel countered that this was very shaky ground. "It's dangerous to try and separate facts from human values" he said. "After all, who gets to decide the facts?" Meanwhile, Fiona Campbell (Senior Lecturer in Educaiton and Sociak Work at the University of Dundee) pointed out that algorithms don't always get it right, particularly when it comes of assigning healthcare benefits. As she said:"Think of the cases where people on their deathbeds are told they are fit to work!" 

It was a brilliant night and I'm sure the debate would have gone on much longer, had Adam not eventually called us to a halt. I left with my head spinning with visions of brave new worlds of digitally-enhanced humans, robots in the government and even endless leisure time when all human labour is fully automated. Such scenes naturally prompt questions and ethical dilemmas. Thank goodness for the Science in Public network, who make it their mission to bring these debates to the fore and to never stop questioning. 

So here's to 2050! 

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