Saturday, 10 November 2012

Experimenting beyond science

Joseph Wright's 'An Experiment on a Bird in the Air pump' 1768
I gave a talk to the other STS fellows here at Harvard last Tuesday on the topic of experimentation. My presentation covered emerging approaches in STS and related disciplines which use the metaphor of experimentation to study social processes, rather than the term's more common association with the scientific method. This blog post will cover some of the basic points from the review work I carried out - what are the different disciplinary approaches to such a study? why might the metaphor of experimentation be a useful one? and where are the conflicts, disagreements and problems? Over the next few weeks I'm planning to explore the potential for linking approaches to experimentation with my work on public engagement practices in the UK, so watch this space for further developments with this project.

Friday, 26 October 2012

How to See a Glacier

Gangotri glacier in India, source of the Ganges.
Wikimedia Commons
On the day before presenting my work on Indian climate science and politics at the Harvard STS Circle, Helen and I headed over to the MIT Museum where they are holding an exhibition entitled 'Rivers of Ice: Vanishing Glaciers of the Greater Himalaya'. The exhibition features photography by mountaineer, film-maker and founder of GlacierWorks David Breashears. As I was preparing to spend a couple of hours the next day in part discussing the impact of the IPCC's erroneous statement about Himalayan glaciers melting away by 2035, it seemed like a good place to go and generate some further reflections.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

David Harvey on Capitalism and the Urban Form

One of the many advantages of living among Boston and Cambridge's vast collection of respected higher education institutions is that there is no shortage of talks to attend given by celebrated intellectuals. We were able to attend one such event last week when the prominent Marxist and critic of neoliberalism David Harvey came to talk at Boston University. David Harvey is particularly special to Martin and I due to his position as the most cited academic geographer of all time, and indeed as one of the few geographers whose renown extends well beyond the confines of his home discipline. I am pretty sure that Harvey's 'Condition of Postmodernity' was the first academic geography book that I was ever charged with reading, which gives you some idea of how significant his oeuvre is in undergraduate geography courses. I came to the talk with some trepidation: whilst I have much sympathy politically and intellectually for Marxian analyses of the world economy and the urban form, I am also concerned to distance myself from what I consider to be deterministic or overly structural accounts of social processes, a flaw I see in much Marxist thought. I was concerned that this encounter with an early academic hero would clash against the backdrop of my more recently acquired commitments to constructivist and post-structuralist approaches in geography and STS. I needn't have worried.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Conversations between Geography and STS

I've been thinking about the relationship between geography and Science and Technology Studies (STS) a lot recently, and this post is an attempt to record some reflections on this topic. In part my thinking has been influenced by our new institutional setting as fellows in the STS Program at the Harvard Kennedy School, Cambridge Massachusetts, where I have been submerged, for the first time, in an STS-infused environment, and have been prompted to consider broader differences between the US and UK university systems. This relationship or conversation between STS and geography has also emerged as a key focus in a review paper on approaches to organisational learning which I am preparing for submission.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

50 years of Silent Spring

A couple of weeks ago environmental activists and academics celebrated the 50th anniversary of the release of 'Silent Spring', Rachel Carson's classic study of the risks posed to human, animal and plant life by agricultural pesticides. I've written a couple of blog posts with various reflections on the anniversary and what it means for how we think about the communication of scientific uncertainty and about the dynamics of social movement formation. The two posts are reproduced below:

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Landscapes of change

‘Gathering Weather’ by Alfred Horsley Hinton.

Following on from the post below - 'Reading Waterland' - I've written a piece over at the Merton Stone blog on some recent work by cultural geographers on the relationships between landscape and climate change (link here). This is a topic I've been thinking about a lot recently, and I've been plotting some ways of researching it in some local places, particularly the Norfolk Broads.

To that end, I was excited recently to come across the work of David Matless - a geographer at Nottingham University - particularly given that he has a forthcoming book on the cultural geography of the Norfolk Broads (see here). It looks like his work will be pretty central to any research plans I end up formulating!

Monday, 30 July 2012

Reading Waterland

It's been a bit quiet in my corner of Topograph recently, mainly due to Helen and I retreating to the Norfolk coast for a week's holiday. During our frequently rainy sojourn I had the pleasure of reading Graham Swift's 1983 novel Waterland, selected on Helen's recommendation of its brilliant evocation of Norfolkian landscapes.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Presenting the decade of learning

Presenting at SDN June 26th 2012
Over the last two months I have been preparing and giving conference presentations based on my Masters research. Though the experience of giving my first two conference papers was more than a little daunting, it was also a largely enjoyable one which definitely helped me to refine my ideas, meet interesting people and think of new ways to take my research forward. This blog post will include links to the presentations I gave, a few reflections on the process and what I might do differently in future, and how the conferences have shaped my future research plans.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Mission:Explore Food - Book Review

Last week I completed a review of Mission:Explore's new book for young geographers on food. You can find my review here and more information about the book here.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

(Re)publics of Science: a new 3S working paper

My working paper (Re)publics of Science: Changing Policy and Participation has been published on the 3S (Science, Society & Sustainability research group) website. This paper emerged out of my reading during the first year of my PhD; in particular, I was trying to make sense of where my own work on public participation in science policy sits in the contexts of decades of academic work and real world developments concerning science policy and its publics. The paper represents an attempt to give an account of developments in the field of public participation (mostly in Western Europe) over the last 50 years, considering the diverse visions of science, scientific expertise and 'the public' which they have brought about and been sustained by. 3S working papers are open access to all and free to download so have a look.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Invasion! Playing and learning on the streets of Norwich
I've never been exposed to much street theatre, let alone given it much thought. But that changed this weekend when I attended the opening weekend of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival. Two events in particular got me thinking about the nature of public space and public art... 

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Lessons from controversy: organisational learning and GM

After a considerable period on the back burner, the GM debate in the UK hotted up last week as Sense about Science released their 'Don't destroy research' appeal in response to the threatened 'Take the flour back' mass action to destroy a field of genetically modified wheat being trialled by Rothamsted Research. 'Don't destroy research' issued an appeal from scientists emphasising the importance of retaining the integrity of scientific research, implicitly casting the protesters as irrational and 'anti-science'. So far so predictable. What is unusual and perhaps novel about the 'Don't destroy research' appeal is that they also invited the protesters into dialogue with them, in the hope of averting the action planned for 27th May.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The anatomy of denial

Any discussion about the faltering progress of international climate policy usually ends up revolving around the role of climate ‘sceptics/deniers/contrarians’ – call them what you will – in sowing doubt about the science and therefore obstructing political progress. I’m no climate denier, according to conventional categorisations. If I’m a ‘sceptic’, then I’m sceptical about such categorisations and the way they get bandied about with gay abandon in political debate. So where do these categories, and the political objects and subjects that populate them, come from? And do they make any sense?

Saturday, 5 May 2012

What is a 'knowledge gap'?

I've got a post over at the Tyndall Centre Research Network (TyReNe) blog on Mike Hulme's keynote address to a recent Tyndall PhD conference. Hulme's talk explored how we conceive of 'gaps' in knowledge, and how these conceptions are inextricably intertwined with our understandings of and hopes for the political process...

Our colleague Kate Porter has also provided a really interesting response to Hulme's provocation on the Merton Stone blog:

Monday, 30 April 2012

'Post-normal' Science, Popper and a Planet under Pressure. A guest post by Mathis Hampel

Our colleague Mathis Hampel has contributed this post in which he uses the recent Planet under Pressure 'Declaration' to bring the notion of 'post-normal science' into conversation with Karl Popper and his idea of falsification...

Planet Under Pressure (PuP) 2012, the 'major international conference focusing on solutions to the global sustainability challenge' leaves many questionmarks (see this Merton Stone post by Maud Borie), one of which concerns the never-tiring question of the role of science in decision-making. Silvio Funtowicz and Jerry Ravetz (1993) described the situation which PuP's 'First State of the Planet Declaration'  (unwittingly?) refers to as 'post-normal' – 'facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high, and decisions urgent'.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Territorial futures and the future of governmentality

In a recent post over at the Merton Stone blog I offer some reflections on my recent Indian fieldwork. I discuss the notion that the ‘scalar politics’ of prediction are key to understanding the work that they accomplish in contemporary political contexts, and introduce the idea that visions of ‘territorial futures’ are becoming a key tenet of new forms of governmentality.

The genesis of the latter idea comes from my reading of Foucault-inspired literature on the relationship between territory, biopolitics and governmentality. In this post, I make some tentative, scattered and nebulous suggestions about how these concepts can help us make sense of contemporary practices of environmental and climatic prediction.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Geographies of truth and power: putting the linear model in its place

Those who study the interactions between science and politics will often speak of the ‘linear model’ of science-policy relationships. By this they refer to the underlying assumptions in science-policy arrangements which hold that good scientific knowledge must always precede good decision making, and that the latter is wholly dependent on the former. In fact, the assumptions of the model often seem to go beyond an assumed relationship of dependency between decision making and science to approach a deterministic state whereby scientific claims can actually pre-empt and resolve policy conundrums. In this post I'll discuss some of the criticisms of this model before exploring some of the geographical or spatial elements of this assumed science-policy relationship.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Models, mosquitoes and the power to adapt

When it comes to climate change, why are mosquitoes afforded a more active role than people in our visions of the future? This sounds far-fetched, but in climate impacts studies the capacity of mosquitoes to adapt to changing climates has been increasingly accepted, but the same cannot often be said for the adaptive capacity of human beings. What does this say about how we use climate models in decision-making?

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Patience (After Sebald): a geographer's reflections

I went to see Grant Gee's film 'Patience (After Sebald)' at Cinema City in Norwich this weekend, and I was completely blown away. I came out of the cinema with ideas and reflections rushing through my head, feeling all tingly and with a strong conviction that I had to find out more. Here is my attempt to make sense of this wonderful film and wonderful book that it's based on, from the perspective of a geographer interested in questions about space, place, exploration and experiencing landscapes.
Picture from the film, Grant Gee

Monday, 5 March 2012

Public reasoning and environmental governance: an example from New Delhi

I had a conversation last Friday evening with a man whose village is under threat of submergence beneath the reservoir which will rise behind a new dam that is being proposed for his home valley in North-east India. He has been instrumental in organising his community's response to the proposals, although the protests have thus far fallen on deaf ears. He feels that the entire culture of this remote Himalayan community will be devastated by the plans to harness hydro-electric power. He fears the disappearance of a language, an identity, a way of life. He told me that he is prepared to die to protect the land which he inherited from generations of ancestors, and that what is currently a very peaceful State could turn into a hotbed of political violence if the Government of India's plans to build dozens of new dams come to pass.

Must we eat our own tails?

Building on my recent post on the Merton Stone blog about learning and environmental problems I will consider the concept of reflexivity and why it might be useful to studies at the interface between science and policy.

So firstly, what is reflexivity? Implying an act of 'self-reference' the term has a multitude of definitions across and within different academic disciplines. A rare point of agreement seems to be that reflexivity is a good thing and therefore we should have more of it. It is useful to distinguish between more inward-looking and outward-looking interpretations of reflexivity - and I would suggest that whilst the former have been more prolific, the latter are more constructive in theory and in practice.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Contested knowledge in contested territory

As part of my PhD research, I’m currently in Delhi investigating the interaction of scientific knowledge and policy making on issues related to climate change. I was drawn to India by its increasing assertiveness in global scientific discussions, which one could argue has been presaged by a characteristic bullishness in global climate policy negotiations. One aspect of this assertiveness is the contestation over scientific understandings of the Himalayan glaciers, and the potential fate that awaits them under a changing climate.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Welcome to Topograph!

So here it is: Topograph. Meaning literally 'writing place', the name appealed to us immediately. It at once captured our shared love of travel, landscape, relief, and exploration, and also our fascination with the ambiguity of spatial relationships and identities. This raised some key questions. Are we concerned only with maps and physical landscapes, or can we talk of a topography of an object or an idea?  Is 'writing place' a verb – concerning the construction of place – or is it a noun – a place for us to write? The former suggests dynamic and ongoing processes of creation, implying that place is forever in a state of becoming, with potential for slippage or changes in meanings and implied images. But this blog is also – much more literally – a place for us to write: to express our thoughts, try out new ideas, to interact with others.