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Why science is getting social

Bette Flagler

[Science]

Henry Barnard didn’t go to the Running Hot conference in Christchurch in 2006.

The head of Massey University’s School of People, Environment and Planning (PEP), Barnard is an anthropologist whose career has focused on social theory and methodology, studying such things as the social anthropology of India and New Zealand and the social suffering in hierarchical societies. It would be fair to assume that Barnard spends little time with physicists, geneticists or biologists and the fact that he missed Running Hot 2006 is forgivable. After all, that event was organised by the Oxygen Group, a Ministry of Research, Science and Technology forum of future New Zealand science leaders, and was a gathering of (mostly) young and emerging scientists who represented (mostly) the life and physical sciences.

But Barnard—whose seniority excludes him from being described as young and emerging—chose to spend the final two days of October amid future New Zealand science leaders at Running Hot 2008. With him came representatives from all the disciplines of his school; PEP was even a conference sponsor. That this year’s Running Hot was co-hosted by He Waka Tangata, the social sciences equivalent of Oxygen, might have had something to do with Barnard’s enthusiastic support, but more influential was the changing face of New Zealand science and the theme of the conference: interconnection.

Anne Glover, the chief scientific advisor in Scotland and one of the conference’s stars, posited that we can’t do science in the 21st century the way we have in the past and that new circumstances create new opportunities. Glover, like many at Running Hot, talked about working across boundaries to solve problems. For example, while humanity won’t come to an end if we have a few dirty windows, the application of nanotechnology to create self-cleaning glass (rain water pulls dirt away as it runs down the microscopically rough surface instead of just moving dirt around as it does on normal glass) offers a clear view of the outside world without wasting an increasingly valuable commodity like water.

Interconnections and convergence sound great but we need to allow connections to occur and reward, for example, the time a geologist spends at an economic development agency. It’s not as if the geologist needs to become an economist—science is about making connections

While science shouldn’t be interdisciplinary just for the sake of being trendy—the right questions still need to be asked, and solving problems will always require excellent science—reaching across boundaries, perhaps even breaking down boundaries, may well become de rigueur in 21st-century science.

Karen Hartshorn is the director of Translational Research at the National Centre for Lifecourse Research and is one of the emerging scientists to whom the conference was aimed. But with a bachelor’s degree from Harvard in geology and archaeology, and a master’s (archaeology) and PhD (geology) from Cambridge, Hartshorn has decided not to pursue a research career. Instead, she applies her talents to making research accessible to non-scientists. A geologist at heart, Hartshorn gives the example of someone studying a particular river rock, near a community that faces problems with landscape and running water. In the past, the geologist would have published scientific data about the rock, but in the future will need to be aligned with those studying how the local population interacts with the river, the migratory patterns and settlement of nearby towns, how the community works and its economy.

It was all very different 30 years ago when Barnard was a young and emerging scientist. “We were still trying to engage with each other within the social sciences; we were not the least bit concerned with engaging with other sciences,” he says. “Today, we need to go beyond [our] school in order to [solve] the kinds of scientific problems this country will face in the future.”

The environment—not the natural property of any scientific discipline—and transforming agriculture in a sustainable way are two of the big areas Barnard and his school are interested in. To move forward in either will require multi-disciplinary efforts. “Reality is pressing in on people,” says Barnard. “We have to wake up and look around, and work past the narrow confines of where we’ve been engaged.”

In theory, says Hartshorn, the interconnections and convergence sound great but in order to work, we need a science community and policy environment that allows those connections to occur and that rewards, for example, the time a geologist spends at a local economic development agency.

It’s not as if the geologist needs to become an economist or an anthropologist needs to breed new forage crops. Science is about making connections, says Mark Billinghurst, the director of HIT Lab New Zealand. In fact, he reckons networked thinking is the primary driver of science.

Coming up with new and exciting connections might provide the fertiliser needed to grow new ideas says conference speaker Suzi Kerr, a director at non-profit economic and public policy research institute Motu. Kerr is a white water kayaker and says the most interesting point on the water is where a tributary and a river come together or where two rivers join. It’s a useful metaphor. “That’s where it’s messy and exciting and where all the interesting stuff happens.”