Mapping the Cultural Authority of Science (MACAS) workshop
Report by Dr Hester du Plessis,
Faculty Head: Humanity, Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA).
The project “Mapping the Cultural Authority of Science” (MACAS) is a research consortium that conducts comparative analysis of existing data on attitudes to science across Europe and India (1990-2010) by constructing local time-series data and cross-continental data integration. This Indo-European comparison forms the basis to construct an index of science culture for a variety of contexts. The consortium has calibrated this index, tested alternative metrics, and undertaken comparisons of the different contexts of 32 European states and 23 Indian states. Several waves of National Surveys in India (1991-2007) and five waves of Eurobarometer surveys (1989-2010) form part of the main database and are currently the most elaborate database for comparative analysis of science culture worldwide. The international MACAS network pooled and developed joint expertise in discourse analysis, computer-assisted text analysis, large-scale survey analysis to track and compared the cultural authority of science.
The consortium came together during 16 – 18 September 2015 to report on the findings of their research at a workshop on “The cultural authority of science – common sense in comparison”. The workshop was hosted by the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST), University of Stellenbosch and supported by the University of Bielefeld, the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (SCiSTIP) and the SA Research Chair in Science Communication (SciCom).
About 20 experts gathered in Stellenbosch to discuss the progress of the MACAS project, aimed to construct a system of science culture indicators based on news analysis and on public attitude data. A special programme on Friday, 18 September 2015, provided a specific focus on the potential involvement of South Africa in the international network and future activities of the project.
Summary of the workshop idea
Modern societies perform their understanding of issues in conferences, opinion polling, scoping exercises, everyday conversations and mass media debates where the sciences are granted cultural authority because they occupy a common place in society and as such have become part of common sense. However this state of affairs is variable across context and historically. Managed by Martin W Bauer, Petra Pansegrau, and Rajesh Shukla (www.macas-project.com) the aim of this MACAS workshop was to construct a system of science culture indicators based on news analysis and public attitude data. Trends in science news (1990-2013; intensity, actor positioning, and issue framing) were compared to trends in public attitudes to science (1990-2013, attitude, knowledge, and engagement).
Theme and Research Questions
The cultural authority of science is part of the local common sense and understanding of science and this cannot be taken for granted; it is as much a factor of economic performance as it is an educational and historical achievement. This Indo-European network is building infra-structure and creating a system of science culture indicators based on news analysis and on attitude measures that will enable researchers to compare the cultural presence of science in the public debate. The Indian concept of a ‘scientific temper’ of the citizen was revisited as a key aspect of the cultural authority of science. The network of researchers from UK, Germany and India mobilized and developed expertise in discourse analysis, computer-assisted text analysis, large scale survey analysis, and qualitative case study work to track the cultural authority of science comparatively. The project MACAS has worked in part with affiliated partners in Spain, Italy, Turkey, Taiwan-China, and Mainland China.
These national and international efforts to map the public understanding of science and to enhance the public engagement of science has, by now uncovered a data rich field of research that requires fresh thinking and reframing of the issues. Imperative to this exercise is the requirement to seek a way of linking data on the societal conversations of science as indicated by mass media references (in terms of intensity, issue-framing, actor positioning) and attitudes to science (in terms of knowledge, attitudes and engagement).
The intention of the workshop was to try to establish whether the historical hypothesis of a progressive loss of competence of common sense in modern society, in a comparative perspective, is taking place. In order to achieve these objectives, the specific research questions were based on:
• What is the ‚authority of Science‘, and how does it manifest itself?
• Is it possible to use existing data on public understanding of Science and reframe them as indicators of the cultural authority of science?
• This authority of science manifests itself in mass media references and surveys of public perceptions. Is it possible to compare these data streams?
• What are the difficulties of cross-cultural comparisons of such data?
• To what extent do these data and analyses reveal ‘common places’ of science?
• What role do the common places of science play?
• To what extend has science penetrated or even displaced the common sense in different regions of the world.
• What additional data might be required to answer these questions in a comparatively?
Much has been achieved with nationally representative survey data, but public opinion does not reside exclusively in attitude surveys. Respondents answer questions on the basis of internal (cognitive and emotional) dispositions and external resources, i.e. news and circulating information. Patterns of science news are a feature of the modern public sphere, and print media are now easy accessible in complete (digital) archives. The bottleneck of research has moved from corpus construction to the analysis of large text bases. The MACAS challenge was to map the discourse of science and to compare tools for doing so with a view of continuous monitoring into the future in different contexts.
South African contributions
The Friday programme allowed for presentations from South African scholars in the field of Science Communication. This included presentations by Dr Thomas Auf der Heyde (DST), Dr Hester du Plessis (MISTRA), who warned against a global ideologically driven change in the acceptance of science and proposed the application of a ‘cultural distance model’ to support the MACAS findings by measuring the gap that exists between science knowledge and common knowledge. The application of such a model will assist with the implementation of the recent South African Public Engagement Strategy (DST) which will guide processes of public engagement by Government, NGO’s, Think Tanks and other institutions. Some statistics generated in South Africa was shared by Dr Vijay Reddy and Dr Michael Gastrow (HSRC). Prof Johann Mouton (CREST) as well as Prof Peter Weingart (NRF Chair) led the discourse.
A major feature of the MACAS collaboration (2012-2015) is focussed on competence building among young researchers which included micro-integration of survey data, statistical modelling, developing protocols for comparative media mapping and computerized text analysis using QDA Miner to develop equivalent cultural metrics for purposes of comparison. The expectation is that South African researchers will join these efforts under the network that is enabled by the Chair in Science Communication, Prof Peter Weingart, from the University of Stellenbosch. These efforts will greatly contribute to the development of Science Communication as research field in South Africa.