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What can design do for science, and science do for design?

Submitted by Anne Odling-Smee and Phillip Kent
From feature published in ‘Litmus’ at Cheltenham Science Festival 2013
4 June 2013

Anne Odling-Smee and Phillip Kent explain how the Design Science group is working with scientists and engineers to improve understanding of design, and working with designers to improve understanding of science. The goal is better science communication for the benefit of all.

Why design?
When you think of ‘design’, perhaps you think of cool chairs, designer fashion, or being artistic without practical function? Perhaps you associate design with the worst excesses of branding and advertising, Mad Men, and corporate capitalism? In our work with Design Science we have different ideas, but we recognise that overcoming stereotypical perceptions is vital and not without its challenges. Those working in the design field also exhibit misperceptions of science that need to be addressed. In our definition, design is concerned with ideas and problem solving on technical, functional, aesthetic, economic and socio-political levels. There is a classic definition (attributed to Neville Shute) of the engineer as a person ‘who can do for ten shillings what any fool can for a pound’. Through intelligent use of tools and resources, a better outcome can be achieved, and for less money.

What engineers achieve in the technical realm, so Design Science aims to achieve in communication and public engagement for science. Design is perhaps best understood as being like a glue between someone else’s content and an intended recipient. We recognise that scientists do communicate with a variety of audiences all of the time. Those of us who are professionally known as ‘designers’ differ in the degree of expertise that enables us to do this specific job more effectively across the complex variety of communication media now available.

Communicating science
There are many reasons to celebrate the progress that has been achieved in science communication and public engagement with science in recent years – especially here at the Cheltenham Festival. But news stories, such as the entirely predictable and harmful repercussions of the 1990s MMR/autism scandal that have lead to the recent measles epidemic in South Wales, indicate that we have a long way to go.

We see engagement as having two elements: ownership and participation. British society today is at heart the product of science and technology developments going back hundreds of years. It is essential that the majority have a sense of ownership of this heritage as well as for a shared future. Arguably the popular sense of ownership has become stronger in recent years – for example, we see clear public expression of identification with the science celebrities of television and radio. Engagement by participation is a far greater challenge. Both scientists and the public have reasons to be wary of it. We have seen a certain amount of ‘citizen science’, including in the mainstream media, however the participation is typically through observation and data collection (many eyes, hands or feet) and not in data analysis, interpretation or theory-building.

You may wonder how a greater degree of participation could be possible given the asymmetry of knowledge and expertise. To be sure, we are talking about shifting the asymmetry to significant degrees, not removing it. Exploring this challenge is a major element of the work that the Design Science group will develop over the next few years. Computing and computational thinking are important because one of the greatest barriers to popular participation in science is lack of mathematical knowledge. Without mathematical understanding, the theories expressed in mathematical form or the workings of data analysis are inaccessible. Computers extend and restructure the ways in which it is possible to engage with the mathematical expressions involved in scientific ideas. Indeed, science and mathematics educational researchers have been exploring this for many decades, but the results are neither well known nor widely accessible. We currently have an unprecedented technological infrastructure of widespread personal access to computers, and electronic networks for exchange of information and social interaction. We need to build on that by devising educational resources and practices to change public participation with science and mathematics.

Risk: communicating uncertainty
Participation is crucial as a means of communicating uncertainty, and this is one of the key challenges for science communication today. Extreme weather events are on the increase and virulent animal flu viruses threaten the human population worldwide. The threat of earthquakes has been with us for millennia, and the scientific expertise now available is substantial. Yet communication of vital information about risk factors breaks down again and again; witness the recent prosecution of six scientists in Italy as a result of the 2009 l’Aquila earthquake.

How can we address the asymmetries of knowledge and expertise between scientists and the public? A powerful idea that we are working with is the potential of computers to simulate reality, in part using the mathematical models that are integral to the scientific understanding of phenomena. It is all too easy to rationalise unlikely future events out of existence because we cannot live through them directly. In a virtual reality, everyone may participate and achieve new kinds of dialogue through the shared experience.

Scientists cannot be held responsible for all of the problems in science communication. Communication is a complex, two-way process. People may hear and understand a message yet not be able to act on it.

Scientists get fed up when they do their research, then are told they’ve got to communicate it. This is understandable when they lack sufficient expertise or support. Design Science is trying to build meaningful relationships with scientists, technologists and engineers to make design and communication an integral part of the process of doing research – not just a part you tack on at the end as ‘impact’. To achieve this we have to first overcome our own challenge – that of communicating to scientists what design is and what it can do for science. We hope this feature goes some way towards achieving this, and to dispelling some of the unhelpful myths surrounding our subject.

We are also acutely aware that designers, journalists and public relations teams are not always sensitive or understanding of what science is, or of the needs and interests of scientists; so we are campaigning for a change of attitudes and the development of new learning opportunities and educational resources in this area. Indeed, we are convinced that the practice of design in general would be improved by incorporating more scientific approaches. We see the totality of what we are doing as establishing a feedback loop between design and science that will build up as a significant force for change in science communication.

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  • What can design do, and not do, for science? What can design do, and not do, for science?