Open Science book review

Cribb, J., & Sari, T. (2010). Open Science: Sharing Knowledge in the Global Century. Collingwood, Victoria, Australia: CSIRO. pp. 221. ISBN 978-0643097636
Reviewed by: Steven S. Ross Editor, Broadband Properties Magazine DOI: 10.1177/1075547011409953

Science Communication 33(2) 264–267 © 2011 SAGE Publications Reprints and permission: http://www.

In the United States, discussions about how science and technology might help solve problems such as global climate change, worldwide food shortages, disease, and resource scarcity rarely take center stage. In fact, “big science” gets onto the front page mainly when something goes wrong, be it a runaway oil well or failed dam or a drug’s harmful side effects. Indeed, an entire indus- try of “public-interest science” has grown up to prove that pretty much any- thing industry does has harmful side effects and that industry-sponsored research is, on its face, biased and self-serving.

In the developing world, however, policy makers press their noses to the window and gaze at the cornucopia of economic growth and well-being that science and technology bring to wealthy nations—expanding the gap between rich countries and poor. Half of all economic growth in developed nations is due to the fruits of government-sponsored research, Cribb and Sari say.

Sure, a few large developing countries such as China and India can “black- mail” more advanced nations to transfer technology in exchange for access to cheap labor. India’s TATA has even come up with what may be the basis for the developing world’s wheels, the $2,500, easily repaired, and very high-tech Nano automobile. But countries such as Mexico and Venezuela, although they assemble cars and sell some car parts, seem incapable of developing an indigenous auto industry, even as the coming transition from fossil fuels opens opportunities to leapfrog today’s automobile giants. And even India and China have a long way to go to spread wealth and security to all their citizens.

Either way, public trust in science is eroded. Indeed, this summer while teaching at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai, two of my graduate students asked in casual conversation if I had heard of this book. Each had found it on her own—it was not assigned reading. Each had approached the topic with skepticism.

Open Science is a book worth assigning, although minds seem to be closing on just about any topic these days. Cribb (former science editor of the national daily The Australian, founder of au, and now head of public affairs for CSIRO) and Sari (she’s a senior officer at the Indonesian science agency LIPI) have authored a compact paperback with a provocative take on sharing scientific knowledge, along with some well researched and fairly well footnoted solutions.

Woven into the book are two cardinal chapters with practical writing advice. Chapter 2, “Good Science Writing,” is a near-perfect minicourse. Chapter 4, “Understanding the Audience,” is the perfect follow-up. Chapters 5 through 9, on communicating with the media, government, directly to the public, and so forth, and chapter 12, postcrisis issues management for scientific organiza- tions, work both for public relations and (slightly less well) for journalists.

Why bother? Aside from providing some counterbalance to the sterile and infantile arguments that industry is always evil or that regulators always have the public interest at heart, the authors argue convincingly that technology alone cannot solve the world’s ills:
For example, if climate change could be solved merely by adding geosequestration technology to a few thousand power stations and by switching to hydrogen-fueled cars, it would be fine. But it cannot. It can be addressed only by changing almost every aspect of our lives: from what we eat, to what we wear, how we live, how we raise our children and how many we choose to have, and how we use our energy, water and other resources. Such huge behavioral change depends on knowledge sharing on a pan-species scale, rather than on fragmentary technofixes. (p. 9)

Yet the amount spent developing technofixes dwarfs the miniscule funding for communicating what’s been discovered. The idea, the authors say, is not to gloss over potential downsides in new technologies but to meet them head-on and to tailor specific messages to specific audiences. Research organizations must realize they have a duty to share knowledge, and this duty cannot be reduced to reluctant afterthought. The public—and industry—should be involved early, both for moral reasons and because they may offer good ideas for shaping the research agenda. Avenues of research must not be prematurely blocked—easier said than done in large, focused bureaucracies.

The authors also propose that researchers take a course in open science— not just to become better communicators but also to become better, more effective researchers. Again, this is not uncommon in developing countries, where researchers tend to be less specialized than in the industrialized West.

I have been teaching 3-week short courses in the Caribbean for more than 20 years. In those courses, journalists get access to scientists for 2 weeks, to develop real news stories, and then teach the scientists they have been inter- viewing better ways to get their research across to the public. The long-term results do not suggest that co-option is a danger. And while society has warmed slowly to technologies such as the horseless carriage and pasteurization and (now) genetically modified crops, humans although cautious are perhaps not as risk-averse as scientists often complain. After all, new technology has been slipping into society since the first toolmakers appeared about 2 million years ago.

There is one caveat. The authors complain that universities do not have the resources to communicate their research well. That is certainly not the case in North America. Money and staffing are available. Often, however, the will is not. Communicators are generally relegated to staff positions and swing into action too late to help shape policy.

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