Science, politics and publics

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Case study Language, metaphors and science

The linguistic framing of scientific debate

 Professor Brigitte Nerlich

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How are scientific controvesies framed?

Since 2001, Professor Brigitte Nerlich has led a team of researchers studying the cultural and political contexts in which metaphors and other framing devices are used to influence and shape public, policy and scientific debates about emerging technologies, emerging diseases, and climate change.

From nanotechnology to ‘Climategate’, language is fundamental to the way publics make sense of and negotiate scientific controversy.


“Metaphors are not just decorative, rhetorical devices; they are intrinsic to the workings of science and to the way that science and society interact, with print and online media in particular working as messengers of meaning,” says Professor Brigitte Nerlich.



The project involved contributions from a diverse team including: Professor Paul Crawford, Professor Ron CarterDr Nelya Koteyko (Leicester), Dr Martin Doering (Hamburg), Professor Brian Brown (De Montford), Dr Maurizio Meloni and Dr Rusi Jaspal.

The many peer-reviewed articles produced during this period include: the first social science article to be published on 'Climategate' following the affair, a groundbreaking piece on nano images, and the first and only study of poems written during the foot and mouth crisis.

For a selection of work produced by the ‘metaphor team’ over the last decade, visit Professor Nerlich’s personal website.


Professor Nerlich has been working on language and metaphor for over twenty years, and is a member of the Academy of Social Sciences. She uses methods and ideas from cognitive linguistics, social and cultural anthropology, the history of science, and science and technology studies to analyse cultural imagination and the contemporary portrayal of issues related to health and illness, emerging technologies (bio, cogno, nano, synbio, geo-engineering), and climate change.


The project has involved a wide range of collaborations with scientists, social scientists and humanities scholars from inside and outside the University of Nottingham. Output has included books and journal articles on linguistics, nanoscience, climate science, social science (particularly relating to health and illness) and science and technology studies (particularly relating to genetics and genomics).

Team members working on climate change have worked with the charities COIN (Climate Outreach and Information Network) and PIRC (an independent charity integrating key research on climate change, energy and economics) to create a new approach to climate change communication: whereby policy-makers, scientists, journalists, celebrities and NGOs are directly involved.

More recently, the group have submitted a grant application, led by George Marshall, to the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation entitled ‘Breaking the deadlock: Language & discourse for effective climate change communication’. The aim of the project is to measurably influence the public and political dialogue around climate change.

Scale of research

Members of the team have received the following funding relating to work on language and metaphor: 5 ESRC grants since 2003; an ESF workshop grant on stem cell ‘cultures’; an ESF large conference grant on truth and trust relating to images in science; co-applicant on two 5-year Leverhulme programme grants; and received miscellaneous smaller grants.

For related work, the group employed one research fellow for a year, one for three years and one for five years; is currently employing a fellow for the next three years; and another will start work next year for several years.


The team have received funding from many national and international funders of scientific and social science research, including: ESRC; Leverhulme Trust; ESF; internal University funding (such as the Dean’s Fund and a Knowledge Transfer grant); HEIF; and EPSC.


Science, Technology and Society Priority Group

Law and Social Sciences Building
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD