School of Sociology and Social Policy

Full Research Projects

Theme 1

1. Transparency, Expertise and Evidence in Policymaking

Project 1.1 Models of Managing Science/Politics Boundaries

Project leader: Sujatha Raman (Sociology and Social Policy), Research Fellow: Judith Tsouvalis (Sociology and Social Policy) (University of Nottingham), Collaborators: Colin Snape (Engineering, University of Nottingham), Kate Weiner (Sociology, University of Sheffield)

The public role of science and its relationship to politics is being imagined and articulated in a number of new ways. There remains an established line of argument calling for a clear separation between science and politics, and for policymaking to be underpinned by evidence alone. Others argue that scientific evidence cannot compel specific policies especially around 'wicked problems' which are marked by competing forms of evidence, validity criteria and value judgments. In this context, more work needs to be done to examine the significance of concepts of coproduction (from STS) and the 'post-political' (from critical geography) and what they might contribute to rethinking the boundaries between science and politics. So:

  • what concepts of 'science', 'publicness', 'the public' and 'the political' are invoked in different initiatives and by different actors, and how these relate to the 'private'?
  • how do different forms and conceptualisations of making science public or private relate to the advisory system and the policymaking process?
  • what are the implications for understanding and investigating the relationship between science and politics, including ways of managing boundaries between them in key domains, being considered across the programme?

We will explore these questions by looking at a range of government, professional, civil society and commercial initiatives and their link (or lack thereof) to policy institutions. We are particularly interested in drawing out differences in notions of the public, science and the political between areas not usually considered in conjunction: health, the human body and the role of patient groups by comparison with environment, sustainability and the collective body.

Project 1.2 Research agendas for food provisioning: UK framing practices and science-policy interactions

Project leaders: Susanne Seymour (Geography), Carol Morris (Geography), Research Fellow: Adam Spencer (Geography/Sociology and Social Policy), Collaborators: Kate Millar (Biosciences), Adam Morton (Politics) (University of Nottingham)

This project examines the ways in which research agendas in the area of food provisioning are being framed and developed by UK research councils and practising researchers in the context of increasing attention from a range of publics. It is centrally concerned with the nature of such research framings, particularly in terms of problem identification, proposed solutions and research motivations, their disciplinary scope, their geographies and their public engagements. In conceptual terms, the project is working with ideas from Science and Technology Studies on scientific agenda setting; approaches to issue framing from sociology and political science; and geographical ideas of spaces, scales and networks of science and spatial imaginaries.

It also engages with interdisciplinary understandings of publics and publicness being pursued through the wider programme. A second strand of the project considers how the food research framings found in research council programmes and specific research projects feed into policy and how far they reflect policy priorities. A particular focus is on food security, the most prominent mobilisation of food provisioning concerns in recent years. The project is utilising documentary(including website) analysis and semi-structured interviews to investigate these issues at national, research centre and researcher scales.

Project 1.3 Making evidence public in policy making

Project leader: Vivien Lowndes (Politics), Research Fellow: Roda Madziva (Politics)

The study is concerned with the use of evidence in public policy with a particular focus on immigration Policy. The objectives of the study are to develop a number of case studies on different groups of migrants and explore the roles of expertise, expert knowledge and judgement in immigration controls and the ways in which diverse publics are imagined, constituted, engaged and mediated in immigration politics. 

The first case study is on the Coalition Government's 2013 'Go Home Van Campaign'. Key themes reflected in national and international conference papers include: the van as a 'deliberate metaphor'; the van as a technology for creating publics; and the van as an object invested with the power to police the border within communities (rather than on the edge of nation states). In addition to its theoretical and empirical contribution, the study is developing methodological tools for undertaking research with vulnerable migrants. The study also engages with civil society organisations and communities to generate knowledge and learning about how evidence is used, and contested, in immigration policy and practice. The study is seeking to generalise its findings to a broader consideration of the role of evidence in public policy.

Theme 2

2. Science, Publics and the Making of Politics

Project 2.1 Science, religion and the making of publics in the US and UK

Project leader: Alexander Smith (Sociology, University of Warwick), Collaborator John Holmwood (Sociology and Social Policy, University of Nottingham)

As religion has re-entered the public sphere, it is playing an increasing role in the framing of political disputes around science funding, research and teaching. This research project will use ethnographic fieldwork and semi-

structured interviews with activists, politicians and religious leaders to explore the interface between three highly controversial, but inter-related, issues: abortion, embryonic stem cell research and the teaching of Intelligent Design in the high school science curriculum in both countries. Approaching these issues primarily as

contested narratives of, and about, 'creation', this project will consider how these controversies are being used to generate new political opportunities for religious claims and traditions. They represent forms of 'expertise' in the area of ethics and challenge claims of science to autonomously determine research objects and projects.

The project builds on Leverhulme Trust-funded ethnographic research that Dr Smith, who holds a PhD in Social Anthropology from Edinburgh University, carried out in the USA in 2008-2010. That research explored the crisis facing political moderates in America today, focusing on the interface between politics, religion and science in the greater Kansas City metropolitan area, which has emerged as a primary battleground in America's so- called 'culture wars' in the last two decades.

Dr Smith plans to write an ethnographic monograph, provisionally entitled 'Narratives of Creation: religious conflict, scientific controversy and the making of publics in Kansas City', for Manchester University Press.

Project 2.2 Animals and the making of scientific knowledge

Project Leader: Pru Hobson- West (Veterinary Sciences), Research Fellow: Carmen McLeod, Collaborators: Kate Millar (Biosciences)

Animal research is seen as a key route to the production of scientific knowledge, but is also controversial. Concerns over public accountability have resulted in innovations in governance, such as the use of lay members in local Ethical Review Processes, and the online publication of research abstracts by the Home Office. This project involves several strands of research relating to the UK animal research debate. The central task is to investigate the public consultation launched by the Home Office in 2011, which sought to gather views on the UK implementation of the EU Directive 2010/63/EU on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes.

The project poses a key question: To what extent does legislative and democratic consultation make animal research science public, and how are definitions of 'science', 'politics' (and ethics) reconfigured in this process? The project also explores related discourses, for example around calls for greater transparency and openness in animal research, and considers the extent to which ideas related to 'Responsible Research and Innovation' might impact on debates about animal laboratory use.

Project 2.3 Science, scepticism and politics

Project leader: Brigitte Nerlich (Sociology and Social Policy), Research Fellow: Warren Pearce (Sociology and Social Policy)(University of Nottingham); Collaborators: Dr IinaHellsten (VU Amsterdam), Dr Richard Holliman (Open University)

Scepticism has been central to the development of scientific knowledge over the last 2000 years or so. Within climate science, understandings of scepticism have evolved since climate change emerged as a political and public issue in 1988, with the term becoming both increasingly prevalent and contested, and pitted against older meanings of scepticism prevalent in modern science and in popular culture. The project traces shifts in the meaning of scepticism, as a societal response to making science public, across a variety of domains of science and society.

Key questions to be addressed include: How has the tradition of scepticism changed within the context of climate change debates? How do these changes relate to the friction between scientific knowledge and social and political response? What do these changes say about the role of scientific evidence in public life? Did changes in the meaning of scepticism related to climate science have any impact on the use of the term in neuroscience, philosophy or the sceptics [skeptics] movement?

The project will address these questions through a review of scepticism in climate science, identifying its participants, practices and locations. In particular, it seeks to investigate the space between rational-scientific knowledge and its interpretation within the social-political world. The review provides the foundations for empirical studies into the production of knowledge around the issue of climate change, and how that knowledge – whether coming via 'traditional' scientific routes or contributions to more recent online fora – shapes public understanding and, ultimately, political action.

Theme 3

3. Public Engagement, Meditation and Deliberation Over Science and Technology

Project 3.1 Novel Food Technologies and Deliberative Technology Assessment

Project leader: Kate Millar (Biosciences), Research Fellow: Sarah Hartley (Biosciences), Collaborators: Carol Morris, Susanne Seymour (Geography), Pru Hobson-West (Veterinary Sciences) (University of Nottingham), and Anne Murcott (SOAS)

Considering recent developments and policy discussions, we are expanding food technologies to encompass agricultural technologies and to note the inclusion of aquaculture and fisheries innovation. This change is made on the basis that since the original proposal was submitted, there have been some interesting innovation and policy discussions in the fields of agricultural, aquaculture and fisheries (AAF). Two example areas have been identified:  

In terms of agricultural innovation, GM insects are being developed as a pest control technology for agricultural production of food crops. This may be the first GM animal approved for release in the EU. As such, the GM insect may be the first GM animal to pass through the regulatory framework for technology assessment and is therefore an appropriate case study to examine what are the challenges and opportunities to make GM insect governance processes public.

In terms of innovation in aquaculture and fisheries, values that drive innovation may be in conflict with other values, such as local community values, etc and can create policy pressure points. Recognising this raises questions such as: in complex food policy arenas what are the challenges and opportunities to make these innovation processes more public? What could or should 'public' marine and aquaculture governance look like?

These changes allows the exploration of cases that informs the thematic analysis of Programme relating to how the assessment of AAF technologies can be made public

Project 3.2 The role of intermediaries in deliberating science and politics

Project Leader: Alison Mohr (Sociology and Social Policy); Collaborators: Clive Roberts (Nottingham Nanotechnology and Nanoscience Centre), Simon Gosling (Geography) (University of Nottingham)

Deliberative spaces aim to provide vital opportunities for the democratisation of science and politics. However, notions of deliberative democracy that underpin these spaces are increasingly contested (conceptually and in practice) for privileging certain kinds of knowledge and expertise. This project aims to appraise deliberative processes in light of these challenges and consider the implications for newdemocratic spaces, both regulated and unregulated, emerging in tandem with new technologies in the form of social science embedding in innovation and policy processes. Central to the perceived legitimacy of these new democratic spaces is the role of intermediaries – 'interactional experts', such as social scientists who mediate knowledge representations, values, boundaries and exclusions at the intersection of science-politics-society and translate between them.

There is a systematic lack of analysis and understanding of the influence, or perceived lack thereof, of these interactional and translational intermediaries and the normative frameworks that guide their actions in both regulated and unregulated spaces of democracy.

This project will explore the extent to which intermediaries contribute to opening up or closing down new democratic spaces for deliberation and the visions of the public, science and democracy they construct. With a particular focus on energy innovation and policy, including the increasing use of modelling to inform decision-making, the project will employ documentary analysis, semi-structured interviews and focus groups to investigate the interactional and translational expertise of social scientists in these new democratic spaces.

Project 3.3 Publics and the Making of Socially Responsible Research and Innovation

Project leader: Paul Martin (Sociology), Research Fellow: Stevienna De Saille (Sociology) (University of Sheffield)

A number of initiatives have been taken recently that attempt to bring about a significant shift in the institutional relationships between research funders, researchers and the public. These include the 2010 Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research, the work of EPSRC on responsible innovation, and the emergence of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) as a policy framework for Horizon 2020 in the European Union. Central to each of these initiatives are moves to better articulate the social responsibilities of researchers. This project will take as its central problematic the way in which notions of socially responsible research and innovation are being constructed and how they are being negotiated through engagement with stakeholders and with different publics.

This raises a number of key questions:

  • What is meant by responsible innovation?
  • Who are innovators responsible to?
  • Who should decide overarching research priorities? How might this be done organisationally/institutionally?
  • How are publics and stakeholders engaged in these debates?
  • What does RRI look like from the bottom up, as well as from the top down?
  • In this context, what is the relationship between science and democratic politics?
  • What role might social science play in mediating ideas of social responsibility?

The research will take as its empirical focus the activities of stakeholders (research funders and others broadly involved in the governance of research and innovation), and of publics which attempt to articulate similar values. The overall design of the project will involve an overview of European and UK policy and practice relating to the idea of responsible innovation, and a series of more local case studies involving data collection from both stakeholders and activist publics.

Theme 4

4. Cross Cutting Project: Making Science Public: Implications for the Theory and Practice of Democracy

Sujatha Raman and project leaders

This will synthesise the findings of the sub-projects to provide an overarching analysis of moves towards, challenges, and implications of making science and science-based policy more public in the UK. This will be done through the elaboration of concepts and theory, systematic comparison of cases and the development of a range of policy options. In particular it will seek to establish principles and practices for making science more public, evidence more robust and government more open and transparent.

The project will be integrated into the overall programme from the start and will be based on a series of workshops coinciding with visiting fellowships from leading international experts and will bring together academics, politicians, policy makers and scientists.

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