Adapting to 2020: plans scratched and reworked

Author: Lynn Chiu

This piece was adapted from the final report we presented to the American Philosophical Association for granting us a small grant to organize a workshop in 2020.

1. The original plan—an inaugural workshop

We, the founding members of the Philosophy of Science Communication Network, received a small grant from the APA to host an inaugural workshop that will connect philosophers and science communicators across continents. The plan was to organize a “hybrid” workshop that combined in-person engagement with online, cross-cultural, and cross-disciplinary interactions. Having both online and in-person components was key— our intention was to create a sustainable model of conferencing that can reduce the carbon footprint of flying without sacrificing personal interactions. By keeping the on-site meetings “local” while engaging with “global” participants, we could test whether a “glocal ” approach can combine the best of both worlds. Another key feature of our workshop was to pay professional science communicators for their contribution and time to an academic event. We thus organized our budget accordingly. Rebecca Hardesty and UCSD was our fiscal agent.

Our workshop would've consisted of two nodes. In the original plan, Rebecca Hardesty will manage the San Diego “node” in collaboration with the Teaching + Learning Commons at University of San Diego while Lynn Chiu and Sophie Veigl will organize the Vienna “node” in collaboration with the Konrad Lorenz Institute at Klosterneuburg, Austria (an old town outside of Vienna).

Had the workshop moved forward, we would have had two separate but interconnected workshop “days” at UCSD (April 16th-17th, 2020) and Vienna (May 9th, 2020), respectively. The two workshop “days” would be connected by online activities designed to bring the two groups together as cross-cultural learning buddies. This “glocal” method was inspired by the scientific director of the KLI Guido Caniglia, whom we collaborated with at the Vienna node (see John et al. (2017) “The Glocal Curriculum: a practical guide to teaching and learning in an interconnected world.” Hamburg: Tredition). Lynn and Sophie met with Guido at the KLI to discuss how we can apply his ideas and experiences to our workshop.

Globally, we invited two keynote speakers to develop a “flipped format” interactive talk, that is, each “talk” will be spliced into multiple 5-10 minutes sections to enable discussions and activities in between. One talk would’ve been in philosophy of science and public engagement—by Angela Potochnik (Cincinnati), the other in the social sciences of science communication (specializing in science games and poetry)—from Sam Illingworth (previously Manchester, now Western Australia). Angela was invited to talk about the deficit model from a philosophical perspective, the role of philosophers of science in the science communication landscape, and the public engagement center at Cincinnati. Sam would’ve talked about evidence-based public engagement and science education through games in an interactive webinar.

Locally, each node is supposed to focus on their local strengths. The San Diego program, designed by Rebecca, was designed to critically address the use of games in science pedagogy and communication. The Vienna node would’ve brought academics at University of Vienna together with professional science communicators for theoretical discussions, practical tutorials, and the presentation of seed ideas for philosophy of science communication.

In addition to our own activities, we were fortunate to have recruited Melissa Jacquart as a Network member shortly before the workshop. Coincidentally, she had also planned to organize a philosophy of science and science communication workshop for the Center for Public Engagement at University of Cincinnati in May. We began to discuss how we could synergize our efforts to jointly promote an ecosystem of philosophy of science in science communication (and vice versa).

Unfortunately, we had to cancel the workshop, which we will explain below. A participant list and schedule of the cancelled workshop will be included at the end of this report as an Appendix. (Unfortunately for the emerging community of philosophy of science communication, Melissa’s workshop had to be cancelled as well.)

2. The pandemic and how we adapted: a website and an interview series

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe, we were forced to cancel the workshop for several reasons: (1) Lockdowns in both cities meant we could no longer carry out the in-person component, yet it is an essential feature of the workshop. (2) The UCSD Teaching Commons had to devote their staff and resources to supporting online teaching demands. This meant we could not organize or carry out the UCSD component of the workshop. (3) We each had increased demands or limitations. Some of us started to volunteer our time and efforts to help fight the pandemic, others were helping their campus move teaching and meetings online, some of us fell terribly ill (eventually for several months). We were all also in a transition and precarious period of our careers. Finally, (4) we also anticipated that many workshop participants would not have the time to develop new materials for the workshop.

It became clear that it would be overly ambitious to try to organize the workshop as planned. It was also painfully clear that we could not defer to the next year. Before the pandemic struck, we were already operating under a tight time constraint. We could only organize and host the workshop before June, as we each had commitments and career changes that would require us to leave our universities, states, or countries thereafter. So, our options were to either cancel our plans and return the grant or try to move forward with an alternative proposal that can fulfill our original vision and mission. We chose the latter.

The first alternative idea was to organize a proposal competition for philosophers and science communicators, with the grant money as starting funds. We would create a website to be populated with interesting ideas about combining the practice of science communication and engagement with the philosophy of science. This idea was originally approved by Linda Nuoffer (APA), yet given the realities of the pandemic and the decreasing work capacity of the organizers, however, we (in particular, Lynn) soon decided that the work involved in hosting a competition was still unrealistic.

We eventually decided on a different format, which also received the green light from Linda. We will use our funds to host an interview series. Conducting interviews would not only enable us to get an in-dept understanding of where our interviewees stand in relation to philosophy and the practice of public engagement/science communication, but also uncover how theoretical work in philosophy of science can engage with—or are already present in-- the practice of communicating science for understanding. Furthermore, this was something we have already started to do. Before the workshop, we have already interviewed Henk de Regt and Elizabeth Hannon. We also had a short Q&A interview with Sam Illingworth published. An interview series would make good use of our current experience and know-how. It could also be distributed across a longer time frame, allowing us to tackle it under less stressful external and health constraints.

4. What we learned – personal reflections

Lynn and Rebecca share some personal reflections on what happened.

Lynn: PhilofSciComm was created with the ideal that we are not only bridging a much-needed gap between two important areas of work, but also that we, as practitioners and philosophers ourselves, need a community to scaffold the growth of our trajectory (as well as that of others in similar positions). I’ve come to realize that a project of this ambition and scope is extremely difficult for early-career scholars to pull off while in precarious situations without institutional support. Even more daring was the attempt to achieve this while being philosophers with businesses or academic adjacent careers in areas related to science communication. The pandemic was a heavy blow on us, but I am still very thankful that the APA recognized and was willing to support the launch of a group and project dedicated to bridging science communication with philosophy of science. Hopefully, the APA will continue to support risky projects from the precariat.

Rebecca: I recognized how interconnected the academic community is, despite the tendency of us in the humanities and social sciences to isolate and view each other as competitors as opposed to colleagues. This community as a whole suffers when many of its members face illness, unstable employment, or social injustice. The experience of working with this team illuminated how important it is to support the most vulnerable in the academic community, especially during times of hardship. Specifically, this experience taught me that there is a need within the humanities, specifically philosophy, to support early career researchers and promote the legitimacy of pursuing alt-ac careers.