Assessing contemporary science
Assessing contemporary science

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1 Why science matters

Why should you care about the assessment of contemporary science? In our view, the main reason you should care is because science has the potential to change our lives, and those of future generations. As citizens, we need to keep abreast of the changes in scientific knowledge so we can have a say in how it can, and should, be applied in wider society (Holliman et al., 2009). To do this, we need to develop generic skills that can be applied across the sciences.

In practice, science is not just one thing. Scientific knowledge is produced by scientists working in a vast array of sub-disciplines (Schummer, 2009). In this short course you will encounter, among others: conservation biologists working to better understand how animals, plants and humans interrelate and influence each other; life scientists studying the microbiology of the heart, and Earth scientists who explore how metamorphic rocks are formed.

Despite the variations in working practices between scientists in different disciplines, there are some common purposes and beliefs that they adhere to. All scientists are trying to produce new knowledge. To achieve this end, they look to build on our current understanding of natural phenomena, following a set of underlying research principles. It follows that what is known about a given scientific discipline has the potential to change with the publication of each new piece of research.

The publication of new knowledge is not a given. For new knowledge to be published, it has to pass the assessment of peers working in the field (i.e. other expert scientists). Once agreed, this new knowledge can be shared more widely for further assessment among other scientists, and potentially for communication beyond the academic domain.

Understanding how such assessments are made by expert scientists, and how this can influence the ways that new knowledge becomes public, will help you to make informed judgements about what is (and is not) credible when studying the dynamic boundaries of scientific knowledge. In this light, it is also important to acknowledge that academic practices of openness (Weller, 2014) and engagement (Jensen and Holliman, 2016) are becoming more widespread. Together, they offer additional opportunities for scientists and citizens to scrutinise science, both at the point of publication and as this information circulates in wider society.

Study note 1 Accessing the glossary

The terms ‘discipline’ and ‘engagement’ are in bold in the paragraphs above to identify them as glossary terms. You can hover your cursor over the emboldened text to bring up the definition provided for these terms. You may need to click on the word(s) to read the full definition – this will take you to the glossary section appended to the course, which contains definitions for all the emboldened terms.

As you work through the remainder of the course, you will encounter further glossary terms. Take a moment now to familiarise yourself with this functionality.

It follows that science does not end with the production and publication of new knowledge. The potential for, and realisation of, new knowledge requires members of society to take account of the implications (Guston, 2014). The application of new knowledge has the potential to change our lives for the better or for worse. We all have just as much of a stake as scientists in determining the ways that science can and should influence our lives. Therefore, we need skills and competencies to assess science and its implications (Holliman, 2008).

This course explores some of the skills and competencies that can help scientists and citizens successfully navigate this ever-changing complexity. It introduces and applies concepts from the related fields of science communication and engagement, focusing in particular on digital and information literacy skills (Holliman, 2011). By completing this course you should have a better understanding of how contemporary science progresses and how ‘cutting edge’ scientific knowledge circulates in the public sphere.

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