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Assessing contemporary science
Assessing contemporary science

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2 What is contemporary science?

This course explicitly focuses on ‘contemporary science’ so it is worth exploring how this concept is defined.

First and foremost, it would be safe to assume that contemporary science means science that is ‘up-to-date’, or modern. In this course, however, the term is used more specifically than this, and relates particularly to ‘cutting-edge’ science. Indeed, here contemporary science is characterised as ‘new’ knowledge, meaning it is new to the scientific community and to wider society.

So how do we recognise contemporary science, and where does it first appear to the vast majority of the general public? The activity that follows will help you to explore these questions.

Activity 1 The excitement of contemporary science

Timing: Allow about 30 minutes

Think about the experiences of contemporary science that have interested, excited or concerned you, either professionally or in your personal life. This could have been in the past days or weeks, or possibly longer ago.

This should be something that you have encountered outside of formal education (i.e. sources of science where you are not formally being taught). Sources could include, for example, television programmes, news websites, blogs, books, magazines, newspapers, social media, museums and science centres.

In the light of your experiences, write a short summary (no more than 200 words) that addresses the following questions.

  • Briefly, what is the example about?
  • Where did you first learn about this new development in the sciences?
  • What first attracted you to this information?

An example is then included in the discussion below, to give you an idea of the level of detail that you can cover in around 200 words.

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Philae lands on Comet 67/P

In November 2014, a robotic probe called Philae landed on Comet 67/P, 300 million miles from Earth. Funded by the European Space Agency (ESA), the Rosetta Mission that delivered the probe to the surface had taken more than 25 years in the planning.

The announcement was made at a meeting where scientists and journalists mixed freely; Professor Monica Grady’s reaction to the landing captured the excitement of what had been achieved. You can view her response by watching the following video: ‘Rosetta comet landing: Professor’s excitement and tears [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ’.

I found this information on the BBC News website, but it was also reported by other news providers. Given that Open University colleagues had worked on this mission for many years, I’d been following this story for some time. What really struck me about the story was the emotional response of Professor Grady – excitement mixed with relief. It provided the perfect counter to the stereotypical image of scientists as purely rational beings.

(165 words)

Your response to the previous activity is likely to be different from other people studying this course. As citizens we access contemporary science from a range of sources. Research has shown that the genre of news is a key source of new information about the sciences (Holliman, 2004), but that the ways we access news is changing (Holliman, 2010; 2007a; 2007b).

The example described in the previous activity also shows that as contemporary science enters the public sphere it can elicit a range of emotions. Over time, these announcements can affect how we perceive science in a more general sense, influencing how we interpret and contextualise new knowledge (Holliman, 2000).

Optional activity: imagining scientists

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

Research has shown that if viewers receive consistent portrayals of scientists through popular media, such as television, this can influence how they interpret and contextualise science (Carr et al., 2009).

If you would like to explore why stereotypical images of scientists endure, have a look at our audio feature, Imagining Scientists. This discusses research conducted at The Open University through the (In)visible Witnesses Project. The project investigated gendered representations of people working in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and how these images might affect the perception of children and young people.