This is a guest blog post by Dr Felicity Mellor, principal investigator of the AHRC Science in Culture Theme ‘Silences of Science’ Research Network. Dr Felicity Mellor is Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at Imperial College London. The final conference in the Silences of Science network will be held at Imperial College on 1st May 2014.

For a group frequently stereotyped as inarticulate and socially inept, scientists are expected to do a lot of talking these days. When they are not discussing their experiments with their research teams or negotiating multi-national multi-disciplinary collaborations, they are blogging, tweeting, handing out policy advice and ‘engaging’ the public. The impact agenda, public engagement, and the open access and open data movements all share an assumption that the more scientists communicate the better.

It’s easy to make the case for this maximised science communication – notions of transparency, democratic accountability, and the need for an informed citizenry would all feature. Decades of work in the sociology of science and other areas of Science and Technology Studies, detailing the ways in which science is both inherently social in its own practice and deeply embedded in wider social issues, seems to have become a commonplace. The old mythology of the lone genius in the ivory tower has been well and truly vanquished.

Yet the moment an idea becomes a commonplace is precisely the time to start being more critical of it. To that end, my colleague Stephen Webster and I are running an AHRC Research Network on the Silences of Science. Our aim is to explore the limits to openness, both in terms of barriers to openness – institutionally-imposed practices of secrecy, say, or individual perceptions of the risks of speaking out – but also the costs of openness. What is lost in all this talk?

University library image shutterstock

One thing that might be lost is a place, and time, to think, as I’ve discussed over at the Guardian‘s Political Science blog. Intense concentration requires, if not complete social withdrawal, at least the ability to control and limit one’s social interactions. As Francis Bacon put it, silence provides for “the fermentation of thought”. Yet, as Bacon went on to note, as well as a sign of wisdom and virtue, silence can also be the sign of treachery.

Silence offers a way of approaching the tensions between creative collaboration and the introspection of intellectual endeavour – between the need to be open and the need to get one’s thoughts straight first – because it is inherently dialogical. All speech incorporates silences and all silence consists of noise. Silence is also relative. We perceive the babbling of a brook as a silence but the roar of traffic as noise. A productive conversation between participants may simultaneously constitute a silence directed at non-participants.

Scholars of silence studies have argued that silence is more than mere absence, and is meaningful in its own right. Silence can be referential and rhetorical, produced and encountered, strategic and unintended, chosen and imposed, generative and oppressive. Most of all, silence is ambiguous, shaped by its context but also having the potential to shape that context. Examining the ways in which silences are constructed, or resisted, in and around science offers one way to critique the hegemonic demands for particular sorts of science communication.

One insight that is emerging from our network is that the communication of science to public audiences frequently masks significant silences. At our latest conference, Emma Weitkamp spoke about how the media attention given to claims about superfoods consistently entails a silence about who funds the studies being reported. Daniele Macuglia detailed how, in the 1950s, the secrecy of the US nuclear facility at Hanford was achieved despite frequent news reports of radiation leaks. And Catriona Gilmour Hamilton argued that in medical trials, the apparent openness of consent procedures can silence the patient voice. Yet silence can also be a valued condition that is actively sought, even if not always achieved, as Kees-Jan Schilt discussed in the case of Isaac Newton’s wish to withdraw from the Royal Society. Recordings from this conference are available here.

What scientists say is important, but so too is what they don’t say. Silence speaks, but who creates these silences and who strives to fill them and for what purpose? Tracing the contours of silence in science can help highlight the power relations that underpin the proclamations of science.

This is one of a series of guest blog posts written by AHRC Science in Culture Theme Award Holders. The Science in Culture Theme is a key area of AHRC Funding and supports projects committed to developing reciprocal relationships between scientists and arts and humanities researchers. More information about the Silences of Science Research Network can be found here. Follow us on twitter at @AHRCSciCulture for updates from the theme.