Upcoming Conference: International Federation of Placenta Associations Annual Conference

I will be attending the International Federation of Placenta Associations annual conference, “Placenta, Predicting Future Health,” held in Geilo, Norway, from September 14th to September 17th. Last year, I attended the IFPA conference in Santiago, Chile, to conduct fieldwork for my study, “Laboratory Lives of Afterbirths: Placentas as Working Objects of Study,” which is a sociological investigation of placenta science. This year, I’ll be presenting the results of my study in both a poster and a plenary talk.

♦ Invited Plenary Talk: “‘It’s this all-singing, all dancing organ’: A Sociologist’s Perspective on how Placenta Scientists see the Placenta, their Science, and Themselves.”

♦ Poster: “A Sociology of Placenta Scientists: Towards Transdisciplinary Collaboration.”

I’m very excited to share my findings with conference delegates, some of whom contributed to my study, as well as to hear about the latest science on the placenta.

The Census is Important

While I normally write about science and society on this blog, I want to take some time to comment on the recent major changes to the 2011 Canadian census. My Canadian readers should have by now received their short form census notification directing them to a URL where a few questions can be answered online or informing them of how a paper form can be requested. Canadians have also now realized that the long form census, which for its entire history has been obligatory, is being administered this year to 1 in 5 households as a voluntary household survey.

This year at the Canadian Sociological Association annual conference in Fredericton, Dr. Monica Boyd, Professor at University of Toronto and Canada Research Chair in Immigration, Inequality, and Public Policy, delivered a lecture about this most significant change to the census. Thoroughly researched and compellingly presented, it has me worried.

Dr. Boyd pointed out that such a major change to the census is unprecedented. Cabinet has the power to determine the contours of the census – but this has always been exercised in developing the questions asked in the census, not its fundamental methodology. As Cabinet discussions are in camera, there was no consultation and no warning regarding these changes.

The voluntary nature of the long form has a profound impact on the quality of data that can be obtained from the census. In fact, Chief Statistician of Statistics Canada Munir Sheikh criticized the changes and resigned over them. There are many consequences that negatively affect Canadians (detailed for example in this open letter from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives). Most close to me is the impact is has on researchers, who use this data extensively in analyzing Canadian society. But Dr. Boyd also pointed out that this affects businesses, who use the data to determine feasible markets; government services that require information about populations and their needs; the government in determining equalization payments; cities, provinces, and school boards; nonprofits in establishing the nature and needs of marginalized populations; and the list goes on. The data is integral to the functioning of our country.

Tony Clement, Minister of Industry who is responsible for Statistics Canada, justified the change by saying that the obligatory nature of the long form census represented an unjust infringement on the privacy rights of Canadians. However, Dr. Boyd pointed out that in 20 years, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada had received but a few handfuls of complaints regarding the census. It does not seem that this concern accurately reflects the views of Canadians.

Why did the Conservative Cabinet decide to change the census? I think there are two reasons:

1. Ideology. Having an obligatory program mandated and financed by the government that asks Canadians to reveal private data, no matter how important it is and how anonymous and confidential the responses, is not consistent with the ideological underpinnings of the Conservative Party

2. With less and less reliable evidence on the nature of the Canadian population, the Conservatives can be less accountable to their needs and make more “executive” decisions.

I’m angered by this unfounded, unhelpful, and unnecessary change to the census. I do not support the move to change the Canadian long form census from obligatory to voluntary. If you are also against the changes to the census, you can:

1. Contact Minister Tony Clement.

2. Sign this petition which has over 18000 signatures as of today.

Thank you Dr. Monica Boyd for urging me to think more about the changes to the census.

July 7/2011 Update: According to this CBC news article, census workers are already observing issues in data quality in the voluntary household survey, “raising concerns the data will be even more compromised than originally feared.” We’ll have to wait till the data is released to know for sure just how limited it will be. I continue to urge readers to sign the petition and contact Tony Clement.

Reminder: CSA Annual Conference at Congress in Fredericton

Update: I am now presenting in the Transdisciplinary Research Methodologies 2 Panel.

The Canadian Sociological Association annual conference is next week, May 31st to June 4th. I’m giving a paper and have organized two panels:

♦ Scott, Rebecca. “The Barker Hypothesis and Transdisciplinarity: The Case of Obesity.” June 2, 8:45-10:30.

♦ Panels: Transdisciplinary Research Methodologies (1), May 31, 1:30-3:00; and Transdisciplinary Research Methodologies (2), June 2, 8:45-10:30.

Presenters and paper titles here.

Hope to see you there!

Announcement: ‘Environmental Responsibility without Limits’ Symposium

On April 19th, Queen’s University will have the privilege of hosting scholars Nigel Clark and Peter Van Wyck for a symposium entitled “Environmental Responsibility without Limits.” Click here for the promotional poster.

There is a graduate student chat session with the two from 10-11:30am in room WAT 517, followed by the symposium from 1-3:30pm in the Robert Sutherland Building room 202. Nigel Clark’s talk is entitled “Climate Justice: Indifferent Nature, Indifferent Responsibility”; Peter Van Wyck’s talk is entitled “Memory, Witness, and the Archive: At Work on the Highway of the Atom.”

The event is sponsored by the genera Research Group, Network in Canadian History and Environment, and the School of Environmental Studies, the School of Policy Studies, the Department of Geography, and the Department of Sociology at Queen’s University. Many thanks to Myra J. Hird for organizing the event.

All welcome! It’s sure to be an engaging event.

Transdisciplinary Research Methodologies: Canadian Sociological Association Annual Conference Session

My session proposal for next year’s Canadian Sociological Association Annual Conference during Congress (held next May  28th to June 4th in Fredericton) was recently accepted by the organizing committee. I’m looking for papers that discuss some aspect of “Transdisciplinary Research Methodologies.” Here is the description for the session:

Defined as a research practice in which ‘boundaries between and beyond disciplines are transcended and knowledge and perspectives from different scientific disciplines as well as nonscientific sources are integrated’ (Flinterman et al, 2001), transdisciplinarity has gained currency in academia and public discourse as part of a growing recognition that responses to wide-ranging problems must be multi-pronged, multidimensional, and draw on many forms of data and analytic resources. Sociologists have much to contribute to such projects. Yet sociologists working collaboratively across disciplines face many challenges, one set of which pertains to methodology. This panel addresses methodological challenges faced by transdisciplinary researchers. In particular, paper will focus on novels approaches to research that overcome these challenges.


We’ve scheduled two panels for the theme. Here are the papers:

May 31 – 1:30-3:00pm

Jacqueline Low, University of New Brunswick
Recruiting Seniors And Social Workers: Implications For Research Designs Across Disciplines

Will C. van den Hoonaard, University of New Brunswick
The Colonization Of Social Research By Bio- Medical Paradigms

Peter Duinker, Dalhousie University
Interdisciplinarity, Transdisciplinarity, Antidisciplinarity: What To Choose For Resource And Environmental Studies?

June 2 – 8:45-10:15am

Jenny Godley, University of Calgary
Using Social Network Analysis To Assess Collaboration In Obesity Research: Evidence From A Canadian University

Cathy Holtmann, University of New Brunswick; Steve McMullin, University of New Brunswick; Nancy Nason-Clark, University of New Brunswick
Interweaving Research On Abuse In Families Of Faith And Social Action: The RAVE {Religion And Violence E-Learning} Project

Rebecca Scott, Queen’s University
The Barker Hypothesis and Transdisciplinarity: The Case of Obesity

IFPA Annual Conference “Fetus and Placenta: A Perfect Harmony”

I will have the privilege and pleasure of attending the upcoming International Federation of Placenta Associations (IFPA) conference entitled “Fetus and Placenta: A Perfect Harmony” held in Santiago de Chile this October. I’m looking forward to hearing the many talks and meeting with the diverse delegates at the conference. I’m also keen to talk about my project on the sociology of the science of the placenta with any delegates that are interested.

If social scientists and scientists were to collaborate more meaningfully, significant gains could be made in fields such as maternal and fetal health. Yet as it stands, such collaborations face significant barriers, as social scientists and scientists struggle to understand the approaches, languages, and priorities of the other. I’m motivated to find out “how science works” and to bring this knowledge back to sociology in the hopes of removing some of these barriers; likewise, I try to bring sociological approaches and knowledge to my scientific collaborators and colleagues. To this end, I am working on elucidating the ways in which scientific knowledge about the placenta is developed and employed, finding out what motivates scientists to study the placenta, exploring the history of the science of the placenta, gauging public understandings of the science of maternal and fetal health, and forging transdisciplinary collaborations between scientists and social scientists.

I conduct interviews with scientists and do participant observation in scientific laboratories that study the placenta. I’d be very pleased to share more about my study and hear any perspectives and ideas from scientists (including graduate students) working with the placenta. I can be contacted at 7rjs@queensu.ca.

Update: I had an exceptionally rich experience at the conference. I could not be more appreciative of the many people I met and talked to at the conference. I look forward to the conference next year!

Carol J Adams: Animal Activism vs. Transdisciplinarity?

Graduate students in the Department of English at Queen’s University organized a great conference last weekend entitled “Animals and Animality Across the Humanities and Social Sciences.” I attended the workshop entitled “Ethics and Activism: Living with and for Animals” by animal, food, and feminist activist Carol J Adams. Carol J Adams is perhaps best known for her book The Sexual Politics of Meat, in which she makes links between meat-eating, the treatment of animals, and gender politics. She also frequently referred to her book Living Among Meat Eaters: The Vegetarian’s Survival Handbook. Adams’ workshop was incredibly thought-provoking and her experience and wisdom were apparent.

Adams’ informal and interactive talk gave participants a chance to voice some of the ethical dilemmas and burdens they experience with regards to animals, vegetarianism/veganism, research, and activism.  How we can deal with with the trauma experienced from witnessing a world that is cruel to animals as well as the difficulties of living as a vegetarian/vegan in a meat eating world were significant themes. I had a rather specific set of concerns with regards to the topic of the day’s workshop. This is because I research scientists who do research with laboratory animals.

My contribution to the discussion (well, I did my best to articulate it) was to point out that while I am certainly someone who cares deeply about animals, the ethics of relations with animals that Adams is advancing don’t seem to be compatible with transdisciplinary research. Adams suggested that researchers in that position could think of their fieldwork as “covert” or “undercover activism,” where the costs of participating in something “unethical” is outweighed by the potential benefit of being able to expose what happens to animals in lab. However, such a position, in my opinion, is not tenable with regards to the legal, professional, and ethical codes by which social scientists are bound. I think it would constitute a form of deception if researchers did not disclose to participants that they intended to “expose”  the “secrets” of animal research; in addition, this may cause them harm. We are bound by these codes to put our human participants first. The scientists, within this system, are the ones who are responsible to the animals, and they are bound by their own professional and ethical codes in that regard. This system does not appear to permit “covert activism.”

I have a further, perhaps more philosophical, concern, but one with considerable practical implications. My work is transdisciplinary. It involves mutual interrogation and transformation of disciplines that normally do not engage each other. Much of the literature on transdisciplinarity suggests that in order for this to occur, the assumptions and commitments of disciplines need to be laid bare. Only then can dialogue happen, and only with dialogue can we begin to bridge the significant gaps between the disciplines. How could a social scientist  study the health sciences in manner that moves beyond simple critique and towards collaboration if they do as Adams had suggested? It seems that Adams’ suggested form of activism is incommensurate with transdisciplinarity. At a practical level, if it were exposed that transdisciplinary researchers were undertaking research with “covert intentions” they would never be invited back by any researcher and their transdisciplinary work would be over. It is also very unlikely that scientific researchers would take their criticism seriously or make any changes. The “us-versus-them” dichotomy that is implied by the idea of “covert activism” is not, in my opinion, compatible with the collaborative nature of transdisciplinarity. And all of this assumes that there is, in fact, something to “expose.”

I stick with what Donna Haraway (in When Species Meet, 2008) says about eating when thinking about the questions of animals in labs:

Maybe God can have a solitary meal, but terran critters cannot. In eating we are most inside the differential relationalities that make us who and what we are and that materialize what we must do if response and regard are to have any meaning personally and politically. There is no way to eat and not to kill, no way to eat and not to become with other mortal beings to whom we are accountable, no way to pretend innocence and transcendence or a final peace. (P. 295)

There are no absolute answers with regards to the ethics of animal research. And since there can be no final peace, we must always be reflecting and transforming. Is that possible if transdisciplinary research is not possible? I’m not so sure.

Apart from these tough questions, my favorite thing she said that day was this excellent bit of advice for the budding scholar:

This is either going to be published, or it’s going to be perfect, but it’s not going to be both.

Congress 2010: Evelyn Fox Keller, Climate Change Science, and Scientific Literacy

The Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of Science hosted a lecture by prolific science studies scholar Evelyn Fox Keller during this year’s Congress. In her talk “Climate Science, Truth, and Democracy,” Keller discussed how, why, and towards what outcomes scientific experts have thus far engaged in public and political debates on climate change. She argued that nothing in scientific training prepares scientists to communicate their findings with publics; furthermore, many scientists are unwilling to do so because they fear being perceived as being “unscientific” or “political.” Scientists are committed to the belief that science is capable of delivering value-free access to truth. Instead of strengthening the case for their claims about climate change, this has weakened them precisely because it is used as a reason to shy away from public discourses and debates, which are then not as informed by scientific knowledge as they could be.  This disengagement of scientists from public debates has enabled the climate change “deniers” to have an incredible and unbalanced amount of airtime and attention.

Scientists then, must engage with publics, and this will mean that they recognize that science is not apolitical. But confidence in science is still possible. Scientific claims are made very carefully; with proper understanding of the basis of scientific claims, we can see them as “true enough” for us to make decisions about whether and how to act on them. Keller suggested that scientific claims give us our best shot at understanding the past, present, and future – especially of climate change.

Keller’s recommendation is that their needs to be training on how to clearly and effectively articulate the findings of science built  into the education and professionalization of scientists. This is a reformulation of conventional understandings of “scientific literacy,” which normally refers to the need for publics to be better educated on how science works and why its claims are compelling. Instead, Keller advanced a kind of “public literacy” for scientists.

While I appreciated Keller’s argument for the public literacy of scientists, I felt it rested very heavily on her belief in the evidence supporting the existence of anthropogenic climate change. While I certainly support this, I wonder how her analysis would play out differently for phenomena for which there isn’t such unified scientific consensus, or for which there are competing knowledge claims coming from outside of science (like knowledge with a religious or experiential base). I’m left wondering whether Keller’s reformulation of scientific literacy is really the same thing as the dissemination model of public understandings of science, in which there is a one-way flow of information between scientists and publics – particularly if the training she argues for better equips them to “tell their story,” but not to hear the stories of others.

Do scientists make the most compelling knowledge claims? What should be the weight and credence of their expertise? For me, Keller’s talk has provided a provocative basis upon which to start to think through these questions.

Post edit: My colleague Mark Vardy is doing some great work on climate change and democracy that you should check out.