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Looking Glass: Society – a blueprint for the IOP?

Series one of the IOP’s flagship podcast raises important questions about what it means to be a physicist, both today and in the world of tomorrow, writes Imogen Small, Public Engagement Officer. 

Looking Glass: Society

Looking Glass was launched in Nov 2020, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Institute of Physics (IOP). 

The podcast consists of six episodes structured around interesting and challenging conversations between experts from different disciplines. Now available as a box set on podcast apps, it also includes an introductory episode featuring a conversation between the host of the series, Angela Saini, and the IOP's Deputy Chief Executive, Rachel Youngman, about why the podcast was commissioned.  

I listened to the whole of the first series over the course of a week at the start of 2021. The UK had just entered the third national lockdown, the weather was grim and to be honest the future didn’t look so bright either. Did I want to hear about future challenges, when the current one seemed challenging enough? Not really. But listening to each episode got me thinking about the world wider than my own. 

The rich conversations between guests showcased a diversity of thought. We heard from experts in multiple fields, from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities. This sharing of ideas and innovations must surely echo the conversations our founding members had 100 years ago, just after the First World War and the Spanish flu pandemic, when shaping what they wanted their learned society to look like, and how it was to interact with a fast-changing world.  

At the root of the series are questions of how physics, and physicists, contribute and are responsible in society as a whole, not just their specific institutions and communities. These intersections are explored across the six episodes and five themes of the series. Some are expected, for example the huge challenge of the climate crisis, or exploring the ethics of new technologies in medicine, robotics, and AI (Artificial Intelligence).

Other episodes are surprising, such as the discussions around who has a platform (along with what happens when it is taken away) and the value of non-western knowledge systems. After listening to the series, Chris Brake from our Science & Innovation team and I got together to think more deeply about the common threads weaving the episodes together and what this means for us at the Institute of Physics. 

Responsibility of Physicists for their discoveries

Questions of the responsibility of physicists to society are of course not new. When their discoveries or technologies can have an impact as large as an atomic bomb, then questions of accountability are not far behind. In episode 6: A Blueprint for the Future, former IOP President, Dame Frances Saunders sums up the quest for discovery for discovery’s sake alone: “Sometimes you (physicists) do just need to push a frontier, open the door to see what is behind it… I think the importance is how rapidly you respond to what you find on the other side of the door.” So, is responsibility just a matter of foresight and contingency planning? With good planning, is any research justified?  

There is of course the impact of new technologies on the wider world to consider, and the intent behind the research. Along with the exciting benefits, such as machine learning to detect cancer or solar-based technologies for water treatment, there are those perhaps unintended consequences of a new discovery. Questions of who gets access to new technologies are highlighted in Episode 3: Healthcare and Inequality, and whether this propagates societal injustices. Or that even with good intentions our unconscious biases are literally coded into new technologies as discussed in episode 5: The Ethics of Big Data and AI. These moral responsibilities are not new to the role of a physicist but need to be central when creating that blueprint for the future.  

So how do we ensure that the benefits of any new technology are equitable? The first thing to stress is that equity is not the same as equality, it is based on the needs of the recipients rather than everyone receiving an equal share. This is at the heart of many social justice issues, Angela Saini puts it nicely: “here we have an unequal society, how do we even it up without some people feeling aggrieved about it?”. This is a very difficult question to answer, one option explored in Episode 3: Healthcare and Inequality is to create solutions specifically for those that are often overlooked. Of course, those solutions need to solve problems that actually exist and be accessible to those that would benefit from them. 

Ivan Beckley, the founder of Suvera health, advocates for this approach with the principles behind his start up, which are centred around the “accessibility, affordability and effectiveness (of care)” for the end user. Perhaps these principles are a good starting point for technologies developed in the wider physics community as well. If they were embedded into the research, development, and delivery processes, might they help bring the needs of the recipients into the foreground? This is especially important for Sophie Martin, from the Blackett Lab Family, who concludes in episode 6, that the physics community must put the impact on society at the heart of the push for knowledge and communicate that impact clearly. 

How should we communicate what we discover? 

The way that scientists communicate is a key theme through the series. Within the first minutes of the first episode: The Climate Crisis, the topic of communicating data and climate change scepticism is raised. How can climate researchers communicate convincingly enough to persuade everyone that there is a problem, and how do they ensure that they are listened to? 

Angela Saini empathises with the frustration of those scientists who have been talking about the issue for decades. One way forward might be for scientists to collaborate with activists and campaigners when there is an intersection with their work. Looking Glass credits the recent effort of Greta Thunberg and the climate strikers in raising awareness and as a campaigner herself Fatima-Zahra Ibrahim from the Green New Deal UK comments; “There is all this great (scientific) work happening, but that great work doesn’t go anywhere unless it lives in our homes, unless we can understand and communicate it ourselves.” Dr Emily Shuckburgh, Director of Cambridge Zero thinks that we can go even further, that if we really want to build trust with the public, we must build open and transparent processes, and communicate those as well. 

The different skillsets involved in making a discovery and talking about it effectively are highlighted again in episode 3. When Professor Kevin McGuigan from the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, is asked about how he promotes the benefits of clean water technologies to those that might use them, his answer is wry: “the science is the easy part! … (the problem is) trying to help communities realise that there is a problem, and the technology can help address that problem.” He goes on to say that both technology and communication must be culturally relevant, sensitive, and non-patronising to the people that will be using it to have the greatest possible benefit.  

Science is moving increasingly into the public eye, even the government is “following the science” with an almost religious fervour. As well as the important issues outlined above – if honest, open, and effective communication with the public doesn’t become embedded within the scientific community do we risk being "othered" – put on a pedestal or used as a scapegoat by those in political power for the consequences of policy decisions? 

All of this relies on physicists and the IOP itself to be able to communicate in the way the society does. At the moment this seems to be through social media, with all the opportunity and risk associated with it. The echo chamber of a place like Twitter is discussed in episode 2: Power, Privilege and Cancel Culture where Brenda Trenowden from PwC UK and global co-chair of the 30% club, states that “debate can be shut down by the loudest voices". We thought that regardless of whether those voices are assenting or dissenting, both physicists and organisations like the IOP need to know how to respond appropriately and engage in true dialogue online. Sheree Atcheson, Head of Diversity & Inclusion at Monzo and Global Ambassador for Women Who Code, points out that as digital citizens we all have a responsibility for our behaviours online in the same way that we would in person, so being an active and inclusive digital organisation that is an ally to underrepresented voices can only be a good thing. 

The final piece of the puzzle is raised in Episode 5: The Ethics of Big Data and AI, when the discussion turned to the balance, or imbalances, of power between organisations and individuals. Shiv Malik, former Guardian investigative ​journalist and head of growth at Streamr, believes that those with less power in a relationship become open to manipulation, especially by large tech companies like Twitter and Facebook, he says “there is a huge asymmetry of power, you have thousands of developers vs me as an individual… I am never going to win”. And this imbalance of power can lead to the spread of misinformation, pseudoscience, and distrust.

These conversations of trust are central to several episodes. How can we expect anyone to act against climate change if they don’t trust the information telling them it is real? How can we improve patient outcomes if medical technologies aren’t trusted? I believe that the IOP can have a key role here, we don’t have “thousands of developers”, but we do have the power to engage with platforms that host content on a more equal footing, and to signpost and call out misinformation when we see it. We can take Dr Shuckburgh’s advice and build open and transparent processes for IOP activities before encouraging others to do the same. 

What makes and should make a physicist “successful”? 

In episode six, Sophie Martin comments that the current measures within the academic community for what makes a physicist successful are very internal. They might include how many papers someone has published, how prominently they are listed as an author, and whether the research has followed scientific best practise. These methods of recognition and reward only serve to preserve the status quo, rather than make systemic and sustainable change as our strategy aims to do. The conversations in Looking Glass might shed some light on what it might mean to be a successful physicist in the future we are hoping to shape.  

Physicists working alongside others and effect positive change 

It has been shown that our physics community is not only enriched by diversity of thought, experience, and perspective but that there are tangible benefits as well. The focus on increasing diversity within physics as part of our strategy shows our commitment to this ethos, and Episode 4: Who’s At The Table talks of the benefits to our western scientific community that holistic knowledge and decision making could bring. Carolina Behe, the Indigenous Knowledge/Science advisor for the Inuit Circumpolar Council Alaska thinks that when the focus of scientific research involves eliminating variables, this surely must lead to silo-ed thinking as well. That true diversity of thought comes not just from respecting the cultural knowledge of those who physicists work alongside, but from accepting and not "translating" it into the western canon. As an example, the conversations within Looking Glass surely gain from including guests from both STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and non-STEM backgrounds, from different genders, ethnicities, and experience within their field. 

The second important point is that when invited into a community, these diverse voices are given equal weight at the table. In episode 2, Brenda Trenowden says that she would much rather talk about Inclusion and Diversity “I&D rather than D&I” because too many organisations recruit diverse teams and yet there’s no real change because those diverse teams aren’t truly included, the dominant culture within an organisation hasn’t been addressed. 

When asked how to ensure that diverse voices are heard rather than "tokenised" Frances Saunders says that she hates “the thought that I might be here because of my gender, rather than because I have something useful to say” and Sophie Martin brings her own experiences as a member of the Blackett Lab family, stressing the importance of representation and connection between those in underrepresented communities. She also says that organisations looking to improve the representation of groups should recognise that there is a "burden" to existing as a minority in any community, an additional weight that their peers don’t carry whenever they put themselves forward. Carolina Behe adds to this in episode 4, when she discusses her experiences when invited to negotiation meetings and end up thinking “was I too loud? They reacted to me so negatively… everybody else at the table is treating those negotiations differently than if we were all equitable.” If even experts invited to discussions are marginalised, there is definitely still work to be done. 

What next after Looking Glass? 

When asked why we commissioned the Looking Glass podcast in the first place, Rachel Youngman, deputy CEO of the IOP, replied that opening our doors to society isn’t enough. We need to reach out, have honest conversations, and then to listen. So how do we take all these conversations, this expertise and use it to build our blueprint? For physics and those that practise it to be a recognised force for good in the world?  For industries to champion equitable and sustainable practises. Publishers to share their knowledge, and research to benefit from the insight of those from diverse backgrounds. 

The themes of Looking Glass highlight our key challenges. As the professional body for physics, we have the opportunity and responsibility to do all we can to embed these ways of thinking and working throughout our community. An essential part of this work must surely be to acknowledge and confront our own biases then support those in our community to do the same, free from stigma or reproach. Sophie Martin, in Episode 6, is mindful that “people, maybe get uncomfortable about being challenged or pushed in a certain direction, or a new direction by the increase in diversity”. I think we need to accept that being uncomfortable is sometimes necessary. Being challenged can lead to personal and professional growth.  

I believe that the IOP should challenge itself to make sure that our systems and processes fully align to the value that is bought by diversity in physics. Can we change the way that we award grants so that physicists are truly celebrated for using their skills to tackle global challenges? Can we help bring about a change in the physics ecosystem by using our awards system to reward those that consider the implications of their new technologies in the short term, long term and throughout society? Should our public engagement work encourage work to build relationships of trust with those that have been underserved by the physics community so far? 

 What should we do next if the answer is yes? 

Listen to all episodes of Looking Glass: Society here

Series 2 of Looking Glass is coming soon, presented by podcaster, author and journalist Gemma Milne.