Science blog

Exploring Social Science at the British Library

Introduction

Find out about social sciences at the British Library including collections, events and research. This blog includes contributions from curators and guest posts by academics, students and practitioners. Read more

17 July 2020

Gilbert White's influence on science

18th July 2020 is the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of Gilbert White, the "parson-naturalist" best known for his pioneering work on the natural history and history of his parish of Sherborne, Hampshire. A number of posts are appearing on different British Library blogs to celebrate, but this post will discuss his influence on science to this day.

A stained glass window showing a man in a brown habit with a halo, in a country landscape surrounded by birds
Stained glass window commemorating White in Selborne church, showing St Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds. All the birds shown in the window are mentioned in White's writings. Photograph by Si Griffiths under a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.


Prior to White's work most scientific biology was based around the study of dead or captive animals in scientists' studies. White, who has been described as "the first ecologist" preferred to observe the animals and plants around his home, over long periods of time. These practices inspired Charles Darwin, whose observations of the finches of the Galapagos Islands initially inspired his thoughts about evolution by natural selection. On a more popular scale, White's influence is seen by some as creating birdwatching as a hobby.

Although more laboratory-centric biologists have occassionally dismissed White-style naturalism as dilatanttish or twee, it has become increasingly important since the mid-twentieth-century, especially in the study of environmental conditions, and of animal behaviour - "ethology".

One of the oldest sites of long-term nature-observation studies in Britain has been Wytham Woods in Oxfordshire. Nicknamed the "laboratory with leaves", it was donated to Oxford University in 1942 by Colonel Raymond ffenell, although some observation had been carried out there since the 1920s. Colonel ffennell was a member of the wealthy and socially prominent German Jewish Schumacher family, who had become rich through his involvement in the South African gold-mining industry, and adopted his wife's surname to avoid anti-German prejudice during World War I. Ever since, a host of research projects have been carried out there on all kinds of animals and plants, as well as climate and soil conditions.

One of the most important discoveries to have been made through long-term environmental observation was the discovery of the damage caused to the environment by acid rain in North America, which came from Gene Likens' observational work at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire, beginning in the 1960s. 

A wooden cabinet containing scientific equipment, on a wooden stand, stands in a sun-dappled forest
Equipment cabinet at Hubbard Brook containing apparatus used for continuous monitoring of a stream's pH. Used non-commercially with permission of USDA Forest Service.


A listing of current long-term environmental observation sites is maintained by the International Long Term Ecological Research Network (ILTER) on their database DEIMS-SDR (Dynamic Ecological Information Management System - Site and Dataset Registry). See also the review article by Hughes and others with links to many examples.

The modern science of animal behaviour, or ethology, was developed in the 1930s by Nikolaas Timbergen, Konrad Lorenz, and Karl von Frisch. All three did most of their research on domestic or captive animals, but the discipline would later see the importance of long-term observation of the behaviour of wild animals in their natural habitats. Three of the most famous practitioners of this were the so-called "Trimates", known for their observations of wild apes - Jane Goodall with chimpanzees in Tanzania, Dian Fossey with gorillas in Zaire and Rwanda, and Birute Galdikas with orang-utans in Indonesia. Another example which has achieved fame outside science, although not yet enough, is Dave Mech's disproof, from observations of wild wolves in Minnesota, of the outdated "alpha wolf" model of social dynamics in wolf packs, which has influenced a great deal of beliefs about dog-training and even human interactions, but was derived from observations of what turned out to be disfunctional behaviour in captive animals.

It is also possible to follow in White's footsteps yourself, by taking part in a citizen science project based on observing nature in your garden or in your wider local area. The Countryside Jobs Network maintains a list of opportunities, which aren't just in rural areas.

We hope that you look a bit more closely at the nature around you this weekend!

18 June 2020

Citizen Science and COVID-19

Your experience of the COVID-19 pandemic could be an important contribution to science. Researchers from diverse disciplinary backgrounds are keen to learn about your stories, insights, routines, thoughts and feelings. While some projects would be eager to receive diaries in the narrative style of Samuel Pepys or John Evelyn, others want more specific information in survey format.

Hand-drawn and painted cartoon illustrating various ways people have entertained themselves during lockdown
Illustration: Graham Newby, The British Library: Lockdown Rooms (3rd June 2020)

Citizen science engages self-selected members of the public in academic research that generates new knowledge and provides all participants with benefits. The engagement can vary from data gathering or participatory interpretation to shared research design. Different forms of citizen science can be referred to as public science, public participation in scientific research, community science, crowd-sourced science, distributed engagement with research and knowledge production, or trans-disciplinary research that integrates local, indigenous and academic knowledge.

Contributing to citizen science projects sustains a sense of control, sense of belonging (empowering feelings in and after isolation) and sense of being useful which are particularly important in uncertain times. According to the UK Environment Observation Framework, self-measured evidence is more trusted by people, and organisations that draw on data generated through citizen science are more trusted. Trust is linked to transparency. Better understanding of how scientific knowledge is produced, and having a role and responsibility in shaping the knowledge production process, are likely to enable citizen scientists to re-frame the often-uneasy relationship between society and science.

Scale is a distinctive feature of citizen science. The more people are engaged, the more comprehensive an understanding can be reached about the researched topic. The featured COVID-19 Symptom Study has become the largest public science project in the world in a matter of weeks:  3,881,488 citizen scientists are involved as of 18th June 2020. Big data allowed medics to develop an artificial intelligence diagnostic that can predict the likelihood of having COVID-19 based on the symptoms only: a vital tool indeed when testing is limited.

The citizen science initiatives highlighted here, COVID-19 Symptom Study, COVID-19 and You, and COVID Chronicles, may inspire you to contribute to them or find other projects where you can take an active role in developing better understanding of current and future epidemics.

COVID-19 Symptom Study
https://COVID.joinzoe.com/data
Epidemiology
Institutions: King's College London, ZOE
Launched: 25th March 2020
Your contribution helps you and researchers understand COVID-19 and the dynamics of the pandemic (UK, USA).
How: Submit your physical health status regularly.

COVID-19 and You
https://nquire.org.uk/mission/COVID-19-and-you/contribute
Social sciences
Institutions: The Open University, The Young Foundation
Launched: 7th April 2020
Your contribution helps you and researchers understand how COVID-19 is affecting households and communities across the world.
How: Fill in an online survey with choices and narratives.

In addition to supporting current research, your contribution could add to future inquiries as well. Collecting and archiving short personal stories ensures authentic data will be available when researchers in the future look back to us now with their research questions. Reliable data should be collected now, while we are still living in unprecedented times. It is especially important to record the experiences of people from less privileged backgrounds, in contrast to earlier pandemics where the voices of all but the upper and middle classes, and the political, legal and scholarly elite, have often been lost to history. COVID Chronicles, an archival initiative, is doing just that. COVID Chronicles is a joint project: BBC 4 PM collects and features some of the stories and The British Library archives them all for future academic inquiries.

COVID Chronicles
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-52487414
History, social sciences
Institutions: BBC Radio 4, The British Library
Launched: 30th April 2020
Your contribution helps you and future researchers understand how people experience the COVID-19 pandemic in their daily life, at a personal level.
How: Submit a mini-essay (about 400 words) to BBC Radio 4 PM via e-mail: pm at bbc dot co dot uk. Your essay will be archived by The British Library and made available for future research.

The gradually easing lockdown and the anticipated long journey of national and global recovery generate a growing appetite to record, reflect on and analyse the COVID-19 epidemic's influence on our life. Not all "citizen science" projects observe high standards of privacy and ethical responsibility, however. Before joining in any research with public participation, consider the principles of citizen science suggested by the European Citizen Science Association and the questions below:

Five questions before joining a citizen science initiative

  1. Can you contact the researchers and the institution(s) they belong to with your questions and concerns?
  2. Is the research approach clear to you? In order words, is it clear to you what happens to your contribution, how it shapes the investigation and what new knowledge is expected?
  3. Is your privacy protected? In other words, is the privacy policy clear to you, including how you can opt out any time and be sure that your data are deleted?
  4. Are you contacted regularly about the progress of the research you are contributing to?
  5. Are you gaining new transferable skills, new knowledge, insights and other benefits by participating in the research?


Further reading:

Bicker, A., Sillitoe, P., Pottier, J. (eds) 2004. Investigating Local Knowledge: New Directions, New Approaches. Aldershot : Ashgate.
BL Shelfmark YC.2009.a.7651, Document Supply m04/38392

Citizen Science Resources related to COVID-19 pandemic (annotated list) https://www.citizenscience.org/COVID-19/
[Accessed 18th June 2020]

Curtis, V. 2018. Online citizen science and the widening of academia: distributed engagement with research and knowledge production. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
Available as an ebook in British Library reading rooms.

Open University. 2019. Citizen Science and Global Biodiversity  (free online course) https://www.open.edu/openlearn/science-maths-technology/citizen-science-and-global-biodiversity/content-section-overview?active-tab=description-tab
[Accessed 18th June 2020]

Sillitoe, P. (ed). 2007. Local science vs global science: approaches to indigenous knowledge in international development. New York : Berghahn Books.
BL Shelfmark YC.2011.a.631, also available as an ebook in British Library reading rooms.

Written by Andrea Deri, Science Reference Team

Contributions from Polly Russell, Curator, COVID Chronicles, and Phil Hatfield, Head of the Eccles Centre for American Studies, are much appreciated.

 

14 May 2020

New report on postgraduate education in the UK

The British Library’s postgraduate students are currently greatly missed while the Reading Rooms are closed. Meanwhile, the Library continues to support all researchers as our online collections continue to grow, and we strive to provide the latest information and essential publications for researchers working on the Covid-19 related research.

As we are continuing to think how postgraduate research might change in the weeks and months to come and how we can continue to support it, it has been encouraging and thought-provoking to read a new, extensive report Postgraduate Education in the UK by Dr Ginevra House. The report continues the Library’s collaboration with the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and a previous report from 2010 that the Library has also been involved with, thus supporting a long-term evidence of the evolving changes in postgraduate education.

The new report uses previously unpublished data to reveal the state of UK postgraduate education in the years before the Covid-19 crisis struck. Dr Ginevra House, the author of the report, explained that despite a tumultuous decade, including the 2008 financial crash, restrictive changes to visas and Brexit, the UK’s postgraduate sector has emerged bigger and more diverse than ever before. 

Compared to the past, the new report reveals that a higher proportion of postgraduates are female, studying full-time and young. However, other challenges to fair access remain, with under-participation by males, by White British students, and by those from less advantaged backgrounds.

The analysis considered how postgraduate education was affected by the recession of 2008, when many people sought to gain more education in the face of economic challenges. The report found that those who already had postgraduate qualifications fared better than others in the labour market.

The top 20 key findings in the 150-page report are listed below.

  1. There were 566,555 postgraduate students in 2017/18, of which 356,996 (63%) were in their first year – up by 16% since 2008/09 (p.22 and Table 2.1).
  2. Two-thirds (65%) of new postgraduates are studying for Master’s degrees, 10% are taking doctorates or other research degrees, 7% are doing teacher training and the rest (18%) a range of diplomas, certificates, professional qualifications and modules (Figure 2.1).
  3. The most popular discipline is Business & Administrative Studies (20%), followed by Education (14%) and Subjects Allied to Medicine (12%). Research postgraduates (64%) are more likely to study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) but most taught postgraduates (68%) take non-STEM subjects (Table 2.2 and pp.26-27).
  4. Just over half of new UK-domiciled postgraduates (53%) study full-time, reversing past trends favouring part-time study – back in 2008/09, most postgraduates (59%) were part-time students (Table 2.4 and pp.32-33).
  5. More than half (60%) of new postgraduate students at UK institutions come from the UK, while one-third (32%) come from outside the EU and 8% come from EU countries. The majority of Master’s students (53%) come from outside the UK (Table 2.5 and Table 2.6).
  6. Between 2008/09 and 2017/18, UK-domiciled postgraduate entrants increased by 10% but students from overseas grew faster: EU-domiciled student numbers increased by 11% and non-EU international students grew by 33% (Table 3.2).
  7. Since the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, the number of new postgraduate students from EU countries has fallen (by 2% in 2017/18 and another 2% in 2018/19), but the reduction in the value of the pound contributed to a 10% increase in non-EU postgraduate starters in 2017/18 (Figure 3.14, p.81 and Figure 3.10).
  8. Chinese students formed 38% of the non-EU postgraduate cohort by 2017/18. Such heavy reliance on a single country exposes universities to greater risk from geo-political events (p.84 and Table 3.3).
  9. The introduction of £10,000 Master’s loans for home / EU students in 2016 had a big positive impact: UK-domiciled student numbers grew by 29% in one year and by 59% among those from the most disadvantaged areas. The loans have also encouraged above-inflation fee increases (Figure 2.22, Figure 3.11, p.80 and Table 5.3).
  10. The number of people taking Taught Master’s courses grew by 30% from 2008/09 to 2017/18, but the total has been volatile, particularly among UK students. Among all new postgraduates, just over half (51%) were full-time Taught Master’s students in 2017/18 (Table 3.1 and p.23).
  11. The great recession following the 2007/08 financial crash witnessed a marked rise in Master’s take-up, as employment opportunities were restricted and people brought forward their plans to study (Figure 3.12).
  12. The female:male ratio among new postgraduates is 60:40, or 62:38 among UK-domiciled students alone. This reflects greater female participation over time – in 2008/09, the overall female:male ratio was 55:45 (p.40 and Figure 2.12).
  13. The gender ratio varies considerably by discipline: women are in a big majority in Subjects Allied to Medicine (77%), Veterinary Sciences (72%) and Education (70%) and men are in a big majority in Engineering & Technology (78%), Computer Science (76%) and Mathematics (71%). Males outnumber females among PhD researchers (51%) (Table 2.7 and Figure 2.13).
  14. The proportion of postgraduate students aged under 30 has grown from 52% to 57% since 2008/09, reflecting a broader decline in people accessing lifelong learning opportunities (Figure 2.18 and p.48).
  15. White men, particularly disadvantaged White men, are less likely to undertake postgraduate study than others. Among UK-domiciled postgraduate entrants from the poorest areas, 64% are women and 36% are men (Table 2.9 and Figure 2.24).
  16. Women have a bigger boost to their earnings from postgraduate study, earning 28% more than women with only undergraduate degrees – the comparable figure for men is 12%. But women with postgraduate qualifications still earn 14% less on average than men with the same level of qualifications (Table 5.4 and p.120).
  17. In the last crash, employment among those with postgraduate qualifications was slower to fall and faster to recover than for those with only a first degree, which may signal how the labour market will respond to the current Covid-19 crisis (Figure 5.11).
  18. The abolition of post-study work visas (announced in 2011 and implemented in 2012) had a negative impact on demand for postgraduate study, most notably within India. The announcement that this policy is to be reversed is welcome but needs communicating quickly and clearly (Figure 3.15).
  19. Transnational education, where people take UK qualifications abroad, has seen substantial growth, more than doubling since 2007/08 to 127,825 postgraduates in 2017/18 and overtaking the number of overseas postgraduate students in the UK (p.58 and Table 2.11).
  20. Demand for postgraduate education is likely to grow over the long term: there could be an additional 22,750 undergraduates moving directly to postgraduate study by 2030 in England alone. While Brexit could mean a drop of around 11,500 EU postgraduates, successful implementation of the UK Government’s International Education Strategy could see an increase of 53,000 in other overseas postgraduates by 2030, although this partly depends on how the world recovers from the current Covid-19 crisis (pp.131-133).

Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, commented that the report findings show that ‘in some respects, postgraduate education now more closely resembles undergraduate study, with today’s postgraduate students more likely to be women, full-time and young. A higher proportion of postgraduate students are also from overseas. He stressed that the story in this report is a positive one, showing the power of higher education to do good, extending people’s options, delivering the skills employers need and pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge.

It is hoped that the report will provide an essential benchmark for postgraduate education prior to the Covid-19 crisis and help us measure the impact of any changes ahead, as well as provide the evidence of the value of highly skilled workforce at the times of uncertainty.

Gropu of around 15 students talking to each other and drinking coffee in the foyer of the British Library's conference centre
Students networking during a postgraduate open day at the British Library