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

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

13 May 2020

Diarists and diaries

Three manuscript volumes, two open, one closed with a logo showing a dragon on the front.
Diary in the 17th century: The autograph manuscripts of John Evelyn's Diary  Copyright © The British Library Board

‘But one shower of rain all this month.’ - entered John Evelyn in his diary on 29th April 1681. What would you write about April 2020 in your diary?
 
John Evelyn (1620–1706) is one of the best-known English diarists. He is known as a diarist but he was also a scholar, a botanist, a landscape gardener, author and one of the founding members of ‘The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge' (est. 1660).
 
An engraving of a white-haired man in academic dress, holding a large leather-bound book
Diarist: John Evelyn (31 October 1620 – 27 February 1706) Copyright © The British Library Board

Unbeknown to him, Evelyn was also a chronicler of climatic change. His weather notes provide us with data on the period dubbed as the Little Ice Age in Europe.
In his diary he noted numerous extreme weather events. The first reference in 1636: ‘This year being extremely dry’, continued later with extreme cold winters when the Thames froze over for weeks, extreme heat, and extreme wind including hurricanes, and unseasonal weather at various times of the year. 
1st January 1684
The weather continuing intolerably severe, streets of booths were set upon the Thames ; the air was so very cold and thick, as for many years there had not been the like. The small-pox was very mortal.
 
9th January 1684
I went cross the Thames on the ice, now become so thick as to bear not only streets of booths, in which they roasted meat, and had divers shops of wares, quite across as in a town, but coaches, carts and horses passed over.
 
11th August 1695
The weather now so cold, that greater frosts were not always seen in the midst of winter ; this succeeded much wet and set harvest extremely back.
Unlike most weather diarists, Evelyn did not take daily notes but focused on the unexpected. There are three years of exceptionally high number of weather notes in Evelyn’s diary: 1684, 1695 and 1696.  His comparative notes on the weather makes him stand out of weather diarists. 
25th June 1652
After a drought of near four months, there fell so violent a tempest of hail, rain, wind, thunder and lightning, as no man had seen the like in this age ; the hail being in some places four or five inches about, brake all the glass about London especially at Deptford, and more at Greenwich.
 
21st January 1671
This year the weather was so wet, stormy, and unseasonable, as had not been known for many years.
 
21st April 1689
This was one of the most seasonable springs, free form the usual sharp east winds that I have observed since the year 1660 (the year of the Restoration), which was much such as one.
Despite his longitudinal view of how the actual weather compared with previous years of his lifetime, he did not engage with weather forecasting. He took notice, however, of the relationship between weather conditions and health (epidemiology) issues, in line with The Royal Society’s priorities.
 
Keeping a weather diary in the second part of the 17th century was not unusual. In fact, The Royal Society encouraged it. One of the earliest histories of The Royal Society (1667) gives an account of how Christopher Wren’s (architect, another founding member of The Royal Society) initiated the study of the ‘history of seasons’ as the priority of the Royal Society.
The Second Work which he [Wren] has advanced, is the History of Seasons: which will be of admirable benefit to Mankind, if it shall be constantly pursued, and deriv'd down to Posterity. His proposal therefore was, to comprehend a Diary of Wind, Weather, and other conditions of the Air, as to Heat, Cold, and Weight; and also a General Description of the Year, whether contagious or healthful to Men or Beasts; with an Account of Epidemical Diseases, of Blasts, Mill-dews, and other accidents, belonging to Grain, Cattle, Fish, Fowl, and Insects.
Thomas Sprat (1667:315-6)
The Royal Society published a detailed description to support weather monitoring: 'A METHOD For making a History of the Weather by Mr. Hook’ (Sprat 1667:175-182)
The Royal Academy's stamped bookplate, showing their coat of arms in black and white
The bookplate of The Royal Society Note the Latin motto: Nullius in verba (Take nobody’s words for it)
Wren’s initiative is better understood in the context of extreme weather events and unusual seasons. Weather lore was not fully reliable for farmers and seamen any more. April showers did not necessarily happen – as Evelyn recorded in 1681. Finding out the laws and the cause of weather became a priority for a growing naval power. Evelyn, as an active member of the Royal Society, must have been aware of Wren’s initiative but did not follow any rigorous rules in his diary.  
 
Evelyn’s diary inspired scholars across disciplines over the last 400 years. One of them, J.M. Winn, M.D. (1848) - motivated by a severe winter in England in 1846 - extracted weather (and epidemiology) related entries from John Evelyn’s diary and concluded that Evelyn’s observations corroborated Howard Luke’s theory of a ‘cycle of seven years in the seasons of Britain’. Howard (see his work on clouds) made his theoretical proposition based on his own daily weather diary. Regardless of the accuracy of his conclusion, Winn recognized the value of Evelyn’s longitudinal dataset over a period of extraordinary climatic and social changes. Winn, similar to Wren and Evelyn himself, was keen to account for the link between extreme climatic and social events; a topic that has become part of our daily conversation as well this spring.
 
The British Library holds The John Evelyn Archive, a collection of his autograph diary, correspondence and related documents. This year marks John Evelyn’s 400th anniversary of birth (31 October 1620).
 
Celebrating Evelyn comes in style for many people who started keeping a diary this spring, written, audio, photo, or video diary, for recording their story of the Covid-19 epidemic, the impacts and the questions raised by this epidemic and the unfolding climatic changes. Evelyn, Wren, Howard were not professional meteorologists. But their observations, insights, and understanding of the importance of weather contributed to the history of meteorology, history of science and the history of civilisations.
 
Your Covid-19 Chronicles can also be part of The British Library's latest born-digital archives initiated by BBC Radio 4’s. Read here how your Covid-19 stories can make history.
An image shows a teacup, a closed laptop computer with monitor, a pen, a cloth-bound book and a pair of earbud headphones
Diary in 2020 [Photo: A. Deri, 6 May 2020]

Further reading
British Library to find home for Covid Chronicles (3 minutes)
Hear Polly Russell lead curator at the British Library tell Evan Davis how the Covid Chronicles might be used by future researchers.
30th April 2020
Evelyn, J., W. Bray (ed.) 1952. The diary of John Evelyn.   Vols. I-II. Dent.
BL Shelfmark W11/6235 Vol I; W11/6236 Vol II
Digitized editions of Evelyn’s diaries on http://www.archive.org & http://www.gutenberg.org 
Sprat, Th. (ed.) 1667. The History of the Royal Society of London, for the Improving of Natural Knowledge. London.
Winn, J.M. 1848. Notes on Meterology. Annual Report of the Royal Institution of Cornwall. Appendix II. Vol. 29. pp. 38-45.
BL Shelfmark Ac.1225
 
Many thanks to Phil Hatfield for his helpful suggestions.
 
Written by Andrea Deri, Science Reference Team