DIUS Science And Society Consultation

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Radio dials The UK Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills has just conducted a consultation on Science and Society. What follows is a version of my submission to DIUS on this subject, covering issues such as the role of scientists in the service of government, the use of social science, the need to develop regional science strategies, engagement and stakeholding, the iterative way science evolves in its inevitably social context/s, and how different sorts of people feel about and become active (or not) in this process.

Introduction

The DIUS Science and Society Consultation document is a valuable contribution to contemporary debate on this complex matter. There are many important issues within that discussion on which others will doubtless offer advice, but which will not be touched upon in the commentary below.

Rather, this response will concentrate largely on the nature of science in society, with a particular (though not exclusive) focus on the centrality within that focus of the question of science, scientists, government and policy-making.

The approach in which follows will look more to the general issues, than to the specific, enumerated questions posed by the Science and Society consultation document. We are here addressing some aspects of the assumptions and constructions underlying final question of the document, i.e.:

Do these areas and questions (on roles, responsibilities and actions) provide a suitable framework for addressing the challenges we have identified?


The critical questions

The DIUS Science and Society document suggests a number of critical questions, answers to which may influence the analysis and commentary DIUS invites.

These questions include:

* Is there a difference between ‘Science and Society’ and ‘Science in Society’? To what extent is it important to recognise that science and all other forms of knowledge are inherently iterative in nature?

* Is it also important to recognise that ‘Science’ is a socially constructed area of endeavour and form of knowledge, just like every other form of human activity and knowledge? Can this help us?

* Are the roles and specific obligations of scientists different for those employed by Government and for those who are not? Do Government scientists have obligations which are additional to their basic professional ones?

Whilst it is not now the time to explore these basic questions in depth, they are fundamental to our understanding of that ‘science and society’ is about, and what it can do. A few observations on these fundamentals follow...


‘Science and Society’ and ‘Science in Society’

‘Science’ is one form of knowledge amongst many. It derives its claimed authority from the way it operates – the rigorous testing and rational pursuit or ordering of evidence – which is generally understood to be the basis also of modern western culture. To that extent science is of (or ‘in’) society, rather than an adjunct to it.

Even in modern rational societies however there are many other forms of ‘knowledge’ or belief. Indeed, one of the challenges of liberal western governments is to establish that the state is granted legitimacy by its citizens through that state’s willingness to adhere to the rules of rationality – what the state insists upon can be demonstrated empirically to be in the generic best interests overall of its citizens (adherence to the evidence and ‘rule’ improves your health, safety, environment, freedom, whatever...).

Scientists themselves, however, often seem to operate in the public domain as through there were no other modes of legitimation – they can appear as authoritative per se, rather than as offering the ‘best available’ evidence for a particular course of action or decision making.

Whether this matters depends on what is being considered: a professionally judged and clear-cut way forward is often required in emergencies for instance, but may be less appropriate for public discourse about disputed issues (and especially ones where questions of ‘morals’ or other non-empirical matters are significant).

We all need to be clear about the difference between long-term scientific debates and immediate professional judgements.


‘Science’ is a socially constructed area of endeavour and form of knowledge

It is critical to recognise that all ‘knowledge’ is socially constructed.

Scientists can legitimately, and should, offer evidence opinions on an enormous range of issues, but everyone needs to recognise that not all issues can be resolved to the satisfaction of all citizens by rational debate.

Science is an iterative activity; it does not hold that there are immutable and universal empirically-based truths, but rather that there are good reasons to develop evidence-based and rational understandings of our universe, society and other phenomena.

These reasons – better health, environment, business etc – are also the reasons why emphases in science change over time. We discover something about X which leads us to enquire about Y... which in turn takes us to Z; and in so doing we often discover also that the premise behind X is no longer secure, or that aspects of Y put a new light on how we planned to develop activities arising from something not previously seen as a related issue.

At every step our perceptions of science and ‘the evidence’ are permeated by our social and economic understandings and priorities. This is a critical and consistent underpinning of science-based enquiry, but is not always self-evidently appreciated even by scientists (and especially physical and natural scientists) themselves.

Indeed, scientists can sometimes seem to believe that it’s simply ‘the evidence’ which takes them from one enquiry to another, as though the availability of resources and socio-economic priorities had little to do with the direction of research.

This ‘knowledge-seeking imperative’ – the ‘seeker after truth’ model – may possibly have applied early in the emergence of modern science, but is not usually a realistic mode in modern-day science, often though science may still be perceived (on all sides) as like this.

Scientists often still do not articulate transparently the socio-economic or other formative rationales behind their research; but there is almost always more than one direction in which research might travel, if all the most likely routes and outcomes were to be considered at the point when research is initiated.


Roles and specific obligations of scientists employed by Government

A number of obligations, by common agreement between practitioners and the wider society, apply to all science practitioners, in whatever discipline. These include the requirement to conduct and report their work according to strict criteria of accountability, as well as the injunction to ‘do no harm’.

These obligations are incorporated into the criteria for professional activity as a Chartered Scientist, a status which was formalised in 2000, and in the ‘Hippocratic Oath’ for scientists, introduced by the UK’s then Chief Scientific Advisor in 2007.

Almost all scientists, in all disciplines, also have other obligations. For a number, mostly academics, this will be simply to the extension of the paradigm or framework for their specific discipline, ‘pure science’ as defined by themselves and their peers.

For some others - probably many - it will be the requirement to produce the information and technologies required by their private sector employers in business and industry.

And for another group it is to inform and / or provide professional support for the work of Government, which in turn makes for the same relationships in regard to the interests of the citizens of the state.

Each of these circumstances makes particular demands on, and offers specific perspectives on the work of, science practitioners.

Specifically, these circumstances define ‘stakeholding’ – the ways in which science practitioners have common cause, and the people or communities to whom they are responsible.

In some cases (e.g. business and sometimes academia) that responsibility and commonality is direct and indeed directed.

In other instances (e.g. most Government-sponsored science) the extent or boundaries of common interest and stakeholding are far less easily defined.

This fuzziness of definition is not because there is no clear line of commissioning and formal direct accountability – these are usually very transparent – but because none of the parties directly involved is acting simply on their own behalf. Activities undertaken for the Government (state) are, at whatever distance, activities undertaken on behalf of us all.

There is therefore a very real sense in which science ‘for the Government’ is ‘for’ us all; yet scientific research and development is sometimes conducted (and permitted to be conducted) as though only those who, metaphorically speaking, sign the chequebook are of serious consequence.

One example here might be research in an area such as energy conservation or animal health, where considerations of ‘social / socio-economic application’ are put aside until the work is almost complete, perhaps to be dealt with ‘later’ by non-scientists (policy makers etc). But leaving potential wider social (dis)benefit indicators, measures and frameworks until the science research and development is underway is not a rare occurrence.

There is a significant risk when this happens of ignoring central issues around the ultimate public good. Socio-economic / public interest issues must not be left to ‘end of pipe’ where there is Government funding of science. Yet the number of available research and other specialists who have experience of embedding wider public (‘indirect’ stakeholder) interest from the onset of a scientific programme is small.

In short, there are generic and also specific responsibilities on both scientists and commissioners of science. Whilst the generic responsibilities apply to all scientific activity, the specifics may vary; and this is particularly true in terms of stakeholding.

In private business there is still regulation, but within this boundary the reciprocity and obligation is between scientists and their employers. (The issue of how governments and private companies influence each other is a separate factor – though also critical.)


Other aspects of Science and Society

Whilst there are many considerations deriving from the thoughts above which may be brought to bear, this note will focus on just a few, as follows:


Creationism, culture and community concerns

It seems that the challenges arising from issues such as Creationism have caught scientists on the hop. They do not as yet appear to have a coherent strategy for addressing such matters, although fundamental beliefs of this kind have now been expressed in the UK for some years.

This may seem a matter at a distance from the Science and Society issues we are here discussing, but perhaps it is not.

As we noted above, modern science and technology is predicated, like modern business and law, on the over-riding notion of contestable rationality. Not everyone however sees the world in this light. That is why, it might be suggested, many scientists have such difficulty understanding how Creationism and other similar belief sets are acceptable to people.

There is however no obligation on anyone in the UK to sign up to (or, NB, ‘believe in’) rationality outside that underpinning the law itself.

Perceived like this, it is possible to think of a whole range of non-empirically demonstrable belief systems – including aspects of health care, environment and so forth – as part of a continuum from clear demonstrability to a full-scale non-empiricality.

Dismissing these belief systems as irrelevant to science in the modern world is a serious risk, not least because it is likely to widen the divide between those who subscribe to science and those who prefer, or are accustomed to, other bases for their interpretations of people and their lives.

Of course there are cross-overs, but there is nonetheless an apparent reluctance on the part of many different sorts of citizens to become involved in science if they are not themselves ‘standard model’ stereotype. Perhaps this is because some people shy away from the rigid functionality – as they see it – of science.

Other professional disciplines (such as Health, Social Care and Sure Start services) have learned that there is rarely a part of the community which is ‘hard to reach’, but rather there are ‘difficult to access’ services; science in general has not even begun to recognise this in itself. It seems often to stand beyond ‘real people’, a monument to apparent clarity of thought and dispassionate analysis – a model which practising scientists themselves would very probably reject, if asked.

If the assumption of apparently dispassionate and unbending science is correct, one way that science might reach back into ‘the community’ (in reality of course there are many communities) might be for scientists, and especially scientists in the service of the state and teachers of science, to emphasise the exploratory, ever-hypothetical, nature of their work, with all the fluidity and changes of emphasis and development which occur at every stage. Every practitioner of science is aware that choices about how to interpret information, and what to do next, must be made every day.

Perhaps the real challenge here is to distinguish the substantive, measurable outcomes of science and technology – those much admired, massive achievements gained by scientists for the benefit of us all – from the frailty and vagaries of the scientific journey or endeavour itself.

There may be many scientists who do not (or prefer not to) themselves recognise this distinction very clearly, but the acknowledgement of human agency, with all the issues which thereby arise, is a reciprocal balance to the towering achievements of science and technology.

For science to become truly accessible to ‘ordinary people’ of every kind, it needs to be seen by them as something ordinary human beings actually do, and something to which ordinary people can, with hard work and application, aspire.

Peer review, media perceptions and science communications

These quasi-political issues also relate to the ways in which science is communicated.

Just as most scientists are not trained (and so cannot be expected) to assess the wider socio-economic etc impacts of their work, nor are they often trained to communicate it to the wider world.

There is evidence that most scientists are reluctant to expound on their work before it is completed, if even then. This relates to the way in which they have been trained – do not share your findings until they have been peer-reviewed and approved. In effect, there is a requirement of silence.

Little surprise, then, that most people think of science as inflexible and ‘correct’ in a way that brooks no debate. Yet the reality of scientific research is crammed with side-lines, reversals, dead ends and brilliant serendipity.

There are good reasons to observe confidentiality in e.g. commercial operations, but much of publicly funded science is not at this later, particular stage in the game. It is the underpinning and exploratory work which is usually best fitted to direct public support.

This support has as its general corollary the ‘right to know’ and usually to consent. For this reason alone government supported scientists must be encouraged (if not obliged) to share their research processes and findings with the wider public.

There needs to be a clear understanding that peer review is a qualitatively different process from public understandings. The former is a matter of ultimate quality control (which in itself may be less evident anyway in commercial undertakings, where review is internal not external); the latter should be propagated as a perception of a way to find things out – always a fluid and challenging journey.

There is much can be done here to make things better.

Government should require of its scientists that (in appropriate ways) they share their research as it progresses. Peer review must be seen as only a part of that (state funded) journey, not as an end in itself. (Presumably, all government funded research is continuously monitored anyway?) Peer review is an important process internal to science. Communication must become an on-going external activity.

The production of story-boards and other modes of open communication can and should be taught in undergraduate science training. Not all will feel comfortable with this, but there should be someone in every team who is able to deliver.

And science must become a media story in its own right. This means that well qualified scientists need always to be available (as those who worry about specific science issues seem always to be anyway) so weight can be added to emerging debates; and so also science can become reported before it becomes controversial, as well as when it does.


Public science from the inside: Science Advisory Councils

The role of Science Advisory Councils (SACs), which offer advice as ’critical friends’ to government Chief Scientists and through them to Ministers, is another aspect of public engagement and stakeholding. SACs can offer both the highest levels of expertise, and a cool look at the wider picture and the longer term.

The relationship between SACs and other influences on scientific decision-making in government sponsored science is sometimes unclear, but the assurance of impartiality which Nolan appointment procedures seek to impose is an important element in the mix.

SACs, suitably supported, are able to appraise and advise on science developments in a way which adds considerable value for government, especially if the wider issues of engagement and stakeholding are kept firmly in mind.

It is therefore surprising that thus far SACs have not been seen as a major contributor in the objective of securing public confidence in the functioning of science, and neither have they been bodies brought as appropriate to the attention of the wider public, as evidence of partnership working at this level. (It might reasonably be assumed that anyone willing to be appointed by a Minister to such a role might in normal circumstances also be willing to be publicly accountable and visible in that role.)

Although some scientists are keener than others on this idea, there is important potential in the use of SACs (which rightly now include Generalist or Lay members as well as internationally recognised specialists) for reducing public uncertainty and lack of clarity about major public concerns around how government directs science and technology.

A start in this direction could be the bringing together of SAC members across government departments to enquire how they perceive their work, and how they would like advise it should be taken forward. This potential has so far barely been recognised, let alone developed, either as a general proposal or, in regard to their very specific functions, for Lay or Generic members of such bodies, for whom role development remains largely latent - but in terms of future-facing engagement and stakeholding perhaps central - as things stand.

The Social Sciences, engagement and stakeholding

The current Science and Society consultation recognises the role of the Social Sciences in modern government and activities; but these disciplines are thereafter little discussed. This is problematic, not least in the sense that the social and natural sciences, properly brought together, offer a synergy and iterative energy which neither alone is likely to produce.... a matter which seems sometimes to be better managed by profit-facing private businesses in science (customer intelligence), than by government.

Social science is of course far more than empirical ‘surveys’ and ‘public opinion’. It covers many aspects of the reality of science, including economics, social outcomes, customs, attitudes and beliefs, cultural contexts and constructions, training and education, and much else. It is also iterative and reflexive, in that at its best it makes overt the interactions between researchers in all disciplines and their work.

In government supported natural and physical science ‘social’ issues should therefore never be left to ‘end of pipe’. Public accountability and understandings of wider stakeholding – ultimately everyone, when state funding is involved – must involve social as well as natural scientists; and this is true of Science Advisory Councils as well as of individual research projects.

The Haldane principle, the Science Councils & regional science policy

The Haldane Principle now has a century of history, and it may be helpful to consider how it is applied in the contemporary setting, where perhaps it is at times more of a constraint to action than it need be.

The Principle is fundamentally critical part of the science process when it is applied to the requirement that there be no external (and especially no governmental or political) interference in the way science is conducted, and in how the outcomes of research are presented and considered. Science must be led by the evidence, ascertained and corroborated (if it is) by the experts, and not by the convenience or otherwise of unsubstantiated opinion.

There is however a sense in which now-conventional understandings of the Haldane principle probably cannot be applied in the world of ultra-expensive modern ‘Big Science’. Whilst the major funding councils properly and necessarily work at arms’ length from the government (and vice versa) it is unrealistic to think that the best judgements ‘in the public interest’ will inevitably be made by these councils operating alone. They are eminently best placed to judge the viability and likely excellence of proposals for research; but they will necessarily often lack the skills and perceptions required to judge which of a range of proffered potential activities will best serve the citizens of the UK – who are the ultimate funders of much of the research which is conducted, and often also the ultimate beneficiaries or otherwise of this work.

There are many compelling reasons to go ahead with seriously costly science projects; international prestige and economic impact, likely direct outcomes, technological benefits and much else are at stake. Some of these are quantifiable by scientists and their advisors, some of them require a wider perspectives, such as the examination of possible added-value socio-economic impacts, which are beyond the strictly scientific.

It is at this point that Haldane becomes problematic.

One example here might be the newly introduced Science Cities, which have been created on an apparently rather ad hoc basis. These at present appear to be more about branding and commercial synergies (both of course essential) than about science as such – which is left as ever to ‘the scientists’, as though this were a different matter beyond the ken of economic strategists.

Another example might be the prospect of a regional science policy. It is probable that there is added value to be had at least in some instances from investing in very large scale science in the UK on a regional basis, e.g. in investing in say global collaborations to be located beyond the ‘Golden Triangle’, even if there are marginally more challenges for the science operation when things are done this way.

Regenerational impacts beyond those ensuing from the science itself may be critical and should in some circumstances be one of the determining factors in the investment of the huge amounts of public money required for very large scale Big Science investments.

But whilst Haldane holds sway at every point, there is little to persuade those who make funding decisions to look at these wider impacts, or to give them a sensibly determined weighting in the debate.

This position is perhaps acceptable when funding is not from the public purse, but that is rarely now how things happen. Public money requires the best possible return in as many ways as possible, both direct and indirect.

In other large physical and infrastructural investments this potential return is given due weight; and so it should be when the physical investment is in plant or infrastructure for ‘Big Science’. The normal added-value and multiplier outcomes, in addition to the special ones for technology development and so forth, are also important and should be given due weight in the decision-making process.

The English regions and the devolved administrations are relatively large agglomerations of land and population, and the case for considering regional science policies – including wider socio-economic impacts and issues of sustainability - is now pressing.

A genuinely ‘Knowledge Culture’

We rarely see the day-to-day world around us as a transparently knowledge environment. With the right handling and encouragement however, this could change.

There is enormous scope for enhancing perceptions and understandings of science, technology and other very high knowledge / skills activities in the UK today – an outcome which could have huge impact in terms of the future success and, critically, sustainability in all senses, of Britain in the twenty-first century.

Many people, we are told, see science as ‘exciting’; but far fewer understand very much about how it comes about and what it actually does.

This situation is likely to change radically only if there is a much deeper recognition of the constantly changing human choices and emphases which confront us all, scientists and non-scientists alike.

The unexamined notion that science is a solid construction, an immutable rock on which other things are built, is not as helpful here as the idea that science, in common with all other human behaviours, is a socially constructed activity.

This perceived immutability is not an aspect of science which makes it attractive as a form of knowledge, or as an activity, to everyone (and especially not to some groups of people); but neither is this perception necessary.

Modern science and technology is an ‘enterprise’ which has enormous potential and has already delivered amazing impacts over many decades. It is in these respects amongst the most powerful belief systems (religion is another), and without doubt also the singularly most powerful force for rapid change, that the human race has ever experienced.

Science is a negotiated, humanly determined, part of our experience. That experience is self-evidently filtered through our cultural contexts, our personal and given characteristics, and our education, work and civic lives.

These humanly grounded perceptions of science now need to be commonly and widely recognised. In so doing we would be opening wide the door to science for many for whom that door is currently at best ajar.

Far from making science seem less important by recognising its fundamentally negotiated nature, this basic understanding of what science ‘is’ would enhance the identification and delivery of positive synergies between ‘science’, and, in its broadest sense, ‘society’, dramatically.


Hilary Burrage
(writing in a personal capacity)


Read more about Science Policy.

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