If Only Scientists Could Remember... Science Has Its Responsibilities

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Precision instruments Research Forum has this week, 5 November 2008, carried an analysis (including an article by me) of A Vision for Science and Society, which DIUS, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills launched on 18 July and concluded on 17 October. The debate is by no means over. This is a conversation which has as yet a way to run.

The article which follows is a version of my contribution to that debate, exploring the view that science in the service of civil society needs to find ways to engage more openly with those whom it seeks to serve.


What's science for?
The social sciences don’t get much of a profile in A Vision for Science and Society, the document that launched the three-month consultation organised by the DIUS, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills that closed earlier this month. So perhaps I, as someone at the ‘social’ end of science, am bound to see this documentation differently from some of my colleagues and fellow contributors to the debate from the natural and physical sciences.

Nonetheless, this debate is a big step towards an answer to what in my view is a central question in complex contemporary society: “What is science for and what should it do?

Science in the 21st Century
I was lucky enough to attend the inaugural Sir Gareth Roberts Science Policy Lecture at the Science Council in November last year when Ian Pearson, then Minister of State for Science and Innovation, initiated the current discussion. He asked us to consider how to nurture a “more mature relationship between science, policy and society” for the 21st century.

Subsequently, when the consultation was launched in July, DIUS re-iterated the vision: “The government is committed to creating a society that is excited about science and values its importance to our social and economic well-being; feels confident in its use; and supports a representative, well-qualified workforce. This vision encapsulates our long-term ambitions and we believe it directly addresses the science and society challenges facing us today.”

The Big Question
All excellent stuff, though I recognise it’s not a universally popular perspective. The seekers-after-truth may sometimes feel it diminishes or side steps their endeavours; but all scientists seek veracity, and, within that, the subset comprising research scientists also all seek new truths. The Big Question is:

Which of these many truth objectives should the state and other collaborating parties encourage and finance, and why?

The DIUS consultation goes some long way to securing answers to this question, but not perhaps quite far enough. However, let’s consider the positives first.

There is a fundamental underpinning in the DIUS discussion of the ways in which science must address the global challenge imperatives—climate change, security, population, resources and disease—and on how the rest of civil society (all of us) must engage in this, too.

Addressing the imperatives
There is also much discussion about how to focus science translationally in our economy, towards the delivery of real enterprise and products arising from scientific research....

This makes the department’s failure to acknowledge the potential value of regional science policy in the regeneration of economically depressed areas all the more bizarre.

But the evidence of DIUS’s earnest intention to encourage more, and more diverse, people to become scientists is perhaps a fuzzy first step towards developing some sensible regional science and knowledge economy policies.

From the inside looking out
And yet…and yet… Somehow, the debate feels as though it is being conducted from the inside, looking out.

There is, it might be felt, an implicit assumption that if only everyone understood science better, even half as well as the scientists, things would be fine and we could all just get on with it.

Much as I wish this might be true, there is a part of me that doubts it.

Strategic fit
The consultation documents and the questions DIUS posed to aid discussion did a thoroughly decent job of exploring ways to achieve a better strategic fit of people, business, services, science and technology at the national, if not at the regional, level. But they do not explore why, conversely, science just does not seem to ‘fit’ everyone in our complex and diverse society.

Many of us, according to the surveys that informed the DIUS discussion, maintain that science is ‘exciting’. However, far fewer people are actually up for it when career options are floated or other aspects of informed involvement are tested.

Forms of knowledge
Science is the ultimate in human rationality (though, even then, less rational than proponents may choose to believe). But consistently rational, many of us simply are not.

Even among those well qualified in science, there are some for whom it is no more than a technical adjunct to their personal overarching beliefs and way of life.

Science is just one form of knowledge among many. What distinguishes it is its startling capacity to provoke and direct change. In this, we all, every one of us, have a stake. Science underpins our lives and we often pay for it through our taxes.

Science for the people
Looked at in this light, perhaps scientists employed or funded by civil society (‘government’) have an additional responsibility, beyond that of their usual professional obligation to seek transparency and veracity in their work.
This additional responsibility is to ensure that publicly funded science is both relevant to, and good value for, the investment civil society has made in it—just as private employers expect the same for their investments.

But where is the focus in DIUS’s debate about the particular roles and responsibilities of the scientists themselves, when they conduct ‘science for the people’?

Multi-disciplinary teamwork
Publicly funded science must be responsive and iterative; it must offer ways forward for implementation in real communities of real people.

I don’t, however, see much in the DIUS debate about how science programme managers (and, ideally, all others involved) are to be equipped to deliver this. At the very least, it requires integrated truly multi-disciplinary teamwork between scientists, policy makers and wider stakeholders at every stage, from concept to delivery.

Public scrutiny and quality assurance
And here, too, is a meaningful role for government science advisory councils, offering quality assurance and public scrutiny through independent expert opinion on which science government should support, and why.

Yet the value of these bodies—let alone how to strengthen and learn from them—is not considered in the DIUS debate.

In private industry, company boards appraise their scientific investments. Civil society must do the same for public investment, transparently.

Science as human agency
Which takes me back to the central issue.

We can’t expect everyone to be enthused about a science that appears granite-like before them. If we want true public engagement, science has to emphasise, not deny, its human agency.

Science is about risk, uncertainty and adventure, and the way real human beings cope with and grow through these challenges.

As we all know in our heads if not our hearts, it is not just about serious-looking chaps in white coats, whom the bravest of other sorts of people may join in the search for knowledge.

A compelling human story
Scientists have a very human story to tell, of choices and priorities, crossroads, blind alleys and huge successes.

If we want everyone to believe science is ‘for them’, this story must be told openly, explicitly and contemporaneously, warts and all, by those who are actually doing it.

Then science will seem genuinely relevant and accessible, a humanly shaped, ever-evolving and fundamental part of modern life. That is how things really are, from the outside looking in.

Is DIUS game for this? The debate has yet to begin.

A version of this paper was first published in Research Fortnight, 5 November 2008, pp. 17-18. Hilary Burrage has experience as a member of a science advisory council, but writes here in a purely personal capacity. Her submission to the consultation on DIUS's A Vision for Science and Society, is available here.


Read more about Science & Politics and see more of Hilary's Publications, Lectures & Talks

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