Recently in Sustainability As If People Mattered Category

Where to go? ~  green, grey & brown sites Sustainable development is a challenge for us all. If we don't engage everyone, future generations will soon begin to pay for our neglect. For this reason, there are in the UK Sustainable Development bodies with national, regional and more local focuses. But what should these groups actually do? Here are some of the ideas which I as one individual have thought about as a member of a sustainable development group with a regional remit.

Sustainability As If People Mattered

What are the regional Sustainable Development (SD) bodies in the UK for? Is their role to provide 'advice' to politicians and state-employed policy-makers at the regional level? Is it to lead by example and implement programmes of work? Is it to be a talking shop between people representing different 'stakeholding' interests in SD? Is it something else altogether? Or is it all of these things?

Meaning and leadership in regional Sustainable Development
My personal view is that good regional approaches to SD are all these things.

Regions in the UK are all of a size (between 5 and 10 million people) where well-crafted action for sustainable development can have meaningful impacts. Regional SD groups should therefore:

* work together, with each other and with others, on the basis of mutual confidence and shared understandings - both of the factors shaping the region's physical and socio-economic contexts, and of the perspectives of all partners;

* recognise that everyone is a stakeholder in this difficult challenge, not just those who are formally represented at the regional level;

* understand that SD is different from almost all other processes in that what happens now and in the near future cannot be revisited on the same basis and revised at some point later on: SD is globally shaped and uni-dimensional in respect of time;

* also understand that 'good enough' and actually deliverable has some chance of success, whilst 'beyond any scientific doubt' but not yet actionable is of very limited value in this period of rapid eco- and socio-economic change;

* offer visible and clear thought leadership to 'people on the street', as well as more formal and conventional strategic advice to those who formulate regional policy;

* recognise that this is real life; our current insights into the challenges of SD are far from perfect. Nurturing an ethos of shared responsibility in all who live and work in a region is however critical, right now.


Supporting regional approaches to sustainable development
The UK government has been working with the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), Defra and others to promote regional SD. To this end, there does now seem to be a modest level of financial support.

It is nonetheless puzzling that these national bodies apparently imagine that each regional SD group can identify without further effort what the specific or even unique challenges for their region are. Yet, whilst this can be done for matters such as flood risk, the issues are far less obvious in many other respects. Not many policy makers and politicians at the local level, for instance, are even aware of what the risks might be.

Much work still needs to be done to bring together the relevant social, economic and environmental profiles for each region of the UK, and to encourage regional SD protagonists to share pro-actively their assessments and responses to these profiles. Just as UK regional strategies in science remain weak, so do those for SD.

Hearts and minds
There is a compelling case for regional SD bodies to recognise that 'advice' alone is not enough - especially in a time of flux for overall regional development policies, even before we come to the ultimately much more pressing matters of global warming, diminishing bio-diversity, economic difficulties (domestic and global) and the general well-being of current and future citizens.

Regional SD approaches are about leading from the front (no-one else has that specific focus and remit...). They must recognise the stakeholding of every person in their region, and find ways to reach them all. This is about encouraging dialogue, sharing good practice, aligning policy and developing the ideas which will help us all to face the future.

To achieve this requires not only analysis of the current regional state of play, but also commitment to help change the cultural climate as well as the environmental one.

Here is one challenge which a rational-legal or scientific approach alone simply cannot resolve.


Read more about Sustainability As If People Mattered.

2009 Our future ~ World Environment Day Time Capsule Ness Gardens Fifteen years ago today, this time capsule was 'planted' in Ness Gardens on the Wirral; and now we see sitting by it a little person who will be 35 years old when the capsule is opened. What will her world be like? Will we have made it a good and safe place for her and her own children to live in? And are we moving in the right direction, now, to ensure this will happen? Do we now understand what 'sustainable' living entails? Can we ensure that future generations - not the ones who felt obliged to 'apologise' in the time capsule letters - will manage to live sustainably and well?

Sustainability As If People Mattered

1994.06.05 World Environment Day Time Capsule Ness Gardens

Here's the text on this time capsule plaque:

Ness Botanic Gardens
World Environment Day
TIME CAPSULE

The Time Capsule placed near this plaque in June 1994 contains letters and objects linked to the many environmental concerns felt by the children of today.

Letters from the adults apologise for the overcrowding, pollution and resource scarcity we fear we will leave behind. They also state our commitment to overcome these problems through individual and concerted action, so that all species may share life together on a safe and sustainable planet.

Our goal is to make the apology unnecessary by the time the capsule is opened on 5 June 2044.

It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.


And so, indeed, it is.....


Read more about Sustainability As If People Mattered and Wirral's Ness Gardens, and see more photographs at Locations & Events

Water Tap What will be the fundamental 'currencies' of the future? What, if we are serious about global sustainability in all its forms, should these currencies comprise now? It's likely, if we collectively are ever going to achieve a level of long-term viability for the human race, that we will have to shift the emphasis from money (or the gold standard) to the really basic requirements for life on earth - carbon, water and nitrogen, plus knowledge of all sorts to keep the whole show on the road.

Knowledge Economy and Sustainability As If People Mattered.

Money is self-evidently important to individuals (how else do you secure the roof over your head and food on the table, in complex modern societies?); and it's one indicator of collective economic well-being.

But it's 'only' a measure or tool. It's not a fundamental requirement in its own right for living.

We can, at least hypothetically, survive without money, but we can't survive without water and - in its many forms - delicately balanced amounts of carbon, and of course nitrogen. In all three instances, it's a case of not too much, not too little.

Back to basics
Water, carbon and nitrogen are the fundamentals of life.

To my mind we shall all need to understand the significance of these fundamentals much better at every level from the local to the global; and when we've grasped this, the next step will be to trade in the universal units - not just as now for some specialist concerns, but as globally recognised everyday currencies.

Climate change and polar ice caps are critically important, but they don't easily interpret into something which the person on the street feels empowered to do much about.

Making it meaningful
The problems and the indicators have to be far closer to home to be meaningful in terms of action for most people. And ideally there needs to be a recognition in the discourse that we're all in this together.

Our neighbours are global as well as local when it comes to the future of the human race on the planet. (The planet itself will of course 'survive'. It's people and other currently living things which are imperilled by human activity in the twenty-first century.)

Convincing currencies
So let's see how we can reconfigure the notion of currency to have wider meaning for survival.

We all share the need for water, carbon and nitrogen, in suitably balanced and sustained ways.

The additional (secondary) critical currency is therefore knowledge; not least knowledge about how to maintain and sustain our planet. This cannot be just scientific and abstract knowledge, but needs to be shared by us all.

And that's before we even begin to consider knowledge and knowing of very many other sorts also as a basic currency of the twenty-first century.

Knowledge and knowing
Knowledge in its formal sense will, in time, become recognised as the major currency of formal activity; and 'knowing' will be the currency in everyday life which keeps us all going.

Knowing is the social glue which can keep communities sustainable and simultaneously open our eyes to new ideas and scenarios. It enables us all together to engage, empower and explore.

Cash won't be king
We can't eat cash. We can run out of formal finance and still somehow survive.

But we need the fundamentals of life, and we also desperately need ways to share our common humanity, and our connections too with other living things. This is where the eco-system meets the communalism which must bind us all together.

No return to mediaeval ways of thinking
The difference between this time around and previous eras where the good earth was the known fundamental, is this:

In the twenty-first century we can create new, non-static way of life which incorporate the very basics of life but also lets us explore the vibrant and exciting challenges of science, humanities (in every sense) and our actual selves.

A more holistic view
The time when carbon and water, if not as yet nitrogen, are recognised universal currencies, measured formally as commodities of exchange, may not be long in coming.

As we understand that knowledge and knowing are the fundamentals of our existence in communities, we will also want to emphasise the basic currencies of life.


Read more articles about the Knowledge Economy and Sustainability As If People Mattered.

Vegetable patch Earth Day, the annual event on 22 April, was devised in 1970 by a US Senator from Wisconsin. Today the Earth Day Network has a global reach. 2009 marks the start of The Green Generation Campaign, leading to 2010, the fortieth anniversary of this important day. A billion people already participate in Earth Day activities, now the largest secular civic event in the world. It's time for us all to take the Green Generation route to the future.

Sustainability As If People Mattered.

We all have to 'Go Green'.... and even back in 1970 many of us knew it.

Whilst we in the UK were busily promoting the then very new Friends of the Earth - at the time perceived by some as a dangerously radical organisation - our eco cousins in the USA were going about their business, it seems, in a rather more formal fashion, via a proposal by Gaylord Nelson, a then US Senator, that there be a national Earth Day.

Today (22 April 2009) sees the thirty ninth anniversary of what has evolved into International Earth Day, with a network of more than 17,000 partners and organizations in 174 countries looking forward the fortieth such event, to occur in 2010.

The Green Generation
Now, the focus is on the new-wave Green Generation, a cohort with unambiguously ambitious aims:

* A carbon-free future based on renewable energy that will end our common dependency on fossil fuels, including coal.

* An individual’s commitment to responsible, sustainable consumption.

* Creation of a new green economy that lifts people out of poverty by creating millions of quality green jobs and transforms the global education system into a green one.

Sharing responsibility for sustainability
People of every sort have begun to recognise their responsibility for sustaining the future of our shared environment. Those who have their own challenges, living in a complex multi-cultural society, work together sharing a common resolve to make things better, just as others also do.

But the further you are from where decisions are made, the harder it is to get the support you need to do your part. Sometimes it's money and resources you require; other times it's the encouragement of family, friends and neighbours who don't always understand why wider environmental and community issues matter.

People at the grassroots can feel they have little power to change things.

Small actions are important
But every small effort is part of the greater scheme of things, with important ramifications.

Perhaps it's 'only' planting some vegetables with the kids in an urban space, or explaining to our children why they need to respect their environment - or indeed digging up the White House lawn to plant organically produced vegetables, as Michelle Obama has just done - but from these acts the idea can grow. We're all part of the same shared world.

The environmental movement is growing quite quickly now, even in inner cities. People undertake small projects - helping with a city farm, supporting older people who want to shop locally, or whatever - but over time the ripples of these activities will begin to overlap, as more and more people join in.

Individual initiatives become communal
You may start a small project almost alone but, as others start also do the same elsewhere, there is somehow a change in perceptions.

Through sharing ideas and action we begin to see why everyone must understand that there is only 'one planet' to live on, and that we all have to do our bit to save our environment. Big supermarkets or small traders, there is now an active acknowledgement green issues and eco-initiatives.

All together in common cause
But there's another important thing here too: It doesn't matter where you come from, or what your culture, gender or age is. We must all to 'Go Green', and quickly.

Different people from different places will start in different ways, but we all need to rely on each other. Nobody can 'save the planet' on their own: Environmental sustainability is quite a new idea, no-one rich and powerful 'owns' it.

The idea of sustainability belongs to us all. Here is something we can all contribute to.

A green leveller
The 'green agenda' is a great social leveller, because we are all part of the problem and likewise all part of the solution. Environmental actions, even tiny ones, are critical if we are to sustain our fragile planet; and, happily, sharing our concerns and our ideas for action can bring us together regardless of creed or nationality.

It's not easy to work, often unpaid and in small ways, protecting the environment and looking after the people in local communities. You can feel alone and perhaps unappreciated. But that work is vital and slowly it is being recognised - which is the first step to the work being properly supported.

With luck the Green Generation Campaign and the run-up to Earth Day 2010 will help to make that happen.


Read more about Sustainability As If People Mattered.

Terraced housing & cars The new economics foundation (nef) tells us that, as of today, the UK has used the levels of resources it should consume during an entire year, if it were environmentally self-sufficient. In 1961, nef calculates, the UK's annual eco-debt began on 9 July; by 1981 it was 14 May, but in 2009 it falls on 12 April, Easter Sunday. But how can we help people in their daily lives to address and cope with these frightening calculations constructively, rather than such information just causing further alarm? Science and 'facts' alone won't get us where we all need to be.

Sustainability As If People Mattered.

I'm not sure that those of us already concerned with sustainability approach these matters in the best way to engage others yet to be converted - nef* says Easter Sunday (eco-debt day 2009) is 'a day which for many has become synonymous with over-indulgence'. That's a pretty unempathetic perspective on one of the UK's few annual family holidays.

Sometimes perhaps the force of our convictions and fears about sustainability can make us sound a bit crass.

Offering hope, not inferring guilt
Inducing guilt and/or alarm is not often the most effective mode by which to gain mass support, in an open democracy, for complex and uncomfortable change. Personally, I'd rather see Easter as an occasion with a message, whether sacred or secular, of new beginnings and hope - an opportunity for positive reflection on the future.

Eco-protagonists and scientists are vitally important to our understanding of what's happening to the environment. But they're not always good at helping people in the wider community to face up to the enormous environmentally-related challenges which, we must urgently acknowledge, are already upon us.

Research findings and predictions based on rational calculation do not always translate as clearly as the scientists imagine into policy acceptable to the wider citizenry. To the person in the street it can all seem just too difficult and scary, well beyond the scope of 'ordinary folk'.

Engaging people for positive change
Nonetheless, the UK's increasing eco-debt is desperately alarming, and something we need to get everyone to think about, right now.

The question is, how?


[* Andrew Simms (2009) Ecological Debt: Global Warming and the Wealth of Nations, cited in Transition Network News, March 2009. Andrew Simms is nef Policy Director and Head of the Climate Change Programme.]

Read more articles on Sustainability As If People Mattered.

Ha'penny coin The Economist magazine has had an online debate on the proposition that 'We're all Keynesians now'. The outcome was not encouraging. By two-to-one that proposition was rejected in favour of a free-market position. Perhaps some economists have yet to learn that the current day physical realities of the context itself keep shifting, and that the science of human behaviour is in the end an art, with outcomes that depend on how we handle the interaction between fact and feeling.

Economics Observed.

In 1936 the British economist John Maynard Keynes (1883 – 1946) pointed out that in a downturn the economy is operating below its potential, so expanding demand can create supply, which will in turn give people jobs and more prosperity, thus creating (to quote the view in 2009 of the US economist James Furman) an economic 'virtuous circle'.

That, says Furman (along with many others) is 'the paradox of economics in a downturn. Normally, the only way to grow the economy is the old-fashioned way: delaying gratification through reduced deficits and increased savings to encourage more investment. But in a downturn, these steps would just compound the problem and worsen the vicious circle of rising unemployment, underutilized capacity and falling consumption.'

We can argue the toss about how much economic 'growth' we should pursue in a world which already uses far, far more than it should of environmental resources, but intentionally causing devastating poverty by restricting government and other large-scale spending - the preference of the free-marketeers and monetarists - won't help.

Socio-economic expectations and sustainability
Sustainable futures depend not only on what will in theory happen next, but what's happening now.

There is a cost attached to severe recession: the people whom it hurts on a daily living basis get very upset. And upset people become disenfrachised and disaffected - which is in no-one's interest.

Those of us engaged in regeneration and renewal know only too well, despite the apparent logic of the free market position, that this cannot be the way forward.

The Economist debate
The Economist debate on the theme that 'We're all Keynesians now' is therefore timely; but disappointingly it transpired to be very largely a discussion - or so it seemed - between a cohort of people who work in the financial sector, mostly in the USA.... and who also therefore have huge influence on the lives of us all.

Doing his best for the Keynesians we had Prof. Brad DeLong, professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley, a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and in the Clinton administration a deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury.

Those opposing the Keynesian position were led by Prof. Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, co-author of Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists, acclaimed as "one of the most powerful defenses of the free market ever written", and co-creator of the Financial Trust Index, an indicator of the level of trust Americans have in financial markets. Prof. Zingales' position was to defend the idea of the Free Market.

Money or men and women?
There was little discussion in the Economist debate of people as people, and almost none about the extraordinarily complex issues we now face in our global physical environment.

Money and Monetarism or at least the Free Market (themes favoured by the Chicago School of economics) were the positions which, from my reading of the proceedings, ruled the day.

But when we start to disaggregate socio-economic outcomes and impacts in respect of the diverse downturn experiences of different people (gender, age, physical state, cultural background and other factors) it is very hard - in both the intellectual and the affective sense - not to go for Keynesianism.

Haves and Have Nots
Other, more austere, approaches may seem attractive in the long-run to people who won't in the interim really go without; but surely even they recognise that the legacy of a deeply disenfranchised social hinterland - under-educated and sick children, depressed and impoverished families without focus, and all the rest - will not be an advantage in times to come?

We have to keep people in work as far as possible (preferably eco- and socially sustainable schemes), or we risk more than we may gain. It's how the Keynesian approach is handled that really matters.

Sustainability is no longer a given
Yet most commentators continued to debate as though everything 'except' the economy will stay the same. It won't; and the versatility of neo-Keynesianism surely helps us here more than the strictures of the Chicago School .

Gas /oil, carbon, water... one or more of these will become the major financial 'currency/ies' of the future; and my guess is that the new gold-standard currency will soon be simply knowledge.

If economics can't take account of these factors in meaningful, rather than soul-less, ways, we're in for a rougher ride even than needs be already.

Keynes was creative
Nor did I see much about John Maynard Keynes the person in this debate.

Wasn't Keynes a man with a wide range of interests, a member of the Bloomsbury Group (that intellectual and progressive force in the London of the 1930s), married to the 'Bloomsbury Ballerina' Lydia Lopokova, a talented Russian ballet dancer?

Wouldn't Keynes have been worried to read about the sterile dehumanised theoretical models which continue to be proposed by the Monetarists and Free Marketeers? What if anything, he might have asked, has been learnt in the past eighty years?

Imagination in the face of multiple challenges
Only Keynesian-style approaches accommodate the changing realities of life across the globe for millions upon millions of different people (men and women in many diverse cultures, all cruelly hit by the credit crunch) who simply can't live without jobs of some sort, because they have no resource other than their daily labour.

Surely Keynes would have urged us to use imagination as well as mathematical models, to try to resolve the dilemmas we now face.

How can we cope, all at the same time, with economic crises, climate change, famine and much else, unless we seek the application of intentionally humane and decent economic frameworks?

Decision-makers and destinies
It's worrying that so few of the Economist's debaters looked outside their models to the contexts in which we actually live. They are after all also generally the people in the private sector (and in right wing governments) who decide what to do with 'their' economies.

The Free Market folk undoubtedly believe they have incorporated human motivation and behaviours into their models. The problem seems to be that - the behaviour perhaps of economists themselves apart? - rationality has little to do with behaviour in reality; and in any case the language of the Chicago School does belies an understanding of the human condition for 'ordinary' people.

Perhaps - could it have been said before? - such people simply don't count in the face of the Free Market?

Humanity and economics are inseparable
Recent experience in developing sustainable communities has seen those in regeneration forced to understand it's not just logic which influences how people behave; we ignore their humanity and need for stakeholding and inclusion at our peril.

The same applies in the face of terrifying outcomes if we get the economics wrong. A lot more insight into the day to day realities of the human condition is required.


Read more articles about Economics Observed.

Wigan Pier canal historic statue of woman miller It's International Women's Day, an occasion for looking both back and forward. We have here some photos and text reminding us gently how grim life was for working class women and children in the mills (and often for their mining menfolk too) a mere century ago. Happily, Wigan Pier and the canals are now a tourist destination alongside a modern Investment Centre; but around 1910 a different story - not least about the uses of water - was being told. The challenge remains to secure the same progress as we've seen here, in ensuring healthy and constructive lives for women and their families everywhere, in the UK and across the globe.

Gender & Women, Sustainability As If People Mattered and Water.

Wigan Pier canal Trencherfield Mill historic notice

Here's the text of this notice, displayed by the towpath at Wigan Pier:

TRENCHERFIELD MILL
When cotton was king
as told by a cotton worker circa 1910

It's hot int' mill wi' lots o' noise. On a nice day, we'll take our lunch ont' towpath an' eat snaps* from't snaps tins.
It's a 5-and-a-half day week for us cotton workers, that's 12 hours a day and half a day on Saturday.
We've all got nimble fingers , especially the Piecers'. They're mainly children, who nip under the spinning machines to tie the broken cotton back together again.
Some of us work on the spinning machines and some on the carding machines. The mill takes a raw bale of cotton, cleans it, twists it and spins it into fine yarn.
The humidity in the mill keeps the cotton damp so it's easier to spin without snapping.
There are five floors of machinery - all powered by the Trencherfield Mill Engine.
The noise is deafening - we stuff cotton from the floor in our ears to protect them. We communicate using 'Me-Mawing' - a mixture of sign language and lip reading.
We work in our bare feet because our clogs could spark on the concrete floor and set the cotton bales alight.
We wake early doors to the sound of the Trencherfield steam whistle summonin' us t'mill for another day. But as they say - England's bread hangs on Lancashire's thread.

[* a snack favoured also by the men of Wigan, many of them miners, usually bread-and-dripping, with cold tea, carried in a flat tin called a snap-can - see George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier]

And here is the towpath which a century ago provided fresh air and respite for those mill workers as they ate their lunch-time snaps:

09.03.06 Wigan Pier canal & towpath

Wigan Pier Quarter & canals notice
[Public display boards by Wigan Heritage Services]

The power of water
And so, strangely, we come full-circle.

Water - the canals, the steam - was the power behind the early production of textiles, employing many women and children in horrendous conditions, as the full logic of the Industrial Revolution took its vice-like grip on the emerging economies of what we have come to know as the 'developed world'; but even now in other parts of the globe water remains both a critical force potentially for good, and often an almost unattainable resource.

Women as water workers
Vast numbers of women and children in the developing world continue to toil many hours a day just to obtain water to sustain their very existence.

Life in places like Wigan was harsh and short for women and men, alike, a century ago. It remains, as Oxfam tells us in the topical context of International Women's Day, particularly harsh even now for women in places such as Iraq, where water continues to be inaccessible for many.

The gendered meanings of sustainability
This is where we begin to understand what 'sustainability' is really about.... the just and equitable distribution of basic physical resources and accessible socio-economic opportunities, for everyone, women as much as men, the world over.

In terms of future global sustainability and equity, as the Gender and Water Alliance also reminds us, water remains a critically gendered issue.


Read more about Gender & Women and about Sustainability As If People Mattered and Water; and see more photographs of around Liverpool & Merseyside.

'Snow Excuse

| 0 Comments | 0 TrackBacks
09.02.02 London overnight blizzard What does the recent 'proper snow' in the UK tell us about the society and communities we live in? Should we be glad that families stayed together for the day, enjoying snowmen and tobogganing? Or must we lament the fact that schools and buses closed, in truth to save on insurance claims? Should we all now be home-based workers or work closer to home? And does the snow belie the claims of those who fear global warming, or does this weather simply demonstrate that most of us have a lot still to understand about climate fluctuations within general trends?

Read more about Sustainability As If People Mattered.

Your views are welcome.

derelict site What’s the reality of low carbon communities? You can have your say about the future of zero carbon development for two weeks from today. The Homes and Communities Agency Academy is hosting an open, on-line debate about creating low carbon communities, addressing issues like the carbon implications of the credit crunch and lessons from the international experience. Contributors include podcasts from high profile speakers such as David Lock and Paul King So now have your say....

Sustainability As If People Mattered
The Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) Academy, for which I am a tutor, has existed only since 1 December 2008, when it arose from the previous Academy for Sustainable Communities; but already it is reaching out to engage people in debate about critically important issues.

The first of these open-access debates begins today, Friday 23 January 2009 (until 6 February), on the new HCAA Debate Place portal.

The question under discussion is how we can rise to the low carbon challenge?

The weblink to this national debate can be found here.

Creating low carbon communities
The HCA Academy will be asking:

What is the reality of creating low carbon communities and what can we learn from International experience?

The debate will be facilitated and you can post comments, ask questions and watch video clips on climate, connectivity and community issues.

The on-line discussion will probe issues such as:

- Will the Code for Sustainable Homes be affected by the credit crunch?
and
- How do we reduce the carbon footprint of new homes in the UK?

Low carbon case studies
The debate will be supported by a series of on-line films from high-profile speakers, including David Lock from David Lock Associates and Paul King, CEO of UK Green Building Council.

Research published by the HCA Academy which examines lessons learned from international case studies will provide further insight into the latest issues and skills implications of low carbon developments.

Continuing the debate
Following the debate, a short summary report will be published on-line.

'Debate Place' will also host links to resources such as the website Demystifying Climate Change, a resource designed to help practitioners navigate the low carbon debate and work out relevance for their own work.

We hope you can contribute to this high profile and important debate, and that you will encourage others to do the same. To join the debate please click here.


Read more about Sustainability As If People Mattered and about Carbon Neutral Villages.

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

www.scienceandpolitics.co.uk

Recent Entries

Can Meat Be Eco (Or Even Zero Carbon)?
A recent Food Climate Research Network report says that we should reduce our meat consumption to four portions a week,…
Hot Water Bills In The Land Of 2000 Hours' Sunshine
The train tracks from Athens to Corinth are shiny and new, and very impressive; but there is as yet little…
From Regeneration To Sustainability: A Northern Take On Knowledge
I’d like to begin with some thoughts on what Urban Regeneration in ‘the North’ might be about. I shall assume…