Ogmius Newsletter

Visiting Scientist Perspective


Melanie Roberts recently completed a Ph.D. in neurobiology at the University of Washington in Seattle. In 2004, she founded the Forum on Science Ethics and Policy (FOSEP), an initiative to stimulate dialogue among scholars, the public, and policy makers about the role of science in society. Melanie is visiting the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research before heading to Washington, D.C. as an AAAS Congressional Fellow.

Updating the social contract for science:  A scientist’s perspective

By Melanie Roberts, melanie@fosep.org

Photo of Melanie RobertsScience policy scholars agree that it is time to update the social contract for science as outlined by Vannevar Bush in Science, the Endless Frontier. Many policy scholars also assume that scientists are ardent supporters of Bush’s linear model of science and are opposed to making the research enterprise more attuned to societal problems. Though empirical research on the attitudes of scientists is lacking, I question that assumption based on my experience in the scientific community. Most of us have heard neither of Vannevar Bush nor of a ‘social contract’ for science. And many of us – particularly early-career scientists – are frustrated by the tentative connection between our individual efforts and societal outcomes. Thus, many scientists would embrace the concept of a new social contract for science. However, there are few calls for a revolution from within the scientific community because we don’t have a good idea of what is broken or how to fix it. Additionally, any talk of change - particularly in funding priorities - creates anxiety in an already highly competitive funding environment. The science policy community can call scientists to action by raising awareness of the need for a change and by working with the scientific community to create tenable, non-threatening policy options to improve the connection between scientific research and societal outcomes.

The current system, characterized by Bush’s linear model, holds that the government promotes innovation by funding basic research to increase the reservoir of knowledge. Subsequently, market forces drive industry to use this knowledge to solve societal problems. Though new technologies have improved our lives in many ways, the current system does not do a good job of solving some of our most pressing problems, predicting unintended consequences of new technology, or serving the poor and underrepresented. To adequately address these problems, we will likely need to tweak both inputs to the knowledge reservoir and the outputs from it.

Scientists will be most receptive to strategies that create new outputs and do not require considerable changes in the day-to-day conduct of science. One such strategy is to build and strengthen organizations that serve as bridges between science and society. These organizations could distill information from the knowledge reservoir into a form that is useful to end-users, develop products for underserved populations, and regulate new technologies. Examples of bridge organizations include Ethical, Legal and Social Implications (ELSI)-funded programs and the defunct Office of Technology Assessment. Others may have very different structures, such as non-profit companies, interdisciplinary university centers, or government agency offices. Successful bridge organizations will involve an interdisciplinary team, including scientists, end-users, science policy scholars, economists, and others. Bridge organizations can also be critical players in modifying inputs to the knowledge reservoir. For example, the Bill and
Melinda Gates Foundation
has influenced the inputs to the knowledge reservoir in international health by funding research grants that address a list of Grand Challenges.

Creating drastic changes in the knowledge reservoir or asking scientists to create outputs other than the scholarly publications that are currently seen as the ‘basic research’ product will require modifications to the organization, culture, and reward structure of the scientific enterprise itself. This will not be an easy task in such a deeply entrenched system. But, just as the culture of society at large changes over time, so can science. Such changes will require a mix of top-down and bottom-up strategies and a gradual implementation. The best place to begin a cultural transformation is in the educational system. Training programs should strive to create a more cosmopolitan scientist who sees his or her role not as a creator of knowledge who is detached from society, but as a public servant who should make an important contribution to society. To do this, undergraduate and graduate science education should include prerequisites in science studies, and existing research ethics training should combine microethics topics in research integrity with macroethics topics that explore the responsibility of science to society. Further, service learning projects that introduce students to some demonstrated mechanisms that connect science and society should be emphasized and rewarded.

By definition, negotiating a new contract between science and society requires the agreement of both parties. Scientists are ready to embrace gradual changes that will increase the social benefits of their work. However, scientists don’t have a clear enough understanding of the relationship between science and society to negotiate the contract by themselves. The science policy community will play a critical role as an arbiter of the new contract between science and society.