Public Value of Science

January 25th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Yesterday we pointed to a thoughtful report from DEMOS, a UK think tank, titled “See-through science” published in 2004. Last year DEMOS published a follow-up report that provided a somewhat more sober perspective on the staying power of the so-called “deficit model” of the public understanding of science. The follow-up report is tilted, “The Public Value of Science” and is just as thoughtful as the first. Here is what it says about the deficit model:

Beneath the thin crust of consensus in these debates there lies a deeper ambivalence. Old assumptions continually reassert themselves. To give one recent example, Alec Broers, in his 2005 Reith Lectures, The Triumph of Technology, rehearsed the now familiar argument that ‘it is time . . . to move away from the old concept of “the public understanding of science” to a new more dynamic “public engagement”’. Minutes later, in the debate that followed, he had this exchange with Mary Warnock:

Baroness Warnock: After the election, the government, whatever government, has simply got to bite the bullet and start planning and constructing new nuclear reactors. In spite of your extremely welcome insistence that the public must be involved, do you think the public is really well-enough informed? Are they not perhaps too apprehensive to make this decision? It seems to me that what is needed here is very firm leadership.

Lord Broers: I agree with you. But I don’t know how quickly we can educate the public, to bring the evidence forward in a calm and rational way.

No sooner have ‘deficit’ models of the public been discarded than they reappear.

Later in the report the authors single out those who would use the notion of objective scientific truth to argue against public involvement in science policy decision making:

As we noted earlier, rumours of the death of the ‘deficit model’ have been greatly exaggerated. Despite the progress of the science and society agenda, there are still those who maintain that the public are too ignorant to contribute anything useful to scientific decisionmaking. One of the most vocal is the Liberal Democrat peer, Dick Taverne. In a letter attacking Nature’s editorial on upstream engagement, Taverne rejects ‘the fashionable demand by a group of sociologists for more democratic science’. He goes on: ‘The fact is that science, like art, is not a democratic activity. You do not decide by referendum whether the earth goes round the sun.’ But Taverne is setting up a straw man. As we emphasised in See-through Science, upstream engagement is not about members of the public standing over the shoulder of scientists in the laboratory, taking votes or holding referendums on what they should or should not be doing. That Taverne can conceive of accountability only in these terms reflects nothing more than the poverty of his own democratic imagination. This agenda is not about imposing cumbersome bureaucratic structures on science, or forcing lay people onto every research funding committee. Questions about structures do need to be considered, but are a sideshow compared with the far more important – and exciting – challenge of building more reflective capacity into the practice of science. As well as bringing the public into new conversations with science, we need to bring out the public within the scientist – by enabling scientists to reflect on the social and ethical dimensions of their work.

But getting individual scientists or communities within the scientific enterprise to “reflect” on the broader dimensions of their work can be a challenge. A few written comments from students in my graduate seminar this week were extremely perceptive along these lines. One student observed,

Pielke (2002) states, “many granting agencies now ask in their evaluation criteria whether the proposed research will benefit society.” Although many scientists support this principle, they do not have the expertise to assess their work in this way. This statement resonated with my office mate and me, and we had a good laugh. Whether applying for a large research grant or a graduate student fellowship there is always a requirement to state broader impacts or to indicate how the proposed research furthers the mission of the funding agency. In addition, the applicant must usually specify how the results will be made available to the public. These are always the most exasperating questions to answer, and I generally feel like I’m pandering to some reviewer with my uninspired response. Its not that I do not think science should provide some benefit to society at large. To the contrary, I and most scientists are trying to better understand the natural world so that we can fix some of the problems in it. I just can’t answer the broader impacts question very well because, aside from understanding a tiny piece of the sea level rise puzzle, I don’t really know how my increased knowledge of meltwater movement on the Greenland Ice Sheet will benefit my neighbor down the street.”

Another student was less charitable,

In science and engineering, it seems that people are becoming more specialized in certain areas and do not always see beyond their realm. They did not always realize how their work affects others and vise versa. . . The individuals see their finished product and move on to their next task. What goes on beyond that point may not be of their concern. There are many other things that go into research such as funding and politics. Many people say to themselves “That is not my job, so I do not have to know”. . . I believe that today many people play the ignorant card . . . Again, it is not their responsibility and therefore they believe they do not need to care.”

These comments from practicing, early-career scientists echo the arguments of the DEMOS report which finds fault in the so-called linear model of the relation of science and society, which provides a rationalization for both detachment and a lack of accountability in the form of a narrow focus on scientific truths:

When all else fails, critics of upstream engagement tend to resort to arguments based on a linear model of innovation. They grudgingly concede that technologies and applications may merit some public discussion, but insist that ‘basic science’ should be kept apart, as a unique domain governed by curiosity and ‘science for science’s sake’. Yet like deficit models of the public, linear models of innovation are a default, unthinking response to the complexity of the subjects they purport to describe. As John Ziman observes, despite the fact that ‘the linear model of technological innovation is obviously over-simplified. . . it underlies what most politicians, business people, civil servants and journalists say about science’.”

So what is a science studies scholar to do? If the linear model of science doesn’t work in shaping public views about science and about science in particular policy issues, it certainly won’t work in shaping scientists’ views about science in its broader societal and political contexts. The DEMOS reports are open in acknowledging that the answers to this challenge are not readily apparent, but that there are numerous efforts ongoing to enage the scientific community in discussions about its role in society. Their closing words encourage us to keep this subject in play even if challenging,

These are difficult issues and we do not pretend they can be easily resolved. But they bring us back to where we started: the fundamental questions of why we do science, where it is taking us, and who it is for. Tony Blair’s speech to the Royal Society, in which he warned of emotion driving out reason, was titled ‘Science matters’.
Our argument has been that, yes, science does matter. But it matters for more than narrow, economic reasons. We need to talk, and occasionally to argue, about why this is so. And we need to infuse the cultures and practices of science with this richer and more open set of social possibilities. This is how, together, we can build public value.

Read the whole thing, here.

3 Responses to “Public Value of Science”

  1. Jack Stilgoe Says:

    Hi there. And thanks for a really thoughtful commentary on our pamphlet. We did an experiment out of the back of the pamphlet where we got 12 scientists and 12 members of the public together for an afternoon to have a collective conversation about precisely these issues. It was fascinating how the perceived lack of agency was shared by both scientists and members of the public. Responsibility, it was felt by all parties, was elsewhere – the product of a diffuse and diverse network. One of the big dangers in sociotechnical domains is that this I-thought-you-had-the-car-keys thinking means that countless meaningful discussions never get started. Demos has plenty more to say. Watch this space:

    I’m enjoying your blog very much. But I’d love there to be an RSS feed.

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  3. Roger Pielke Jr. Says:

    Jack- Thanks much for your comment. We’ll look into setting up the RSS feed. Thanks very much for the link to your blog, we’ll definately watch that space!

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  5. Roger Pielke Jr. Says:

    Directly from Shep:

    RSS Feed: