New questions for science policy?

Cross-posted from the CaSE blog.

Science Question Time – a regular science policy debate/ meetup event organised by the Campaign for Science and Engineering, the Biochemical Society and myself – had a guest slot at the Science Online London conference last week.

The format was slightly different from previous SciQT events. We usually take a topic and use a loose question and answer framework to explore it (e.g. education or impact). Here, however, the sense of questioning was turned around, as we invited our  panel – Victoria Johnson, Jack StilgoeSteven Hill and Beck Smith – to reframe the debate and give us two questions they think science policy should ask. We then asked the audience if they liked those questions, or had new ones of their own.

The thoughts of our panellists are summarised below, along with some notes from the subsequent discussion. We’d love to know what you think too.

Johnson:
1. How will stronger commercial priorities being accepted for university research affect the breadth of the research agenda?
2. What does science look like (how is it funded, and how do we decide what to fund) in a low growth/zero growth economy?

Stilgoe:
1. How, when money is tight, are we going to make decisions about how to spend it? What are our research priorities?
2. Who should be involved in the decision process? Is science something we can/ should leave to scientists, or something that is too important to do so?

Hill:
1. Where should the balance be between supporting UK researchers to compete internationally and fostering international collaboration?
2. Despite a decade of efforts on public engagement and dialogue in the recent Public Attitudes to Science survey 66% of people agreed that scientists should “listen more to what ordinary people think”. What, if any, should be our policy response to this?

Smith:
1. As scientific knowledge deepens and expands, the training period (and associated pay levels) will inevitably extend. In light of this, how do we continue to incentivise entry into the scientific career?
2. Science is increasingly becoming a (global) team game, how can science policy evolve to support this?  Are rewards such as the Nobel Prize too individualistic?

Stilgoe’s questions in particular were quite classic ones. As he said in his introduction, the new questions for science policy are the same old ones, although we may understand them in different ways; ultimately we have to consider ‘what is science for?’ a point which was echoed by several others in the discussion as fundamental.

Personally, I thought it was interesting to see funding still at the centre of debate. I guess research budgets always dominate science policy discussions. I understand why but, a year on from the spending review, I wondered if we’d be bored by this and want to talk about something else. Perhaps not.

It was striking, however, that the focus seemed to be on opening up the decision making process around funding, and I think it is fair to say that this was the issue that dominated our debate at Science Online. This flowed into some talk on issues of open science (a strong theme of the conference). It was asked whether we saw open science as an opportunity to open up the black box of science, or something else, and Stilgoe stressed different types of openness (being a greenhouse is different from being ‘open minded’). Following on from this, it was suggested that we should perhaps be asking questions about the architecture of science, especially with respect to decision-making. I thought this was a neat way of putting things, and a way to focus us towards details of applying otherwise easily philosophical questions of democracy.

On the pragmatics of working out such ‘architecture’ it was asked if there were any successful models for including public in decision-making about science funding? It was noted that we do have several projects aiming to bring public voices into science policy making running in the UK (e.g. ScienceWise) but the results of these do not always have much traction. One audience member said they had tried such a project, and the quality of the publics’ contribution was “almost embarrassing” (in that it was of such high quality compared to expert contribution, not that it was bad). It was suggested that some of the most interesting examples come from medical charities, e.g. the Alzheimer’s Society and Cancer Research UK. We might assume that it’s easier for medical research in ways which simply aren’t available for more apparently abstract and/ or ‘fundamental’ science, but the panel felt it was a challenge worth trying.

I asked the panel if they wanted to change their questions in light of the discussion. For Stilgoe, the big question was still research priorities, but beneath that sits the issue and associated questions of democracy – who decides what these priorities should be – reflecting how much time we spent discussing this at the event. Allied to this, he wanted to know whether the open access community see their agenda as one of increased scientific efficiency through openness, or democracy as well? (either through greater transparency, or more disruptively through opening up decisions about the direction of research). For Hill, his question of public involvement in scientific decision making should also reflect the different levels that such involvement could happen (e.g. choosing individual projects, setting research questions in programmes, deciding on research strategies etc), perhaps echoing the ‘architecture’ point.

Now it is over to you. Those of us who work in universities are getting ready for the start of term, and parliament’s back from recess. Do we need new questions for the new season, or will the old ones do? Do you like the ones offered by the panel, or want to tweak them? As the leaves change colour and nights draw in, what should everyone in science policy land be worrying about?

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