Keep Science Public – from Science is Vital Rally, Autumn 2010
Adam Smith (no, not that one, or that one, or that one, the science writer one) has a new series of posts for the Guardian on science policy starting today. His first post raises several questions, including who should set the goals for science? Scientists themselves? Or politicians? How might the public be involved in this?
I think we should open up these sorts of questions more to the public. There’s a long history of science communication in the UK, but we tend to focus on the stuff science tells us about the world, not the politics of science itself. Popularisation of scientific ideas is all well and good – sometimes important, sometimes fun, sometimes both – I’m glad we do it. But I want more public debate about the politics and structures of science too. I’d like to live in a society where we have more public debate about the science we could have, not just the science we’ve been given.
Obviously we don’t know what science we’ll have until we try some. The public can’t just present science with a shopping list “vaccine for cancer, anti-baldness pill, spray on cleverness and ever-lasting pollution free fuel, thanks”. Setting the goals of science isn’t about controlling what scientists find, only what they choose to look at and how. This happens already, so I think it should, as much as possible, happen in the open with the public involved. We can’t say what science should find, but we can discuss what challenges science might try to address, what questions it might ask and what we might do with the multiple choices which new technologies provide us (for more on the last of these, see this old post on the history of fridges). You can’t have a referendum on whether the Earth is Flat, but we can have a discussion about whether checking the Earth is flat or not is something we want to be doing.
I suggested more public engagement with science funding at Lord Taverne’s Sense About Science lecture last week (audio). Taverne had joked that the public trust scientists as long as their not funded by industry or the government, and I suggested that maybe then, we needed more public engagment with science funding. Taverne’s response wasn’t especially satisfactory – I wondered if he’d heard me properly – as he seemed to say we might have to give up on public funding of science entirely and rely on the Wellcome Trust. I find that quite depressing. I’m not sure I’m ready to give up of the public funding of science yet, and I stand by the idea that we could try to involve the public in this process (indeed, never know, the latter might help us support the former).
Science policy is very dry. It’s full of a lot of dull discussion about the geekier everyday ends of science and an awful lot of bureaucracy. If I was feeling cynical, I might argue that it suits a fair few policy makers and scientists to keep this debate so dry as a way to keep public scrutiny out. That might be unfair. Still, science funding could actually be one of the most exciting areas of science storytelling, if we let it. A few people have started looking into public engagement projects (The IFR at Norwich, Cobi Smith in Canberra) and research councils increasingly include a range of ‘lay’ members of peer review panels. As I’ve argued before, in terms of upstream science journalism, I think it’d make good stories for science media too.
I’ve always thought that CP Snow line about scientists having the future in their bones was a tad overblown, but there is a truth in there somewhere, and it’s an exciting truth I’d like to share with more people. Deciding our future, as best as we can, shouldn’t be left to the privileged few.