This first appeared in the January edition of Poplar Science UK. Subscribe to read the lasted edition, including new piece by me on hopes and fears for plastic waste.
Scientists have, apparently, ‘the future in their bones.’ Sounds exciting, no? Although also possibly a bit painful.
The line comes from scientist, civil servant and novelist CP Snow’s 1959 idea of the ‘Two Cultures’– a cultural divide between scientists and humanities graduates – part of a swathe of utopian thinking in UK politics at the time which also included Wilson’s 1963 speech on the power of the ‘white heat’ of technology which seems to be enjoying some resurgence recently. The People’s History Museum recently staged a reading of Wilson’s speech – very much worth a watch – and it received a name-drop in from Liam Byrne, in a speech launching his appointment as shadow minister for Higher Education.
But do scientists have the future in their bones? Would we even want them to?
Snow and Wilson’s ideas that if Britain was to prosper, it must invest in science and technology is an attractive one. Science lets us see the world better, poses new questions and provides new ways to answer questions about it. It’s no surprise we so keenly associate it with innovation. It’s not like Wilson or Snow were the first to recognise the transformative power of science and engineering, and I doubt Bryne will be the last. From Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis or JD Bernal’s sense of science and engineering as a great liberator, to the latest meeting of G8 science ministers, scientists as a fuel for futures we might make is a key trope of modern politics.
In 1963, the idea of the white heat of technology helped re-frame Labour politics from the politics of manufacturing (e.g. more classical trade union organising) to questions of what might be manufactured in the first place. It helped change the class position of Labour politics – as Professor Stephen Fielding argues, this was a way for Wilson to appeal to the ‘squeezed middle’ voters of his day – and to position themselves as more forward thinking than the Conservatives.
But be careful of politicians baring science-smelling rhetoric. After winning the 1964 general election, Wilson established a dedicated Ministry of Education and Science but, as Matthew Francis notes, his government was also responsible for scrapping several high-profile technology projects.
But beyond that, do scientists really want the responsibility of making the future? And do we want to leave it up to them?
With scientists feeling increasingly crushed by the ‘impact’ agenda, many are asking if they sold some key part of their soul when – on the run-up to the last election – they made the political case for science funding so strongly based on economic benefits. One response to this to argue science must be driven by ‘pure curiosity’ alone, but we shouldn’t do scientific curiosity the injustice of calling it anything as boring as ‘pure’. Focusing at least some of our scientific energies on particular challenges is a good idea, and many scientists are driven by a desire to help change the world. But even those who aren’t are still influenced by things around them; ‘curiosity’ comes from somewhere, whatever that is. The trick is making sure you notice what’s influencing you, so you can decide whether these influences are ones you are ok with or not. Still, science doesn’t always go to plan (that’s partly why we do it), and we should be careful we don’t close of aspects of scientific enquiry by pushing it to chase only what we think we want of it.
If the idea of scientists as future-makers limits our science, it also limits our ideas of the future. One of the key criticisms levelled at Snow’s 1959 Two Cultures is the juxtaposition of forward-thinking scientists with ‘Luddites’ of arts and humanities. For all that there is some truth in many of the points Snow made (the speech itself is much richer than the loose way it’s usually quoted) it’s a dangerous divide to assume. If science is really to challenge the present to improve, it has to be able to see itself, and the humanities can help with that. This includes rejecting some ideas of the future. As David Edgerton has argued, any good scientist much embrace their inner Luddite.
Above all, however, there is more to imagining the future than just what scientists and engineers can offer. Options for our future are multiple and have range of components (scientific, engineering, economic, political, cultural, ethical, more); choosing between them needs to be collaborative process. If non-scientists aren’t engaging with science, this is indeed a worry, but that’s precisely because we need them, not because science can proceed without them.
We should also be thoughtful about where exactly we place the role of science in such future-building. Bryne, previewing his speech in the Evening Standard, places science firmly at the top of a rather ‘trickle-down’ view of economics. Arguing ‘social justice doesn’t pay for itself’, he suggests science as a route to wealth creation which will then may work to benefit society at large. There is some power in this view – and he’s inspired in part by work from Mariana Mazzucato – but there are other ways to imagine the social role of science and technology than simply give us cash to spend. It can be an end of social justice in itself. More investment in solar power technologies, for example, can offer power to the people (political, economic and more straightforwardly electric), in part through by-passing the need for citizens to purchase it elsewhere. Science can make more than just money, and can be more imaginatively applied. As Bryne considers ways to imagine science and engineering in an image for Britain he hopes to offer us at the next election, he would do well to remember this.
So, do scientists have future in their bones? That seems oddly sinister to me; limiting to both science and our possible futures. Yes, science can and should play a key role in making sense of the world and imagining what we might do with it, but ultimately our future is not the responsibility of a few lab-coated individuals, but us all, and we can only be richer for remembering that.