Climategate, Nuttgate, opposition to GM crops, the MMR and BSE health scares: over the last 30 years high profile political crises surrounding the integrity of research, the status of expert advice and governance of new technologies have challenged the authority of science; increased tensions in the relationship between government and science; and tested public trust in scientific research.
Now experts at The University of Nottingham have been awarded £1.66m by The Leverhulme Trust to lead a major study to assess both the opportunities and the challenges associated with making science public.
In principle, a solution is to make the practice, use and assessment of science more public, open, transparent and democratic. However, this also poses major challenges to science, politics and public participation.
Brigitte Nerlich, Professor of Science, Language and Society at the School of Sociology and Social Policy and Director of theInstitute for Science and Society, is to lead the multi-disciplinary project - in collaboration with the University of Sheffield and The University of Warwick — ‘Making Science Public: Challenges and Opportunities’.
The research team will collaborate with colleagues across The University of Nottingham — in Engineering, Biomolecular Sciences, Pharmacy, Computer Sciences and Physics — and beyond. The programme will focus on three main topics; food, agriculture and animals; energy and environment; and health and social policy.
Professor Nerlich said: “Until now there has been no systematic attempt to study the challenges of making science more public and the consequences for the relationship between science and politics. We want to address this important gap in our knowledge. The questions we must ask ourselves are what are the challenges involved in making science more public? How are attempts to do so changing the relationship between science, politics and the public? And what are the implications for political legitimacy, scientific authority and democratic participation?”
Efforts to make science more public are visible in many places. In the UK, government initiatives aim to increase transparency in scientific advice for policymaking, promote greater scientific literacy, build public trust in science, and engage the public on the implications of new research.
Increased media interest in science, and pressure on scientists to engage with the media have fostered public debate, whilst the use of internet-based social media has created new spaces of ‘scientific citizenship’ in which different groups promote or contest scientific knowledge and its use.
This has also allowed other forms of authority, such as religion, to re-enter debates about science and technology. Elsewhere, patient advocacy groups are becoming involved with advances in biomedical knowledge and seeking to influence research programmes. Within the practice of science itself there are moves to promote much greater openness — such as open access publishing and open source initiatives.
However, such opportunities for science to be more openly practiced and discussed, for governments to promote integrity and transparency in policy making, and for the public to influence political decision-making through science are counterbalanced by a number of dilemmas.
Professor Nerlich said: “A growing number of industrial partnerships and a greater commercialisation of public research are making science more ‘private’. There’s increasing concern about the ‘politicisation of science’ — different stakeholders using rival experts, even rival forms of (scientific) scepticism to support their own political position (as in the case of ‘climategate’). And public consultation has in some cases led to a tendency to close down rather than open up issues for debate and policy.”
Deputy Director of the study, Dr Sujatha Raman, is a lecturer in Science and Technology Studies in the School of Sociology and Social Policy, but has previously been located in the Faculty of Engineering and works with scientists and engineers in research projects and doctoral training centres funded by BBSRC and EPSRC, as well as ESRC. Dr Raman said: “Engaging with people from different disciplines will be invaluable for identifying fundamental assumptions around making science public, exploring the ways in which they conflict and imagining possible ways forward.”
Professor Nerlich said: “We will analyse ways in which scientific evidence and expertise in politics and policymaking can or should be made more open and public. We will consider how alternative sources of expertise might open up democratic politics/governance or undermine it. With this vast array of expertise we can explore how transparency and public participation can enhance or threaten the legitimate generation, evaluation and application of scientific knowledge and help to develop policies and practices that maintain the authority and independence of science, clarify the role of expertise in policymaking, and promote democratic/public participation.”
This new study will involve a cross disciplinary team of experts:
- The University of Nottingham: Professor Vivien Lowndes from the School of Politics; Professor Saul Becker, Professor John Holmwood and Dr Alison Mohr in the School of Sociology and Social Policy; Dr Susanne Seymour and Dr Carol Morris in the School of Geography; Dr Kate Millar in the School of Biosciences; Dr Pru Hobson-West from the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science.
- The University of Sheffield: Professor Paul Martin from the Department of Sociological Studies.
- The University of Warwick: Dr Alexander Smith from the Department of Sociology.
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