School of Sociology and Social Policy

Programme Aims

Over the last 20 years in the UK a series of political crises have challenged the authority of science (MMR vaccine), the integrity of research ("Climategate"), the extent to which political decisions are 'evidence based' (BSE), the governance of controversial new technologies (GM crops), and the status of expert advice in policymaking (drug policy - "Nuttgate"). This has contributed to a widely held perception of a lack of public trust in science, decline in the capacity of science to underpin political legitimacy, and tensions in the relationship between government and science.

In principle, a solution to these problems is to make the practice, use and assessment of science as it relates to policy-making and forms of political participation more public, open, transparent and democratic. However, this poses major challenges to both science and politics, as highlighted by the political predicaments of food security and agricultural sustainability, energy and environmental security, the management of health and social care, and the regulation of research and technologies in these domains. So:

  • What is meant by making science more public, open or transparent? Who are 'the public' and how are they constituted?
  • What might 'public science' mean for the authority and independence of science and the capacity of publics to engage with science?
  • What are the political implications of making science more public and how does this relate to issues of legitimacy and transparency in politics and policy making?
  • How will such changes help address the problems outlined above? 

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 have created new spaces of 'scientific citizenship' in which different groups promote or contest scientific knowledge and its use. This has 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 (open access publishing, open source etc). However, such opportunities for science to be more openly practiced and discussed, for governments to promote integrity and transparency in policy making, and for various publics to influence political decision-making through science are counterbalanced by a number of challenges, including:

The rise of science/industry partnerships and the privatisation of knowledge

Science and technology are promoted by governments as the main source of innovation and a major driver of economic growth and competition. The rise of the knowledge economy, the increasing importance of intellectual property and greater commercialisation of public research are all making science more "private". This has prompted calls for science to more explicitly serve the public good.

The proliferation of expertise and politicisation of science

With the institutionalisation of scientific advice in government (scientisation of politics), scientific evidence has become the centre of many political conflicts. Different stakeholders use rival experts and cherry-pick the claims or counter-claims that support their own political position, leading to concerns about the politicisation of science. Many leading researchers therefore seek to 'keep politics out of science'. 

The challenges of public engagement with science

Empirical studies of public participation find a tendency to 'close down' rather than 'open up' issues for debate and policy options. Difficulties that lay publics have with scrutinizing expertise and engaging in discussion about different ethical assumptions around science have also been charted.

Previous scholarship has addressed separate aspects of these issues, but 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 on a comparative basis across a number of key domains. This multidisciplinary programme seeks to address this important gap in knowledge.

Main research question

What are the challenges involved in making science more public; how are attempts to do so changing the relationship between science, politics and publics, and what are the normative implications for problems relating to political legitimacy, scientific authority and democratic participation?

The research therefore aims to: 

  • analyse ways in which the use of evidence and expertise in politics and policymaking can or should be made more open and public
  • consider how different publics and forms of expertise are being mobilised around science and technology and how this might open-up democratic politics/governance or undermine it
  • explore how transparency and public participation enhance or threaten the legitimate generation, evaluation and application of scientific knowledge
  • reconceptualise the relationship between science, politics and publics in order 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

These aims will be addressed using nine case studies and three linked PhD studentships, grouped under three topic headings (see below). Three key themes in each area will be analysed, as well as an overarching synthesis project. Together they enable comparison across a range of different natural and social sciences and a broad spread of areas that are politically and scientifically important.

Key themes/ Topic areas1. Transparency, expertise and evidence in policymaking2. Science, publics and the making of politics3. Public engagement, mediation and deliberation over S&T
* Food, agriculture and animals 1.2 2.2 3.1    PhD3
* Energy and environment 1.1 2.3    PhD2 3.2
* Health and social policy 1.3     PhD1 2.1 3.3
Overarching synthesis project 4. Making science public: implications for the theory and practice of democracy


School of Sociology and Social Policy

Law and Social Sciences building
University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

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