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Science must be relevant to society if it’s to earn its keep

Not all science is about blue-sky research, such as that done at the Large Hadron Collider. Maximilien Brice, CERN

Science must be relevant to society if it’s to earn its keep

The usual arguments for science funding have been trotted out in recent months as academics rally around the wreckage of Australia’s research system. Meanwhile a quiet revolution is underway in science and technology policy. And Australia needs to join in.

To understand these changes it is useful to make the distinction between big “S” Science, which is often referred to as basic or pure science, and little “s” science, which represents a broader category of more engaged, plural and accessible sciences.

Big “S” Science is often perceived to be the prestigious stuff, funded through the likes of the Australian Research Council and lauded by various academies of science. The little “s” science includes all sorts of knowledge production – not just scientific research – but still maintains high standards of rigour and a commitment to challenging unfounded assumptions and the testing of claims.

Advocates of Science tend to draw tight boundaries around who is and isn’t a Scientist. In doing so, they can undermine the legitimacy of Science itself. On the other hand, the lower-case sciences are much more porous, engaging and inviting.

There is negotiation rather than policing at the boundaries, such as between sciences and policy-makers or the broader society. This distinction has been around in various guises for a long time.

The value of Science

The usual arguments in science policy tend to focus on basic Science. Two rationales for public funding have persisted since World War II:

  1. Science produces new knowledge that is inherently valuable, such as a better understanding of our place in the universe. Astronomers, in particular, love this argument.

  2. Science produces the raw material (knowledge or techniques) for as yet unknown innovation, which will be the bedrock of future economic activity.

These two arguments are often neatly conflated. The Enlightenment angle tends to be proffered by Scientists as the main game, which happily and inadvertently produces spin-offs via innovation to drive economic growth.

The idea of Science as the provider of wonders perpetuates a myth of a singular monolithic Science, beavering away in the ivory tower. Meanwhile, the broader public tends to be in the background of this story. They’re the passive beneficiaries, to whom Science will deliver the long-promised hoverboard or cure for cancer.

Of course, Science has led to the saving of lives and extending of lifespans. It has allowed us to untether our devices and be more mobile. The list of immediate benefits is long, and these economic and social upsides are eagerly added to the ledger of what Science has done for us.

Yet sources as diverse as Hollywood movies, United Nations climate reports, World Health Organisation epidemiologists and anti-nuclear weapons advocates persistently raise a troubling question: will we survive our scientific and technological adventure?

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them. - Albert Einstein

The themes of promise and certainty -– in the ambitious language of Science – rarely deliver when it comes to resolving our most pressing issues. These are issues that techno-science has played a key role in creating. When it comes to climate change, food security, loss of biodiversity, growing inequality and other complex problems that typify our age, Science alone does not, and cannot, provide definitive solutions.

On the contrary, most of the time its practitioners are motivated to focus on minutiae. And those who do integrate and synthesise across disciplines, and work with policy makers or the public, are often pariahed as “pseudo-scientists”. Or worse: “advocates”. And although “multidisciplinarity” is a catch-cry in nearly every strategic plan of universities and research organisations, the silos of Science are hardwired into systems prestige and reward.

Two reasons why basic Science prevails

Big ‘S’ Science can be fruitful, but there’s a lot that small ‘s’ science can achieve too. Laurence Livermore, CC BY

As important as it is, advocating for these more pluralistic sciences is politically dangerous terrain for at least two reasons.

Firstly, the interests of the academy are strongly invested in its existing measures of success. There is a lot of inertia in this system, but the game is changing. As the United Kingdom’s Research Excellence Framework indicates, a shift towards measuring impacts via societal outcomes is starting to provide new opportunities for researchers with an interest in making a difference, rather than just profusely publishing in academic journals.

These sorts of changes encourage engaged researchers to move beyond their footholds in development, agricultural and industrial research to the many areas where sciences can serve society. Obviously such approaches need to maintain rigorous scientific principles, such as transparent and defensible data collection and analysis. Their greater challenge is to create knowledge that is trusted, owned and used by communities and by the society at large.

The second political challenge is that basic Science is politically palatable because it doesn’t explicitly tell decision-makers what to do. The classic example is climate science, which has spent decades precisely defining a major problem for society, yet struggles to either address it or move debate beyond problem definition.

More engaged sciences that build constituencies and collective knowledge and know-how, rather than just improved scientific understanding, are inherently political. They trade at the edges of facts and values and recognise that these boundaries are always up for grabs and need to be constantly and carefully managed.

Sciences for what?

The idea that Science epitomises the best that humanity can be through a quest for objective truth via unachievable rationality is a myth that has worn thin and is increasingly counterproductive. It is dull Science without a human face.

What never gets dull is making a difference: contributing to societal goals. Engaged sciences can do this through working to achieve collaboratively generated goals for R&D, such as those for Australian ecosystem science. Major stumbling blocks to achieve these more democratic goals include prioritisation of engaged sciences and reformed metrics of academic success that encourage universities to deliver on their rhetoric of cross-disciplinary research and engagement.

Prioritising engaged science requires augmenting research policy focus. Asking “how much” resourcing goes to science is not enough. We need to pay more attention to what research is for.

Changing metrics will require shifting focus from means – i.e. creating reams of high-quality information – to ends – i.e. bringing knowledge to bear in innovation, sustainability and democracy. But this cannot be done as a blanket policy change.

Basic Science has an ongoing and crucial role to play. It will be needed not least to anchor and build capacity in more engaged sciences where information is turned into relevant and legitimate knowledge for addressing our greatest problems.

It’s not an easy road to reform such a substantial institution as “Science” but this shift is necessary, inevitable and is already happening, especially in the arena of innovation and technology.

A key challenge will be to ensure that engaged sciences are not sequestered into serving economic activity, but maintain a substantial role across issues that affect society. Whether these issues relate to global issues like biotechnology or environmental change, or local concerns about trade-offs and risks, little “s” science needs to be steered more democratically.