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UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy


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Love Actually: Developing a pragmatic science policy agenda for 2021

By jochataway, on 7 January 2021

Love is all around

In 2019, UK politician, Rory Stewart, then running for Leadership of the UK Conservative Party, spoke regularly of love being at the core of his policy agenda. In a particularly memorable moment, during the launch of his campaign, he answered a question about how he was going to combat negativism towards transgender and ethnic minority people by saying ‘its about pride in each other…[its] about listening and, I’m afraid, its about love’.

heart shape in book

Photo by Hush Naidoo on Unsplash

I thought about that launch event moment often over 2020. The combined ravages of a Trump presidency and a terrible global pandemic have made a mockery of so many of things that seemed rational and certain. In the moment, Stewart’s claim that policy must be rooted in love and respect for ourselves and solidarity with each other in all our diversity, sounded so far from the norm, but increasingly it seems to me that pragmatic and convincing policy responses have a lot to do with love, listening and respect.

Stewart’s comment inspired me to seek out policy relevant literature that might have influenced him. I suddenly became aware of love as a theme in social theory and related writing in a way that I hadn’t been before. Colleagues and friends suggested readings which echoed the theme. A historian friend pointed me in the direction of a growing body of work on the history of emotions. A call for recognition of love, faith, hope and respect in politics and social theory, in the flourishing literature on transformation, is put forward by some intellectual heavyweights. Like the Hugh Grant character in the film Love Actually, I began to see that love is all around.

Martha Nassbuam in her major treatise on social justice, Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, and in other work, has written extensively on love in relation to human and societal development. Roberto Mangabiera Unger, the philosopher from Harvard, and Hanzi Freinacht advocating for a ‘Listening Society’, put love and emotional responses at the centre of a call for societies that reclaim and revise modernist visions of societies built on shared understandings of what progress means.

These more encompassing observations about the need for empathy and love as the foundation for policy based on social solidarity, and a much more sophisticated approach to understanding emotion, values and passion are not apart from science policy – indeed I think they may be core to it.

Science and emotion

In the UK over the past couple of years, British Tory politicians have flipped back and forth in their affection for expertise and science. For a while, a central plank of argument for Brexit was that we rely too much on the input from ‘experts’ and policy should rather be led by conviction and direction from publics and the politicians committed to representing their wishes directly. More recently, the UK government claimed to be following the science in its response to COVID-19. Both of these responses express a profound confusion about the relationship between science, emotion and values.

As many others have noted, science is not value -free, it is not detached and does not sit apart from the emotions and passions of those who practice. Scientific method forges a path to moderate and regulate individual ambition and commitment but it does not replace it. Science has well developed methods to ‘check and balance’ advice and evidence.

In fact, a strong argument can be made that science depends on that drive that comes from practitioners being passionately engaged in what they do. The fact that scientists come to their jobs with emotions and commitments does not mean that experts and scientists should be dismissed. The passion of the scientific community is not distinct from the passion of teachers, nurses, doctors or anyone who seek to do good with their work and few would consider the notion that doctors should abandon values in relation to their work.

Another side to this is that scientific method is based on trying to ensure a standard for practice that triangulates, distils and filters so that evidence is robust and verifiable truths emerge. Science is not the practice of politics which has more overt and appropriate commitments to values without always referencing evidence.

If we need to accept and harness emotions (rather than banish them in some doomed attempt to ‘follow the science’) as part of science policy and advice, we need to embrace the idea that science is often steeped in value decisions, that there is little in science advice that can be wholly detached from value judgements but neither is the quest for robust evidence and for truth a lost cause. Our policy needs to reflect both of these truths. Openness and transparency are likely to be important ingredients in new policy mixes.

Logos, ethos and pathos

Beyond egos, alternative facts and bombast, a strong case can be made that quiet, determined and pragmatic empathy such as that exhibited by political leaders like Jacinda Arden has been at the route of more successful approaches to COVID-19. Even where that leadership, and the policy that results from it, has not succeeded in successfully tackling the immediate impact of COVID-19, it has ‘failed better’ and kept in place a sense of trust and respect for leadership that will surely help in longer term recovery from the pandemic. As Unger says: “Trust is the climate in which these passions [faith, hope and love] flourish. Forgiveness is the antecedent and preserver of trust”. Trust is key to science, science advice and science policy.

In an essay on Martha Nussbaum’s work, Des Gaspar writes about Nussbaum’s advocacy of the “use of imaginative and…idiographic literature, including for deepening understanding and building concern and sympathy for persons; and of the analysis and use of emotions, with special reference to compassion”. He goes on to draw to attention to the three elements of persuasion recognised by classical Greek rhetoric: logos (reasoning), pathos (the felt experience which a discourse draws on and the feelings it evokes), and ethos (including the degree of confidence, mutual respect and authority which the author or speaker establishes in relation to the audience).

All three are core to the practice of science, science advice and science policy and indeed to building trust. Recognition of that does not detract from a quest for excellence and truth, it adds to it. These three elements of persuasion can form the cornerstones of constant, patient and respectful triangulation.

Institutionalising love and solidarity

Individuals are driven by complex emotions. Studies show that desires to contribute to society, to do good with the work that they do and to be recognised for it all factor in the passion with which scientists approach their work. At the level of society, regulations and norms seek to institutionalise the process by which science contributes to society. In a way, this institutionalisation could be seen as the socialisation mechanism to enable and channel individual contribution and passion. A tenet of the some of the writing that I’ve mentioned here is that if organisational, institutional or society’s policy, regulation and norms are developed on the basis of empathy and solidarity as well as all the other measures of effectiveness we use to judge effectiveness and success, they foster the capability of individuals to live these values more fully in a way that is transformational and a more positive dynamic between individual and collective is established. New concern from UKRI and the Wellcome Trust about the culture of science echo these concerns for example.

Of course, institutional and individual attempts to embody empathy, love and solidarity fail all the time. And the ways that the success and failure are attempted and judged play out and differ across contexts. Trying to build science policy that inculcates love and solidarity is not for the faint-hearted. As in many successful personal relationships, the need for cool-heads, pragmatism and constant review is clear.


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