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Asking the tough questions on science policy

By andrea marchesetti, on 2 March 2009

A scientist discussing science policy on a major news programme is a welcome, if too infrequent, happening. Particularly so when the scientist is a Nobel Prize geneticist being interviewed on the role of scientific authority in a democratic society and on the appropriate level of funding for science during a recession.

The  interview, well-worth watching, is online on HardTalk’s website. Sadly,  Sir Paul Nurse‘s representation of the scientific community’s view compounded factual inaccuracies, a simplistic economic analysis, and a skillful evasion of any reference to philosophical or political grounding of his views on science policy and public understanding of science.

How much is enough?

Sir Nurse opened the interview stating his appreciation for the intention to “restore science in his rightful place” announced by Barack Obama in his inaugural speech, arguing that this should be achieved through a boost in funding and restoring the use of scientific expertise to inform public policy. But how much should be paid to restore the prestige of science?

Asked whether there actually is a “cause-effect link between spending whole lot new money and getting results”, Nurse replies obliquely with an exposition of the admittedly imperfect linear model. The US status as the world’s “powerhouse for science and translation of science” depends on its ability to translate basic science “into both creation of wealth through commercial development and also improvement in health” and quality of life:

[We] generate fundamental understanding and increases in knowledge that is available to the world. That increase in knowledge is absolutely crucial. But then around it what you need are spin-off relationships with those who are interested in the application of this research, who can pick up that freely available increase in knowledge and harness it into more applied uses. And that we do not yet think we have got quite right.

The traditional “public good” conception of science and the faith in spin-offs from basic research to technological innovation in the long run make it impossible to make rational evaluation on appropriate level of funding for science. How much is enough? Never.

A tradition of public funding

Nurse also argued that the US should return to their “traditional focus on the scientific endeavour in the public domain for the public good”. However, that America had a tradition of high public investment in science is inaccurate. The first graph below (representing the private- and public-sector contribution to US R&D and to basic science from 1940 to 1990) shows that there has never been a dominating tradition of public spending on science once one discounts the military spending that constituted the great part of the additional public spending during the Cold War (as shown in the second graph, documenting the US federal spending by category).

Science in a democracy

Nurse avoided pronouncing on the question of who should have the final say on future directions of science – citizens through their elected government or scientists themselves through self-government?

When we have been unhappy is not so much when society and politicians would make decisions that are based on the scientific evidence and then make the best decision (because society needs to have its impact); it’s when they try to ignore the science or actually even distort the science to defend a certain ideological position.

According to Nurse, if policy-makers listen to the scientists and if society is well-informed on the facts, then no problem shall arise. Problems in science may only come from the politicisation of science, i.e. from impure fact.

Challenged after his naive deficit-model answer to explain the growing distance between the scientific community and large sections of the public on topics such as human embryonic stem cell research, evolutionary biology, and climate change, Nurse chose again not to address the question of the legitimacy and accountability of scientific research in a democratic society.

Federal research is surely funded “by the people” and performed “for the people”, but Nurse struggled to explain how science could have any legitimacy “of the people” despite being rejected on philosophical, religious, or political grounds, Nurse had to resort to an eclectic bunch of justifications:

a) on stem cell research: there is a opinion-poll majority in favour of it (implying that the scientific community and “the people” should have the last say on which research should go ahead, until the government changes)

b) on climate change: the government is manipulating the fact and public opinion (implying that the scientific community alone should have the last say on which research should go ahead, until the government or the “people” come to reckoning)

c) on evolutionary theory: “what it means is that science education is failing in our school and public engagement with the media and so on is also failing” (implying that the scientific community alone should decide which research should go ahead, because society “is failing” science)

In other words, publicly-funded science is legitimate and democratic as long as the scientific community gets its way. For, Nurse argues, what counts for science in a democracy is not to come to precautionary, consensual, or widely-endorsed conclusions, but to reach the correct decisions, where the meter of correctness is held by the scientific community and handed down to the lay public:

we need to have a very good dialogue between science and scientists, and the public and society because so many decisions that we have to make in the modern world depend on science and technology. And if the public cannot get properly engaged with science and if scientists cannot help them with that, we are going to make incorrect decisions.

Nurse’s discourse is entirely formulated on the opposition between objective facts and ignorance of science, between scientific purity and political irrationality. Apparently, the solution to the culture war shouldn’t require much more than getting ourselves properly engaged and accepting scientists’ help.

Sir Nurse admitted: “at my low points I contemplated other alternative careers including study of the philosophy or sociology of science”. Nevertheless, as former head of the Science in Society programme at the Royal Society, he should know better.

The economic crisis and eventual cuts in government spending seem to me to create great opportunities for people who are willing to think creatively about science policy – redefining expectations and function of science funding, introducing meaningful science-citizenry engagement, rethinking the relation between politics and science. Hopefully STS graduands facing the possibility of having a lot of spare times in their hands might give it some thought as a career option.

(The graphs come from Mowery, D. C. and Rosenberg, N. 1989. Technology and the Pursuit of Economic Growth. Cambridge: CUP)

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