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The UK Government paper, A Vision for Science and Society, is no clear picture

Guy Cook

20th January, 2009

A Vision for Science and Society, in today’s technological vista, sounds an honourable aim. Guy Cook reads between the lines of this new UK government paper

In an era of climate change, genetic engineering, biofuels and debates over alternative energy sources, nothing could matter more for the environment than the choices made by government and society between available technologies. So in principle, the recent government document A Vision for Science and Society should be welcomed by all those concerned.

Unfortunately, the promise is not fulfilled. The problem is inherent in the title itself. The document fails to address the key difference between science (which develops knowledge of the natural world) and technology (which applies that knowledge). While it claims to be about the former, it is actually about the latter. Though not discussed, the distinction is clearly accepted by the authors, who use the phrase ‘science and technology’ 24 times. One has to suspect the avoidance of this issue is a strategic choice for a government intent on ignoring legitimate, environmentally aware assessment of new technologies, positioning it as opposition to science itself. They are not the same thing.

The natural sciences pursue rational, objective, evidence-based, disinterested knowledge of the natural world. Their achievements are immense. Yet their strength and authority rest upon their own clear delineation of what they can and cannot do. To misrepresent these self-imposed limits is to undermine this strength and may weaken this authority. They do not consider the political, commercial, ethical, philosophical, social and aesthetic dimensions of decision making. (This is not to say that scientists do not have wise contributions about these aspects of decision making – many clearly do – nor that scientists do not study the philosophy and ethics of science.)

Thus, for example, science can tell us what will happen when a nuclear bomb explodes, but not whether countries are right or wrong to have nuclear weapons. That decision must consider other criteria. The British Government’s decision to maintain Britain’s nuclear-weapon capability – an instance of a policy informed by science – is a political rather than a scientific one. Once the science and technology is confused, it is easy to characterise opposition to a technology as deriving from lack of scientific knowledge, or antagonism towards science.

Although the document wisely acknowledges the fallacy of the ‘deficit view’ of the public understanding of science – by which opposition to new technologies is attributed to ignorance and prejudice to be remedied by science education – it does not put this principle into practice. Throughout the document, the overwhelming emphasis is upon the ‘need for all citizens to understand the nature of science better’, but not on the corollary of this exhortation: the need for those applying scientific knowledge in new technologies to understand better the nature of social, economic, political, ethical and philosophical factors in their decision making.

This is not to deny the supreme importance of developing public understanding of science, but to acknowledge that there are many more dimensions to decision making. New technologies and their implementations encounter legitimate ethical opposition, alter employment opportunities and patterns, redistribute wealth, affect markets, have psychological effects, change political processes. For these reasons, the voices of experts other than natural scientists and of all citizens who have views, should be heard. Though we are told that ‘since 2000 the emphasis on public engagement has been on two-way dialogue’, there are no details in the document of how scientists and technologists might listen to other kinds of expertise, or to the public more generally.

Nor is there any suggestion that a new technology, though scientifically informed and viable, might not be adopted in the light of consultation. The aspiration to ‘two-way’ communication is simply not borne out. We are told ‘national policy consultations can be opportunities for mass public education about science and associated issues’. But education – though desirable – is not the same as consultation.

From the outset, the report makes assertions and begs questions. Its simplistic opening sentence ‘science improves the quality of daily life’ sets the tone. Few would disagree that technologies such as dentistry, lightening conductors, and vaccination have improved the quality of life. Yet in the case of other technologies, such as weapons of mass destruction, the opposite is true. The problem for policy makers is not such simple extreme cases, but those where there are substantial and rational arguments on both sides. The document does not however offer details of how such technologies are to be assessed. While understanding of the science is an essential and major contribution to such decisions, it is not and should not be the only voice. To make it so, is both detrimental to science itself, undermining its independence and neutrality, and to other legitimate voices which should have a much greater share in the debate.

Although the government asked for comments on the document, and set up online mechanisms for their submission, the website (http://interactive.dius.gov.uk/scienceandsociety/site/) now seems only to showcase those comments supporting its line.

What is needed is not a one-sided vision or a fake consultation, nor the use of a misrepresented science to browbeat those with legitimate arguments into submission. Government thinking itself needs to take a lesson from the natural sciences and aim for precision, clarity, assessment of evidence, and an open mind about what it will find out. On that basis, there could be a genuine consultation in which, while science is applauded for its advancement of knowledge, the implementation of that knowledge is subjected to thorough critical assessment and scrutiny.

Nothing is more important for the environment than policy on technology. In this bland ‘Vision,’ an opportunity has been missed. It is hopelessly partial – in both senses of the word. It demeans science, patronises society, and also bodes badly for the future of the environment.

Guy Cook is professor of language at the Open University and co-edits Applied Linguistics

This article first appeared in the Ecologist January 2009

 

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