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February 03, 2011

A knowledge economy needs Big Society science

Ministers aren't the only ones who have yet to grasp the need for a new contract between scientists and society. Tom Wakeford reveals the smoke-and-mirrors behind some recent research-council 'engagement' programmes, and says it’s time to debate some core values. 


Nine months into a Coalition government and it is still not clear when, if ever, the Big Society agenda will be brought into synergy with the knowledge economy. Their Minister for Civil Society, Nick Hurd, rejects the “monopoly of Whitehall” (and presumably Swindon), institutions, because wisdom is “distributed throughout society”. Nick Clegg proclaimed last June that the coming months would see the government “genuinely trying to engage people” by instigating “a level of public engagement in this that you've never seen in this country”.

But all the signs are that David Willetts is, like Lord Sainsbury before him, is setting his staff on an Emperor’s New Clothes course of assembling cheering public crowds for his latest technological projects, whether it be new areas of research, such as synthetic biology (synbio for short) or relaunches of unpopular old ones, like nuclear power.

If he had wanted to keep up the momentum begun by the previous government, Willetts’s own in-house advisers on public engagement in science and technology, Sciencewise, could have given him ample material. Yet his only substantive statement on the subject since the election has been to endorse a nationwide “public dialogue” on synbio, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and commissioned by a group of which I was a member.

The synbio public dialogue was hampered from the beginning because the heads of the two research councils had already agreed that these events about being accountable to the public would in fact best be held in private. The sessions took place in four locations around the country, but as mere market-research exercises that were closed to outsiders. After protests from the commissioning group, they allowed a few of us to observe some of their tightly-controlled focus groups, participants in which had been recruited on the basis of being paid for their time. Given that the focus groups convened before Craig Venter’s claim that he had invented the first synthetic life form hit the headlines, it is quite understandable that such people had no idea what synbio was when they arrived. I suspect they were little the wiser after the few minutes the process gave them to question what a handful of academics imagined it was. Despite this, they did appear to raise some important questions about the purpose of scientific research and its regulation.

The commissioning group also won a second concession from the research councils - the right of these participants to be supported by the organisers to present their complete findings directly to ministers. This commitment was scuppered last May when a synbio-enthusiast member of our commissioning group briefed the press – five weeks before the more nuanced research council press release – to the effect that the public participants had broadly supported synbio. Venter and his company’s shareholders must have been thrilled that the UK’s only attempt at public debate on the topic so far appeared to have given what had seemed an ethically problematic enterprise a green light.

Willetts did not wait to meet the members of the public involved, nor to receive the independent evaluator's report, which the BBSRC tells me is still – seven months later – only at a draft stage. Instead he proclaimed that the process provided evidence that “there is conditional public support for synthetic biology”. So much for the government’s support for peer-reviewed science. He went on to say that it showed how “understanding that fellow citizens have their worries and concerns… cannot just be dismissed”.

Richard Jones, a fellow member of the synbio public debate’s commissioning group, has suggested that Willetts’s statement indicates a ministerial view that the concerns of citizens “may well be legitimate and should be taken seriously”. But we heard politicians make similar statements about the views expressed during GM Nation, their public dialogue on genetic modification in 2003. The only problem was that the same ministers were already on record as being in support of GM, just as Coalition ministers and research councils stand full square behind synbio investments today.

When Willetts shut down the Food Standards Agency’s “citizens’ jury”, many had already commented that the exercise was merely an attempt by the FSA to use the cloak of public dialogue to assist the food industry in easing GM food back onto supermarket shelves. Rather than being true to the principles of the Big Society, this appears to be a case of Conservative realpolitik - giving the biotech industry free rein to take us back down the GM road without even the pretence of democratic deliberation.

David Cameron has hitched the economic recovery wagon to the science horse. Like Blair and Brown, he has been persuaded that funding academic scientists is key to economic recovery. Yet, somewhat panicked by 'climategate', the science and technology community is in danger of retreating to a pre-BSE era of methods of communication with non-scientists. The science-outreach programmes launched by many leading scientists seem to be driven by enlightened self-interest rather than the values of democratic accountability and respect for the expertise people have built up during their life experience. They must educate the masses in order to enhance their social acceptability and defend their funding. Even the word ‘outreach’ suggests latter-day evangelists clad in white coats, spreading the gospel of the infallible scientific method. But the public are increasingly not attending public talks or watching BBC documentaries, but instead inhabit the blogosphere, where they have a choice about whom they trust.

So many of our failed technologies have been caused, or made worse, by a narrow scientific perspective failing to draw on the wisdom of groups in wider society. The insights gained from society’s hidden experts – those who have gained expertise through their life experience – is vital to socially robust knowledge, as already shown in schemes such as the NHS’s expert patient programme and the Alzheimer Society’s Quality Research in Dementia Network. Social networking sites could make reliable knowledge easier to co-create with citizens, rather than threatening it. The annual RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch provides hard evidence of the benefits of crowd sourcing. Yet similar schemes are rare in research council-funded science projects. The value system they encourage – the solving of cutting-edge puzzles by the cleverest people in isolation from society is set against a more humanistic value system that credits everyday people’s experiential knowledge and aims to address what they perceive as their needs. But the two need not be in conflict, as the Connected Communities programme led by the Arts & Humanities Research Council shows.

If we are to not risk losing the support of those millions experiencing hardship under the cutbacks, while scientists are seen as escaping them, then both scientists and ministers need to rethink . Having an apparent supporter of citizen science like Paul Nurse arrive at a Royal Society already made more open to new approaches by his predecessor may help speed change. Nurse will need to question the knee-jerk scientism that pushed out a series of progressive figures, most notably, and brutally, Michael Reiss.

Nurse and others in the learned societies and the research councils have an historic opportunity. We could see a new values-led alliance with citizens, which respects them as being vital counter-weights to experts and who collectively safeguard their humility. Such a coalition would address urgent issues such as the economic recovery and climate change as a joint intellectual endeavour. One day ministers may even claim Big Society science was their intention all along.

Tom Wakeford will be among a panel discussing these issues, and others, as part of the "Whose Science?" event at the Science Museum on 9 February. Tickets are free.


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