Can open. Worms everywhere.

I spent yesterday at the Royal Society of Edinburgh for a discussion involving three bodies: the RSE, its London sister (where I was until the Summer) and the ESRC genomics network. The aim was to get a social science angle on the (London) Royal Society’s study on Science as a Public Enterprise. We have presentations from Andy Stirling, Steve Yearley and Iain Gillespie. And as I had helped set up the study, I was asked to offer some thoughts on what this all meant for policy in this area. This is sort of what I said:

The often-heard criticism of social scientists is that they say ‘it’s complicated’. Decisions need to made by scientists and policy makers and social scientists tend to be better at defining problems than at providing solutions. But in this area, questions are more important than answers, especially if we think that we are in a period where, like in the 17th century, there is an opportunity to reshape the scientific enterprise.

We heard from Steve Yearley, in his exegesis of Steve Shapin and Simon Schaffer, that the scientific revolution of the 17th century involved a renegotiation of what is and isn’t appropriately public. Science was inherently public – its openness to challenge from all sides gave it public authority. But it was also closed in the sense of being undemocratic. The construction of this regime required a good deal of social work, most of which was undertaken within the scientific community. The norms of science, described (or prescribed depending on who you believe) by Robert Merton, were a product of such efforts. But we now see that one of these, the norm of organised scepticism, is becoming increasingly disorganised.

The Royal Society has taken on the job of trying to understand the new dimensions of openness for science, and the new questions that are being asked of it. This should be music to the ears of social scientists, but we have heard from Steve that scientists’ invoking of ‘the public’ and ‘public interest’ as acts of boundary work – clarifying what is and isn’t science, what is and isn’t legitimate – are themselves likely to provoke public suspicion.

So is science a public good? Well yes, but maybe not in a simple sense. Michel Callon asks this question and concludes that it didn’t really make sense. He uses the example of a gangster holding up a high energy physics laboratory. The knowledge that he is aiming to steal is clearly valuable, but it is not stealable for two reasons. First, it is already public, and second, it is unintelligible without a good deal of tacit knowledge that surrounds it. But science is a public good in the sense that it is a source of diversity, a source of new possibilities and options. This takes us to Andy Stirling ‘s presentation.

Andy described for us the politics of progress, the choices that we face for the future, but which we often deny ourselves. He demolishes the idea of a single public good, objectively describable, for which we can optimise our approach. Instead, we are faced with choices and constraints – commitments, lock-ins and path dependencies. To realise these, we must resist the temptation to reduce discussions of innovation to discussions of risk. And we must realise that public concerns might legitimately be about the processes and purposes of science in addition to its products – whether these are technologies, data, publications or whatever.

So the idea of science as a public good doesn’t get us anywhere useful. One way through this might be to emphasise the idea of a collective project. I like the phrase ‘public value’, which suggests first that science is valuable in all sorts of ways – economic, social etc – but also that we might work to enhance its value.

Let’s turn to the Royal Society’s study. I think it is clear from this mornings conversation that it would be a mistake to think that transparency and openness of scientific data will satisfy the critics. We know that the politics run deeper. And we know from the climate debate that this is a political discussion masquerading as science.

We have heard from Iain about the arguments for open, networked science. Most of these are presented in terms of efficiency. It is about speeding up science, realising economic and public benefits. We need to think hard about what improved sharing means, and not just sharing within conventional disciplines. We need to think about sharing between disciplines, between sectors, between cultures and languages and between generations through archiving and curation. What would it take to make the new scientific information shareable and is this a price we are willing to pay at the moment? There are other pragmatic questions – how to deal with recalcitrant publishers, funders, universities and most tellingly, scientists themselves, whose individual interests might run counter to public value. And there are questions of risk and ethics. Iain gave us the example of the publication of the genome of the 1918 Spanish Flu vaccine. There will be winners and losers from openness, and we need a hard-nosed political economic analysis of this.

But I think the big lesson has been that openness goes wider than pragmatics. Opening up scientific information will open up a set of political discussions, for which science needs to be prepared. I and I think most of the others in this discussion would argue that these urgently need to be had. These are the discussions about the trustworthiness and the governance of science. It is telling that, as scientific data grows exponentially, we still have extraordinarily little data about science – what is getting funded, by whom and to what ends? This would appear to be something that is clearly in the public interest, and relatively easy to resolve.

So perhaps the constructive role of constructivist social science is to reveal the size of the question. When we ask it, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that there won’t be opposition. Andy was gracious in suggesting that the motto of the Royal Society (nullius in verba: “don’t take anyone’s word for it”), which presupposes a particular, and rather outdated model of authority, was being downplayed in recent years. I would love that to be the case. But we know that conflicting ideas about expertise and authority can run alongside one another and only rarely recognise their tensions. There will be plenty of scientists who react against what they see as an attempt to undermine their expertise. They would dearly love to retreat to a model of authority in which the authority of science came from its detachment from society rather than from engaging with the society in which it is so deeply entangled.


About Jack Stilgoe

Jack Stilgoe is a senior lecturer in science policy at the department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London.
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2 Responses to Can open. Worms everywhere.

  1. Jack Stilgoe says:

    Thanks for that. I’ve made the change in the post.

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