The only thing that really matters – a preview of The Grandest Challenge

A present from whichever incarnation of Father Christmas looks after review copies. A copy of The Grandest Challenge by Peter Singer and Adballah Daar – two Canadian medics and policy thinkers (by the way, terrible blurb on that web site). Just in case I don’t get round to writing a proper review, some first thoughts…

Daar and Singer’s target is the massive and growing divergence between the world’s problems and the science that we do. We know all too well what medicines and agricultural technologies people in developing countries need, and yet our systems of innovation remain skewed towards rich country illnesses and rich country agriculture. For policy wonks, this is only to be expected, given the resources at play, but science systematically kids itself that it is better than this. Claims are constantly made for the power of new technologies to help the poorest people, cure their diseases and feed the world. CP Snow, in a less well-remembered part of the Two Cultures thesis, was so entranced by this narrative that he predicted, of global poverty, that “whatever else in the world we know survives to the year 2000, that won’t.” He assumed, like a lot of people following World War 2, that the power of science was so great that it could close the gap between rich and poor.

I agree wholeheartedly with Singer and Daar that this is our grandest challenge. The Big Question of science policy is how to focus scientific attention of real human needs. It is not hard to get consensus between scientists, policymakers and NGOs on this point. But the scientific community can be infuriatingly unreflexive about how we might do this. Senior scientists may point to the Green Revolution – which, even if you acknowledge its rather pernicious side effects, had massive benefits for developing countries in the second half of the 20th Century – and tell a story about the personal ingenuity of Normal Borlaug. They are less likely to talk about the institutions and policy initiatives that turned science into globally-important innovation.

UK and EU science policy institutions, keen to tell a good story about their IMPACT ™, talk a good game. They come up with lists of Grand Challenges and try to break up funding siloes. But there is very little consideration of what it would take to retune science such that it, first, improved its understandings of these problems and, second, targeted them. The voice of Michael Polanyi, arguing that “you can kill or mutilate the advance of science, [but] you cannot shape it”, echoes through science policy, interrupting any questions that seem too disruptive. There is no shortage of thinking, especially at places like the STEPS centre in Sussex, and plenty of activity from which to learn, involving groups like Practical Action. But as the recent UK policy documents reveal, there is a massive hole where policy action should be. I remain optimistic that scientists themselves can lead the necessary changes, which is why I wrote a thing about Citizen Scientists a few years ago, but they will need support in doing so.

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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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One Response to The only thing that really matters – a preview of The Grandest Challenge

  1. Nice post Jack, but also think it is not really just about scientists, though Citizen Scientists concept is fascinating. I know you are fully aware of this, but for me it is the whole joined up thing with government, science, business and society together around a clear vision which is missing. I still find there is too much of a gap between science as it is funded in the Universities and businesses doing science through the TSB or in their own labs or JVs, or places like Practical Action. Which though excellent is quite small scale.

    There is a parallel discussion going on in the corporate responsibility communities about how to inspire, motivate and compel businesses to focus on a clear social purpose and funders to be more innovative about making this happen. These two discussions rarely meet. In addition I think the UK could take a bigger part in the international debates about solutions to big problems which I understand we do not do as much as we could.

    I hope there is some way of connecting these which will bring together a better vision of how science in whatever form it takes can be focused on social challenges and more innovative integrated funding streams can make it happen.

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