The Jubileefication of science policy

An interesting meeting yesterday at King’s College, London, new home of the BIOS group.  We were talking about the place of social science in emerging areas such as Synthetic Biology. I was asked to discuss a paper by a friend and collaborator, Matt Kearnes. His focus was on the ‘banal nationalism’ of science policies, how this reinforces a linear model of innovation and how this in turn impacts upon the efforts of social scientists, scientists and others, to question the direction in which things like Synthetic Biology are seen to be heading. Matt described how simplistic models of innovation emphasise supply over demand. The answer is almost always to pump in more cash and try to free up any bottlenecks that are detected further down the pipe. Spin-outs and patents become the defining qualities of innovation. The demand for innovation, whether from industry, from government (via procurement) or in the form of human needs (so called ‘Grand Challenges’) is typically given only a cursory glance. Matt makes the point that new materials, whether nano, syn bio or Graphene, exacerbate this linearity. The imagined wonder-material is assumed to create its own demand.

I largely buy Matt’s argument. My only suggestion was to acknowledge a more recent phenomenon, that of austerity. When there is no money left in the kitty, this removes the main lever in government’s impoverished science policy toolbox. My suggestion was that a lack of money could lead to an even worse performance of national identity in science policy. I mentioned that, at a time at which the UK’s sources of economic growth look pretty meagre, one thing we can always rely upon is tourism. I proposed, therefore, that we might be witnessing the ‘jubileefication’ of science policy, in which the UK’s scientific strengths and heritage are trumpeted and paraded without consideration of their current relevance. And as for the role of social science… well, we know that jubilees aren’t hugely democratic affairs. Perhaps the social scientists are expected to organise the street parties and roll out the bunting.

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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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4 Responses to The Jubileefication of science policy

  1. Picking up on this ‘national identity’ fixation in science policy; I may be being hopelessly naïve and I may simply be unaware of the literature, but I’d like to ask what sort of a rhetoric and R&D funding system we would get if we asked what is needed for our economy to most effectively benefit from, as well as contribute to, global developments in research and innovation in a mutually equitable way. Would it look very different to what we have at the moment? In other words, what would we get if we viewed this activity not on the basis of some nationalistic and competitive ‘race to the top’, where the pressure is not to be beaten by someone else, but as a contribution to an essentially collaborative activity in which collective wealth (in the broadest sense) rises, and rises equitably across the world? The scientific process, international and collaborative as it is, though always with the strong edge of competition, might have something here to offer politics.

    Putting it another way, how do we ensure our R&D system is both focused on and optimised for assimilating new ideas from elsewhere, in balance with contributing new ideas of our own? Does this ‘national identity’ fixation cause us to neglect the first to concentrate on the second? Or is it not a problem anyway?

  2. Yes, very interesting Roland. Could one argue that the EC Framework programmes are trying to do that?

    Re this idea of catalysing a demand-led innovation strategy, I was thinking yesterday there are often many voices telling us what is not right, but, and this is a criticism of social science I think, I don’t see many constructively trying to understand and build one that is? What is the role of social science in this? Perhaps I too am being unfair and haven’t read the papers!

    Though in terms of science’s contribution to a fairer, more equitable world, isn’t this really what the more sophisticated end of the sustainable development/green growth/sustainable capitalism agenda is all about?

  3. Pingback: Science and Nationalism | Techno-Fables

  4. Pingback: Ideology in Science Policy Isn’t Always What You Think It Is « Pasco Phronesis

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