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.