Making science public: challenges and opportunities

Over the last 20 years in the UK a series of political crises have challenged the authority of science (MMR vaccine), the integrity of research (“Climategate”), the extent to which political decisions are ‘evidence based’ (BSE), the governance of controversial new technologies (GM crops), and the status of expert advice in policymaking (drug policy – “Nuttgate”). This has contributed to a widely held perception of a lack of public trust in science, decline in the capacity of science to underpin political legitimacy, and tensions in the relationship between government and science.

In principle, a solution to these problems is to make the practice, use and assessment of science as it relates to policy-making and forms of political participation more public, open, transparent and democratic. However, this poses major challenges to both science and politics, as highlighted by the political predicaments of food security and agricultural sustainability, energy and environmental security, the management of health and social care, and the regulation of research and technologies in these domains.

This raises a series of important questions:

  • What is meant by making science more public, open or transparent? Who are ‘the public’ and how are they constituted?
  • What might ‘public science’ mean for the authority and independence of science and the capacity of publics to engage with science?
  • What are the political implications of making science more public and how does this relate to issues of legitimacy and transparency in politics and policy making?
  • How will such changes help address the problems outlined above? 

Efforts to make science more public are visible in many places, including government initiatives aimed at increasing transparency in scientific advice for policymaking, promoting greater scientific literacy, building public trust in science, and engaging the public on the implications of new research. In addition, there has been increased media interest in science, whilst the use of internet-based social media have created new spaces of ‘scientific citizenship’ in which different groups promote or contest scientific knowledge and its use. Within the practice of science itself there are moves to promote much greater openness. However, such opportunities for science to be more public are counterbalanced by the rise of science/industry partnerships and the privatisation of knowledge, the proliferation of expertise and the politicisation of science, and the challenges of meaningful public engagement.

This Research Programme will involve a multidisciplinary collaboration between scholars in anthropology, sociology, social policy, politics, linguistics, geography, bioethics, as well as a ranger of biological and physical sciences. It will also engage with policymakers, media, and the broader scientific community.

The research will be based on nine case studies and four linked PhD studentships, grouped under three topic headings: 1) Food, agriculture & animals; 2) Energy and environment and 3) Health & social policy. Together they will enable comparison across a range of different natural and social sciences and a broad spread of areas that are politically and scientifically important. Findings will be used to draw out the implications of making science public for both the theory and practice of democracy and the Programme aims to make a major contribution to scholarship and public debate in this important area.

Professor Paul Martin
University of Nottingham

The University of Nottingham was awarded a Research Programme Grant in June 2011; providing £1,656,329 over 60 months.