Do New Zealand’s 21st century scientists need new tools for the job?

by Sir Peter Gluckman
New Zealand from space with stars above. Elements of this image furnished by NASA.

Those with an interest in the nexus of science, society and public policy may have taken note of a number of new developments over the last few months. In late July, the Government launched its ‘Science in Society’ strategy, A Nation of Curious Minds, as its response to the challenge put to it by the National Science Challenges peak panel. At the end of August in Auckland, the International Council for Science (ICSU) and my Office hosted the inaugural global conference on Science Advice to Governments.  Separately, the newly introduced model of Departmental Science Advisors has been strengthened recently with the announcement of science advisors in the ministries of Education, Conservation and Social Development.  Meanwhile, the Science Media Centre continues to expand and enhance its reach through innovative collaborations with academic and CRI partners, such as the recent workshop on science communication in times of crisis. These events and activities are all broadly underpinned by a recognition of the changing relationship between science and society.

A Nation of Curious Minds describes the initial articulation of a deliberately iterative strategy to enhance the relationship between science and the society it serves. Similar initiatives are underway or are emerging in a number of countries around the world.  These conversations are largely about enhancing education for 21st century skills and fostering a better public dialogue about what we want our science sector to do for us, through commercial application, better knowledge for decision-making, and outcomes in the public interest.

Arguably New Zealand is taking its strategy a step further than most. It acknowledges that a ‘science in society’ approach must not patronise or simply put the onus on members of the public to learn more and to shift their attitudes. Rather, it holds that the science community also bears responsibility to consider its own practices and approaches. Indeed, as Mark Quigley recently noted while calling for better science communication efforts: “there is an arrogant misconception on the part of the science community that the public can’t handle complex information.”

The initial strategy is built on three interrelated pillars of activities. These are: 1) working with the education sector to enhance the relevance and quality of science and technology education in the compulsory years; 2) providing more and better opportunities for New Zealand public(s) to learn about and engage with science; and 3) supporting the science sector to better engage with the public and the public sector. One integrating initiative across all of these is the proposed Participatory Science Platform, which has the goal of providing a means to encourage and enable science professionals to co-develop and co-produce research with schools and other community organisations. The reaction to the document has been largely positive, particularly from the education sector.

Arguably, the third pillar is the most innovative. It calls upon the science community itself to become more engaged with society in multiple ways, which I would think would be welcomed by most scientists. One activity that is proposed is that the Royal Society of New Zealand should independently lead a consultative review of its code of practice, specifically in relation to public engagement and the societal role of scientists. The intent is clearly aimed at promoting public engagement and it is for the Royal Society to define the review on its own terms. Indeed, the hope is that the exercise will result in guiding principles and training opportunities to foster and defend responsible, relevant and coherent sharing of expertise to multiple audiences and in multiple contexts. Such periodic review of codes of practice is both an awareness-raising opportunity for the community, but also a chance to ensure that they remain current and relevant to their social context.  This is especially timely given the rising global interest in these issues, the changing nature of the science/society relationship, and the unprecedented advances in science communication occurring since most codes were first developed. It is impossible to imagine how such an exercise in self-evaluation and reflection could result in a directive to ‘gag’ the sector as has been suggested in some recent media reports.

Science is not an accredited profession in the same way as medicine or engineering with governing bodies that oversee and enforce the professional practice standards of members. To be sure, university-based scientists operate under the protection of academic freedom and there are guidance instruments issued from international scientific bodies, academies and institutions the world over.  Such statements contain a good deal of universal and timeless principles, but we do a disservice to ourselves and to the public we ultimately serve if we do not periodically review such guidelines.

At present, within such codes there is generally little formal and structured guidance that relates directly to the multiple public roles that scientists are now expected to play – from providing expert commentary to the media or proactively sharing their knowledge through social media, to serving on formal advisory panels and preparing expert commissioned reports for the policy process. Some technical guidance exists – for instance from the IPCC – which has helped to strengthen responsible communication of science as it relates to communicating uncertainties in particular.  These are important technical tools, but they do not provide overarching guidance for public engagement. By contrast, the European Commission’s Science 2.0 consultation addresses some of the broader and contextual issues, though its main objective relates specifically to ‘open science’.  Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, there is an important conversation occurring through the Science in Transition initiative, which considers issues ranging from public trust in science and science communication to the greater democratisation of science.  Events such as Fukushima and L’Aquila also have led the International Council of Science (ICSU) and academies to reflect on the same issues and how to protect the integrity of, and trust in science. In New Zealand’s case, by the Royal Society of New Zealand consulting widely during its review, I hope that more scientists would choose to adopt agreed guidance for their own practice. Some of the approaches that have helped build trust between society at large and the science-based professions such as engineering and medicine may inform this dialogue.

All this is part of a global shift in the changing social contract between science and society. There are increasing pressures on scientists to demonstrate the relevancy of their work, just as there are increasing calls from civil society and governments to have a greater voice in research agenda-setting and practice. These are positive and overdue developments, which demand a deliberative and measured approach from scientists and the science system in general. Unfortunately, the training and established structures and practices of science rarely offer the tools and skills to meet these new demands.  Delegates at the recent Auckland conference on Science Advice to Governments were unequivocal that a business-as-usual model for carrying out science (including its communication) is simply not good enough anymore.

Scientists can and should serve multiple public roles. In doing so, it is important for them to be aware of their societal responsibilities, which include good communication (whether responsively or proactively but always honestly) of both the contribution and limits of their science as well as its relevant context.  Self-aware scientists will be more alert to context and bias: They will know when they may be stepping beyond what the data clearly indicate about the implications of a range of actions; they will recognise when their analysis or advice may be less about the evidence, and more about emphasising one course of action over another.  The latter is rightly the subject of broader societal debate that often reaches beyond scientific knowledge.  But the distinction can be extremely subtle and nearly invisible for anyone who is passionate about their work as, I would hope, most scientists are.

In today’s world of faster-paced knowledge production and co-production, the science sector needs skills that reach far beyond what has been the traditional basis of its training.

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