On marching for science

by Sir Peter Gluckman
Out of focus aerial shot of a crowd of people walking in a city.

On April 22, 2017 scientists in many countries, including New Zealand, will ‘march for science’. This unprecedented initiative has been received with some considerable ambivalence. It has been prompted and promoted in the USA as an understandable response to the new administration making a number of policy moves that disparage science, inhibit government scientists and suggest a decreased commitment to public science. These concerns arose particularly because of actions related to environmental and climate science, hence the timing of the march, which will be held on ‘Earth Day’. But the planned march also exposes other issues that are not solely external to science. Indeed, it must also be seen as a prompt and opportunity for the science community to look closely at itself.

The concern and anger amongst many scientists at the new US administration’s apparent disregard for environmental science is understandable. So too is the desire of scientists to bring societal attention to the importance of the scientific endeavour to all aspects of human advancement and environmental stewardship. But in doing so the scientific community also risks being seen (by some) as no more than another lobby group, seeking attention and funding. Recent events suggest that the pursuit and application of new knowledge – particularly knowledge that may be threatening to predetermined views – is not necessarily a value shared by all.

In this context, the scientific community must itself consider why it might be being marginalised or ignored in some quarters.  Such self-reflection might lead us to discover what sociologists and, indeed, politicians have long known: there are different world-views that make it easy to disregard evidence as a result of pre-existing cognitive biases or in the name of polemic and other interests. Sometimes these are presented as ‘other ways of knowing and understanding’, but should not be equated with scientific understanding.

Adding to the confusion, traditional forms of scientific communication are losing ground. While there is now a welcome increase in access to (and sharing of) information online, it can be of very mixed reliability and quality.  Yet there seems to be a growing assumption that information per se is sufficient without need for expert analysis and interpretation. Arguably, this situation has helped to fuel the growing sense of a post-elite, post-expert world. It fosters cherry picking of findings to support predetermined biases, and the online echo chamber and filtration of ideas and information adds to their entrenchment.

Thus variously, the authority and validity of science can be undermined by a lack of attention by the science community to the changing context in which science operates. The social contract between science and society must be constantly renewed, recognising the evolution in both the nature of science and the society in which it is embedded.  In short, society has a stake in what science is done, how it is done and how it is applied.  Concepts of knowledge co-production, co-design and extended peer review flow from such recognition and the science community will need to engage more with these emerging concepts and practices.

These concepts are not always readily recognised or accepted by the science community, much of which has preoccupied itself with growing its enterprise in relative isolation, remaining comfortable in its own conviction that science provides the only rational basis for understanding the world around and within us. As a community, scientists have often assumed that singularly pushing more science is sufficient to reconcile differing world-views, rather than engaging in ways that might constructively shift the debate.  Science needs to look within itself to ensure that scientists are better equipped to interact with publics and with the policy community.  This will help to sustain its essential role in public decision-making and societal development, rather than leaving decision-making more open to bias and polemic.

Likewise, the policy community too, has an enormous responsibility. It must be prepared to engage with science even when this is uncomfortable, given pre-existing political and policy biases. There is not one domain of government decision-making where science, both natural and social, does not have an essential role. Science alone does not make policy, but more effective and sustainable policy will be made when the evidence-base is used to inform policy options. Science will at times deliver ‘inconvenient truths,’ but these should not be discounted under the guise of ‘uncertainty’ or ‘incomplete facts’. Scientific knowledge will always be incomplete, but this does not mean that it cannot provide sufficient evidence to help shape understandings.

In addition, many scientists operate within government ministries and agencies – often with unique access to data. Governments should promote the availability of such science and scientists to the public.  Government scientists in such positions have an important responsibility to act as knowledge-brokers rather than advocates.

Science is core to advances in every area of societal endeavour and to most aspects of public policy making. This places significant responsibilities on the science community in their relationship to society. By the same token, it also places the imperative on public decision-makers to ensure that science is made available to society in order to consider and that research-derived evidence is properly taken into account in policy development processes.  In the early 21st century, both sets of responsibilities are being challenged in unprecedented ways. This only makes addressing them that much more important.

The ‘March for Science’ is a good reminder not to take for granted the interactions between science, society and public policy, and that ignoring them or not investing in them can have significant consequences. But it also emphatically reminds the science community that it too must respect and engage with the ever-evolving contract between science and society. Marching may be seen as one way of engaging, but it cannot replace the harder work of making ourselves available, making our work relevant and making science difficult to ignore – not just on April 22.

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