Reflections on the social license for science and technology

by Sir Peter Gluckman
Close up picture of bubbles formed from soap, with a green colouring

The term ‘social license’ with respect to the application of science and technology received prominence last week in the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s interim report on hydraulic fracking. Some writings on the position of science in society have used the related term ‘social contract’ as did Michael Gibbons in his classic paper in Nature to celebrate the new Millennium where wrote of the “social contract between science and society, an arrangement built on trust which sets out the expectations of the one held by the other” and pointed out the importance of strengthening the contract as we move into the 21st century.

The Commissioner’s report is a timely reminder that the position of science and technology is very different to what it was some decades ago. As I have noted in earlier blogs, the relationship between science and society has changed greatly. Where science in the past acquired a justifiably bad reputation for being patronising and distant from society, in recent years the science community has understood that it is not distinct from society, and indeed that society has a critical role in determining the impact of scientific findings.

Science has developed the capacity to undertake research that coincides intimately with societal concerns and values in areas ranging from reproductive biology and nanotechnology to ecological and social science. As a result, science has learned that it must engage proactively with the community if it is to be effectively used.

This lesson is even more acutely understood when we consider technology. Society is right to be concerned about many new technologies and there is a danger that if the dialogue between scientists, technologists and the community is not well conducted then misunderstandings will arrive. This can manifest itself as a muddle involving global restrictions on a particular technology itself and/or restrictions on particular uses. Given that virtually every technology has both advantages and disadvantages, it is important to understand this distinction as the Commissioner has quite rightly done.

As technologies ranging from synthetic biology to geo-engineering are presented as potential solutions to the various dilemmas and challenges facing society and indeed the world, it is inevitable that important debates will arise between those with biases different from those informed by science. Science alone cannot determine the balance that must be achieved between community uptake and restriction of any technology. Rather, society must and does make that determination through democratic processes.

Exactly how that dialogue proceeds and its outcome depends on many things, not the least the quality and nature of the conversation between scientists, technologists and the broader community. There must be a true engagement — and it should occur early and continuously so that science and societal engagement progress in parallel. There is a strong case for social scientists being engaged with the science community from the earliest stage of the development of any new technology. We have seen how varied different societies can be in their acceptance of many technologies — for example, the different western democracies have shown very different attitudes towards stem cell biology and genetically modified foods.

One of the fundamental reasons for this variation is the result of differences in societal values. However, another is based on how well the scientific community has engaged with society. A key issue here is public understanding of concepts of probability, risk and risk management. Scientific data are often variable or incomplete. As a result, advocates — be they lay or scientific — can often present data in ways that confuse rather than assist social engagement.

I will be releasing a discussion paper aimed at improving the interpretation of scientific data in such dialogues in a few days time. In general, I remain convinced that science should where possible be presented in a values-free way, providing society with unbiased information that can be incorporated into societal debate within a values framework. That is the role of the public scientist as knowledge broker. Scientists should not allow their values to bias their science. In my view, the community is best served by scientists in public positions such as myself acting as knowledge brokers.

Involved scientists generally think in terms of formal estimates of probability, whereas the broader population thinks in quite different terms. Perceptions of risk are based on emotional assessment and inherent biases. Political risk is something else again! Thus there are real dangers of people talking past each other when they think they need engage in a true dialogue. Equally, the community needs to acknowledge that they are best served by having access to knowledge that will inform their considerations. Developing social license is not easy, but it is critical if we are to gain the best from science and technology and use it to our national and global advantage.

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