Politicising science: necessary, not evil

warren-hartleyWarren Pearce & Sarah Hartley

Depoliticisation is a key trend identified in the political science literature in recent years, succinctly defined by Flinders and Wood as “the narrowing of the boundaries of democratic politics”. Henrik Bang identifies “big politics” as a root cause of depoliticisation, where ‘star quality’ politicians, academics and others dominate the public debate, squeezing out the less powerful and eroding the links between authority and the public. If citizens feel constrained by such parameters of politics, then perhaps it is unsurprising when they vote for radical options such as leaving the European Union or electing Donald Trump to the US presidency. So here, depoliticisation is a means of suppressing debate, only for it to erupt at a later point in the political process.

Conversely, depoliticisation in science governance would typically be viewed as a good thing. In popular discourse, the politicisation of science is shorthand for the manipulation of government scientific reports to better match political agendas. However, there are some areas in which science and technology *do* raise legitimate political issues which demand to be addressed for the good of both science and society. Failing to anticipate, or suppressing, the political aspects of science and technology amounts to a similar depoliticisation as that described by Henrik Bang, and carries similar dangers. For example, the destruction of Genetic Modification (GM) field testing sites by environmental groups was a radical act that followed a failure to properly address the broader, non-scientific, impacts of GM crops.

In our research, we identify a recent trend in research governance as a potential bulwark against the tide of depoliticisation. The emergence of ‘responsible research and innovation’ (RRI), first in the academic literature and latterly in research funding guidance, addresses the broader public value of science beyond economic growth. This emphasis on societal benefits brings an expectation that scientific researchers engage in dialogue about the substance and motivations of their research with stakeholders and the public and, crucially, are prepared to act and adapt in the light of such dialogue. For example, a recent geo-engineering research project was adapted to include space for reflection about the wider governance implications of the technology’s introduction. While this will not be appropriate for all research projects, researchers have a responsibility to try and anticipate when new scientific developments might have transformative effects on society. For example, the Sheffield Robotics research centre have stated that a key theme of their work is to ensure that the potentially far-reaching impacts of robots (both good and bad) “are properly anticipated and managed”; and leading scientists in the centre have contributed to debates on the impacts of robots on the future of work and care.

So what are the prospects for what one might call the ‘right’ kind of politicisation in science, in which the distribution of the costs and benefits from innovation are debated at an early stage by a range of actors?  Our research shows that some research funders, in particular the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), have established an approach to the problem. However, in the absence of guidance for scientists, the concept of RRI may be interpreted in ways that continue to suppress the political aspects of science. It is not just that there is a gap between RRI-in-theory and RRI-in-practice. Our research shows that it was hard for many scientists and university managers to even imagine what RRI-in-practice might look like, suggesting that the decaying links between authority and laypeople may be a problem in science as it is elsewhere in society. Science and innovation are fundamental to modern democracy, but with that power comes responsibility. Addressing the crisis in democracy needs to include science, and to ensure that the right kind of links between scientists and laypeople are in place, so that science can demonstrate its societal as well as economic value.

If you enjoyed this article you may also like to read Global evidence in local debates: the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in Swiss direct-democratic debates on school policy by Caroline Schlaufer.

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