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Sunday, 6 October 2013

Digital Science, Responsible Research, Bees and Neonicotinoids

Often in my writings I have referred to the need to reinvent science, engineering and technology. Digital Science is a small step towards achieving this and is part of a European Commission initiative towards Responsible Research and Innovation.

The term Digital Science was proposed by the European Commission’s Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) research programme. Digital Science is one of the research topics that will be addressed in the new Framework Programme for research (Horizon 2020) that begins in 2014.

The European Commission’s concept paper defining the issues of relevance to Digital Science notes that the focus is on using ICT for two key reasons: (i) to improve the efficiency of scientific research; (ii) to transform science. The latter point is crucial and in many respects far more important than the first.

Already ICT is much used in research, be it scientific, technological or engineering research, but while ICT provides modern researchers with many powerful tools, it has not fundamentally changed to nature of science – and science does need to change for it is trapped in the past and needs to move forward. The same can also be said for technology development and engineering as well.

People working in various scientific fields usually publish their results in scientific journals, but the content of these journals are only accessible to those who pay subscriptions to the publisher, yet much of that which is published results from research that is wholly or partly funded from the public purse. So, you, most probably a taxpayer, having indirectly paid for this research, have to pay again if you want gain access to the results. One of the thrusts underlying Digital Science is to change the scientific publication process to open access, so that all can gain access to the results of research, without having to pay!

But there is more, for science also makes use of much data, which is collected through experiments, observations, and so forth. Yet much of this data is not openly available to others. If anyone wants to use the data they have to ask, and the answer could be: “no you can’t have it.” Why? Actually, usually for no good reasons at all, other than someone has decided to restrict access. Many scientists you should understand, are very elitist and also not interested in openness and sharing, except perhaps when there is something to be achieved in return that will advance their own research careers (they are human!). Digital science is therefore also about providing open access to data.

Open access however is not the sum total of what Digital Science is about. There is also the matter of what is called public engagement in science. Here you perhaps think that I am referring to scientists telling the public in simple terms what they have discovered. Better think again!

It is important of course that the results of research are communicated to the public, but scientists are usually not very good at doing this, and also there is a danger that such communication becoming propaganda, hubris, and an exercise in experts explaining to the poor non-expert why they should just accept the science (science after all is self-evidently always good – I think not!).

What public engagement should be about is a process for accountability, modernising the ethical basis of science, ensuring responsibility in research, and democratising research policy development. And this should involve informed members of the public in decisions about what research to fund and what not to fund with public money – an issue of growing importance given the potentially damaging impacts of some types of scientific research, the questionable underlying ethics of modern science, and the hubris associated with science.

So what of bees and neonicotinoids? Here is a case study that demonstrates the importance of what I have just described above, of allowing open access to research results and data, and of enabling public involvement, not just through their elected representatives, but also through a process of participatory democracy. But there is more, for the case of bees and neonicotinoids also demonstrates the need to make public the links that scientists and their employing institutions have with vested interests such as, in this case, agri-chemical companies.

It used to be the case that one could talk about industry scientists in the sense that these were the ones working in industry, but this is no longer the case, for the bulk of scientists in the public sector are also deeply involved with industry, through their employing institutions – and this does very much influence what they say and believe (it creates conflicts of interest which are rarely declared). This I have seen for myself, many times, and it is an aspect to modern science that the public need to be aware of, as do politicians and those who assist them, such as parliamentary research officers. And the nature of science itself also needs to be better understood by the public, for the image of the rational person, free of bias and values, engaging only with facts, evidence and that which can be proven by experiment, is just an idealised self-image that is far from the reality of what science actually is. About this I will say more in future blogs.

For those who have to deal with policy issues surrounding bees and neonicotinoids, and the associated issues such as banning their use, Digital Science would have been a very helpful tool to have available. This is one reason why we need to support the development of Digital Science, ensure that it is not developed by experts for experts, and to develop the concept further so that it truly becomes a transformational tool.

And this latter point is one of the key reasons why we need Digital Science – to change science itself, not just to be rid of its elitist mind-set, but to develop a wider understanding that science is not neutral, and that the bad side does not just come from abuse, but that science and scientists, by their very nature, are potentially very dangerous. And the profound point I wish to make here is that, what we have experienced in the past with science cannot continue, and we need to move science forward by developing a new scientific process – this is a key aspect of building a sustainable civilisation. But this will not be easy, for those unbreakable chains that bind people to the rock of the past will have to be broken (this is that Prometheus Syndrome once again) to allow people to invent a different kind of science.

So it may also be the case that Digital Science might prove to be quite challenging for DG CONNECT, the Directorate General responsible for the ICT research programme, for the bulk of the experts that it relies upon for external expertise are part of the problem – they too are caught up in this outdated scientific paradigm, and what we know about people’s behaviour is that when paradigms are challenged, the first reaction is always to fight to defend that which exists and to preserve the existing order, sometimes quite vocally, but most often in a more insidious way, because their values and beliefs shape the concepts and the technology, and in the end the future just becomes a more technologically sophisticated version of the past – Prometheus chained to the rock of the past.

In my book A Tale of Two Deserts, I mention that modern science is like a bag of bones dressed up with a little good meat (another reference to Prometheus).  Science, you should understand, on the one hand helps us, while at the same time, destroys us; we have not yet acquired the knowledge, the sophistication, the wisdom to achieve the former without the latter. The time we have left to do so grows short!

And so it goes with technology and engineering too!

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