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Sunday, 23 February 2014

See-through Science

See-through Science is the title of the report that deals with public engagement in science. It was produced by a Think Tank called DEMOS and the report is not about public understanding of science, or even public engagement with the outcomes of scientific research, but with what is termed upstream engagement. This means involving the public in decisions about the public funding of research, so the involvement is with research policy, research strategy, and decisions to fund specific topics. It is also a process of democratising these activities and making the scientific community accountable. Upstream engagement deals with matters of what, why and how, and seeks to bring into the open exactly that which the scientific community on the whole keeps hidden – more about this later.

Although the focus of the report is on science, the same thinking can also be applied to technology development and engineering, so one can also talk about See-through Technology and See-through Engineering. As with science, there are matters that the technology and engineering communities would prefer the public not to know about.

The report is excellent and represents a major contribution to the development of a new approach to the governance of science, engineering and technology development activities, and this advanced thinking is a key component of what is now called Responsible Research and Innovation. However, I have yet to find an example where upstream public engagement has been adopted. I also strongly suspect that the present UK Government is not seriously interested in this type of public engagement, given its track record in pushing ahead with nuclear power and fracking, and the clear intention also to do the same with GM, all of which are just the thin edge of the wedge, so to speak, as there are many more controversial matters in the pipe-line that have yet to achieve public attention, such as, the underground burning of coal for electricity generation, which, if left to the those often involved (experts and so-called independent societies and institutions), will lead to the outcome that the vested interests want – go ahead because the risks can be managed.

In the See-through Science report you will learn about what is called the deficit mind-set, which is something I encounter very regularly. The deficit model, which sits inside the heads of many in the science, engineering and technology communities, explains public concerns and rejection of, whatever it is that these people want to impose on society, as a lack of public understanding. If only the poor ignorant public understood x, y or z, and how marvellous they are, then they would embrace these things wholeheartedly.  I have seen this for myself many times and it usually comes with a good dose of arrogance and hubris, coupled with contempt for public opinion.

The report also discusses the disappearance of the distinction between industry science and public sector science. As a result of this, it is no more possible to assume that those in the public sector are not under the influence of large corporations and their particular agendas. Again this is something that I have observed first-hand, and it is highly disturbing to see academics speaking on behalf of their big corporate sponsors, as though they were still independent people with, as they say, no particular axe to grind. There is you see, in modern science, a very low sensitivity to everyday ethical issues such as declaring conflicts of interest. Money speaks louder than conscience.

The report mentions that there has been a move in some cases away from deficit model thinking, and the notion of public education in science (which is something that the BBC primarily addresses in its programmes such as Horizon and Science Club), to engagement to discuss the use of new science, new technology. But the report notes that this is not always meaningful, being more an exercise in ticking the box of public consultation. It also suffers from the flaw that once some new science or technology has been developed, a pressure builds to apply it. Also noted in the report is the importance of setting the right brief for public engagement, for it is all too easy for governments to set this in a way that leads to the closure of the issue, and also the outcome that those who want to deploy the results of the research are looking for – the green light to go ahead.

I am sorry to say that what is written above is very true, and that governments and those that represent the interests of science and engineering, do actually manipulate these consultations and engagements, to deliver the result that they all want. And the result they are looking for is invariably to plough ahead.

And what you will find in the See-through Science report are all the reasons why you should not trust scientists, engineers. Many of these people hide behind a deception of independence, and suffer from the delusion that they are unbiased and are only concerned with rational evidence based thinking. They do not want you to see what is really driving forward science, engineering and technology – often they cannot see these things themselves foe they are the invisible chains that bind them to the rock of the past.

And what it is that they do not want the public to see, are values, beliefs, assumptions, visions, self-interests, vested interests, and the like, which drive scientific, engineering and technology development in what are now very familiar directions, which inevitably involves someone making a lot of money at the price of most things that matter most. But risks, they say, can be managed. Yet the evident is growing that the risks cannot be managed, as nuclear energy clearly demonstrates. But these fools persist in thinking that we can still use nuclear as an energy source. They have indeed lost contact with reality.

So as the report says, the task of upstream public engagement is to make visible the invisible, to expose to public scrutiny the assumptions, values and visions that drive science, and to also expose something else, that often the people advocating a particular science or new technology, do not know what they do not know. That also is something I see very regularly.

The report also highlights how most often discussions about new science and new technology are framed by those who set the terms of reference, around matters of risk, which invariably leads to the usual conclusion that the risks can be managed, even though evidence (that sacred word) for this is, at best, flimsy. What however concerns the public, are consequences, which are rarely discussed. And consequences come in two forms: those that can be anticipated and those that cannot. Rachel Carson, in her thought leading book, Silent Spring, explained much about these matters, and that was back in early 1960. Here we are in 2014 and the lunatic asylum that is the world of modern science, engineering and technology have yet to catch-up with Rachel’ thinking about unforeseen consequences. As I have said many times, these people have become like Prometheus.

And this brings me back to my forthcoming novel, Moments in Time. The central character is one of those the risks can be managed types, and only after he has destroyed everything of value in his world, does he realise that the risks cannot be managed, and what he needs to do to stop being like Prometheus.

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