Helga Nowotny: scientists are losing public trust by ‘overselling’ research

Author of new book The Cunning of Uncertainty fears pressure for scientific certainty is leading researchers to make promises they cannot deliver

November 7, 2015
Helga Nowotny
Helga Nowotny, former president of the European Research Council

Scientists have lost some public trust by “overselling” the potential impact of their work under pressure from policymakers and ordinary people to provide certainty about where research will lead, a leading thinker on science has warned.

Helga Nowotny is the former president of the European Research Council (ERC), a prolific writer on the practice of science, and author of a new book, The Cunning of Uncertainty.

It urges politicians to embrace long-term scientific inquiry with potentially huge, yet uncertain, results, rather than merely focusing on smaller, short-term and more controllable advances.

Asked for the book’s main message to policymakers, Professor Nowotny, who is professor emeritus in social studies of science at ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, told Times Higher Education that it is crucial “to foster better understanding in the general public that there is no absolute certainty”.

Politicians ask for scientific certainty because they perceive this is what the media and public demand, she said.

But such questions – for example, whether or not something is carcinogenic – are “something that nobody can answer” definitively, she argued, and can be spoken about only in terms of probabilities.

Asked whether scientists have lost public trust, Professor Nowotny agreed that they have, “in the sense where you make these oversold promises – ‘we will find a cure for whatever in the next couple of years’”.

This “overselling” is not due to deliberate deception, but because scientists have “internalised” the demands for certainty from research councils, who are in turn responding to the expectations of government and the public.

“In the end you lose trust because you cannot actually deliver,” she said. Instead of providing detailed timelines, scientists should say “we are working on that”, she advised.

Asked if such an approach may have pitfalls – such as those detailed in the 2010 book Merchants of Doubt, when vested interests sow the seeds of scientific doubt as a way of forestalling action on issues like the harm caused by cigarettes or, more recently, climate change – she responded: “You cannot deny climate change; it’s happening. The scientific evidence is overwhelming.”

But she pointed out that modelling future changes to the climate is fraught with uncertainty, with climate forecasting broadly as accurate as weather forecasting was 100 years ago – although none of this should be used as an excuse for inaction.

Professor Nowotny also voiced concerns that the current peer review system is “bursting at its seams” because of overstretched reviewers.

Drawing on her experience as president of the ERC from 2010 to 2013, she added that “there is a problem there, as people are overburdened. What’s in it for them [reviewers] is not that much”, although she stressed that sitting on ERC panels was still popular.

She stopped short of calling for a wholesale overhaul of the present peer review system. “It’s like with democracy; we have no better system,” she said. “It’s the least worst system.”

But Professor Nowotny urged scientists to try other methods, such as alternative metrics to measure research impact, open access and post-publication peer review. “The solution is not obvious…I think it’s good that we experiment,” she said. 

david.matthews@tesglobal.com

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