Open up about scientific bias

July 12, 2002

Learned societies giving 'independent' advice have to acknowledge their prejudices, says Geoffrey Hammond

The House of Commons science and technology committee's inquiry into the government-funded activities of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering has been covered in the media, but an important aspect has been ignored: the role of learned societies in providing "independent" and "expert" science and technology policy advice to government.

Scientific discovery is an important part of the process leading to new technologies that may aid sustainable development. However, this does not necessarily imply a linear process of better scientific knowledge leading to new technological discoveries. James Watt's steam engine, for example, was largely a heuristic development that preceded our understanding of what we now know as the laws of thermodynamics.

Energy sources of various kinds power human development but also put at risk the quality and long-term viability of the biosphere as a result of many unwanted effects.

It may be possible for the Royal Society to examine issues at the fundamental end of the science/technology spectrum in an objective and rational manner. Pure mathematics is a good example. This end of the spectrum has often been criticised as amounting to reductionism: scientists viewing nature and the physical world in terms of ever smaller chunks.

Other modern sciences, such as astronomy, adopt a holistic or systems approach. Engineers are more accustomed to employing a systems approach, although this tends to focus on products or processes themselves rather than on the wider social dimension in which they will be utilised.

But fellows of our scientific learned societies are influenced (like all scientists and engineers) by beliefs and values that are sometimes called the scientific world view. This implies that they will favour technologies that are perceived as advanced, while the potential drawbacks such as their environmental, health and safety, and social impacts will tend to be downplayed.

The national academies open themselves to technical and societal challenge when they collectively advocate the adoption of particular technological options.

The government prides itself on the independence of its scientific advisory system. However, this independence will not necessarily be achieved simply by incorporating expert nominees from the national academies. It is critically important that a cross-section of opinion be included in any study to ensure effective balance.

Both the methods and values of scientists and engineers need to be legitimised in the eyes of the wider community. Although it is desirable to involve experts in the consideration of many of the major concerns of the day, such as climate change, they should represent only one set of inputs from among all the relevant stakeholders.

If the scientific learned societies are to continue to engage in public affairs, it would be desirable to introduce a number of safeguards to protect governments and the public from being misled. These should include an acknowledgement of the academies' inherent technological bias, the adoption of good practice in the formation and execution of studies, monitoring of compliance with these practices, and assessing the independence of the findings by a wider range of external stakeholders.

An independent monitoring group embracing a range of disciplines and stakeholders could be established to carry out these tasks for government. Its primary purpose would be to identify the implicit bias in the membership, terms of reference and findings emanating from the national academies' policy advice. It could also review compliance with good practice in conducting such studies.

The learned societies themselves could do much to encourage stakeholder dialogue, but they first need to break free of their fixation with "advanced" technologies. Some of their recent studies suggest that they have quite a long way to go.

Geoffrey Hammond is professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Bath.

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