Almost half a century ago, hundreds of eminent scientists, engineers and philosophers met at the Royal Society to form the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science.
Appalled by university research on chemical and biological weapons, they wanted to make scientists aware of their impact on society. The group, whose initial supporters in 1969 included the molecular biologist Francis Crick and the philosopher Bertrand Russell, spawned an array of campaigns on issues including the firing of CS gas by the British Army in Northern Ireland, the use of university computers to plan bombing runs in Vietnam and even the still active Radical Statistics Group that opposed the political “misuse” of data.
The BSSRS fizzled out in the 1990s, but a successor of sorts may have recently emerged. Earlier this month, the first public meeting of the Progressive Science Institute took place, albeit in slightly more modest circumstances: seven people attended its first get-together at the Coach and Horses pub in Soho.
Three PhD students from Imperial College London decided to form the institute earlier this year after hearing about the work of the BSSRS. Like the BSSRS, the institute campaigns for scientists to acknowledge that, despite their hopes to be “objective” observers of phenomena, their work is always tied to politics and society, and often serves those who fund research.
According to one of the founders, Drew Pearce, science “already has a political role, it just doesn’t acknowledge it”.
One example of this is when scientists ask whether fracking is “safe”, said Mr Pearce. The question posed is whether it can cause earthquakes or poison groundwater, but not the broader issue of whether it is safe to release yet more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. “The questions you ask frame the answers you get,” he said. “There’s a risk of that fuelling a distrust in science.”
Concern about scientists’ biases means that the institute is campaigning for more diversity in science. For example, having a predominance of men in scientific positions can lead to researchers actively looking for gender differences when in fact individual variations are more important, Mr Pearce argued.
Beth Rice, another founder, asked: “What is the result of having a mix in science that doesn’t represent reality? If you reflect on what your biases are, then you’re more likely to have a balanced perspective.”
Is this a “check your privilege” approach for scientists? Mr Pearce acknowledged that this popular phrase on social media – that those giving their views should reflect on how their background might have led to social advantages – can be alienating to those who interpret it as meaning “I can’t say anything on an issue”.
But he countered that “by checking your privilege, all you’re asking people to do is say ‘hang on a minute, are there any reasons why I might be unfairly dismissing another perspective because of my background’. It’s actually helping the thought process. It’s saying, ‘I’m not a computer.’”
There is a feeling among scientists “that they are unbiased” and do not need to question their assumptions because they believe that they are dispassionate “machines”, he warned.
“We’re not [representing] a postmodernist, ‘there is no truth’ [point of view], but truth is something you get to iteratively...and only via that criticism and internal reflection…about what your assumptions are,” he added.