Social scientists call for a revision of 'flawed' government consultation

Leading academics raise concerns over 'science and society' document, writes Zoe Corbyn

October 16, 2008

A group of leading social scientists say they cannot respond to the Government's consultation on the relationship between science and society because the vision it presents is so badly flawed.

More than 30 academics have signed an open letter saying that they are "deeply concerned" about the direction of government thinking in its "science and society" consultation. They are calling for a "radical revision".

The consultation on developing a new science and society strategy for the UK, which the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills opened in July, closes this week.

In the letter, shown to Times Higher Education, the academics say the consultation presents a vision that "emphasises uncritical excitement rather than critical engagement" and "assumes that all science is automatically a public good".

"(It) does not represent an adequate or meaningful starting point for a consultation on a future science and society strategy," they argue. It is impossible to make constructive proposals for amendments "when the document as a whole starts from false understandings and assumptions", they say.

They also say the vision "ignores" much of the work academics have done in the past decade to enhance the democratic governance of science and technology and "pays little attention" to policy debates and developments in the recent past that emphasise the importance of opening science policy to public scrutiny, including consulting the public before proceeding with research.

The letter is drafted by eight high-profile social scientists including Brian Wynne, associate director of the Centre for Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics at Lancaster University, and Sheila Jasanoff, professor of science and technology studies at Harvard University.

Professor Wynne told Times Higher Education that his "biggest disappointment" was that the document did not reflect any of the progress made around public engagement over the past ten years. "It feels like we are starting from the mid-1990s ... it is still reproducing the same old idea that the public needs educating in order to make sure that it takes the right attitude towards science. (But often) it is not that they are misunderstanding or ignoring the facts but that there are hidden politics that people may be objecting to for good reasons."

Matthew Kearnes of Durham University said social-science researchers wanted to be as constructive as possible and were offering to work with DIUS to draft a new vision. He also pointed to the "quite substantial distance" between the consultation document and the vision that John Denham, the Universities Secretary, had articulated at a speech in January where he called for a "more mature agenda".

Lord Drayson, the Science Minister, said the aim of the exercise was to have a debate and he was open to views. "Should we be questioning science? Should we be exciting people about science? or should we do both? ... This is a consultation ... the whole point (of it) is to get views - either negative or positive."

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