Solid grounding: the humanities roots that support our STEMs

Donald L. Drakeman on science's need to look to less measurable but possibly more meaningful disciplines for insights and guidance

May 20, 2010

Stem cells and "STEM sells" are nearly synonymous these days. Both stand for the belief that our future health and wealth will emerge from high-tech research. No wonder the humanities and social sciences are struggling to measure up to the high-impact fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

As one whose career has been spent finding promising technologies, launching spin-off companies and developing new medicines, I want to speak up for the humanities and social sciences. Not for lack of faith in high-tech's future, but in order to focus on how closely the arts are intertwined with the sciences in realising those benefits.

The value of the STEM fields is highlighted in the Royal Society's recent report, The Scientific Century: Serving Our Future Prosperity. The subtitle is telling - but there is a hidden variable in the prosperity equation, especially in the life sciences.

Is your life worth living? How you answer this question depends on whether you need an expensive medicine. You can say "no" on your own. But if you think the answer is "yes", you and the government need to agree. New medicines must be deemed cost-effective for NHS use. And so, in biomedical research - one of the UK's greatest STEM strengths - job growth may depend on whether the NHS-driven market rewards companies for innovation.

For example, scientists in Cambridge won a Nobel prize for discovering how to make monoclonal antibodies, a technology that has spawned nearly two dozen new treatments. Whether NHS patients receive them depends on the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), which advises on how to parcel out healthcare resources.

How much does NICE think your life is worth? The answer is (usually) less than £30,000 for a "quality-adjusted life year". Some of the high-tech monoclonal medicines fail to qualify.

Whether that decision is right or wrong is less important (unless you have cancer) than acknowledging that limiting access to medicines inevitably contains both moral and medical judgements. NICE admits that the "mismatch between demands and resources in healthcare leads to the problem of 'distributive justice'". Yet because no consensus has emerged about how to make such judgements, NICE has chosen transparency instead. Its stated goal is "procedural justice". If its reasoning is explicit, there is no need to attempt to delve into the deeper moral issues.

Deciding whether this justice-as-clearness is the answer to how STEM's tools should be allocated requires deep thinking, and when the answers are both transparent and unpopular, Parliament will have to decide what society requires.

Where do policymakers get their ideas about questions of justice and individual rights?

I actually know the answer to that question (at least in the American setting - and I suspect the UK is the same). I've studied where Supreme Court justices look for insights into fundamental rights. They frequently turn to historians, philosophers, sociologists and other non-STEM academics. The justices' published opinions often paint over these contributions with a coat of jurisprudential jargon, but their private papers disclose the remarkable level of influence of academic publications on those who decide on the rights of citizens.

One landmark case contained a long paragraph about religious liberties that defined American constitutional law for decades. It had been lifted, nearly verbatim and without attribution, from a history professor's book.

Another influential case relied on a sociologist's work that was quoted in a legal commentary. The remainder of the court's opinion rested on an insight from a historian, who got a thank-you note but no footnote. And in a case involving medical procedures, the court discussed classical history alongside cellular biology.

These cases show the deep and enduring, but often invisible, impact of the humanities and social sciences on how society determines the demands of justice. The specific effects are impossible to quantify, but when rights and duties are being sorted out, they end up counting for a great deal.

STEM will keep selling only if policymakers guided by the humanities and social sciences keep buying. To ensure that STEM's capabilities will deliver what society expects, it is equally important to invest in the less measurable but possibly more meaningful humanities and social sciences. Of course, those disciplines could be outsourced to lower-cost labour markets, but so can the STEM fields. It all depends on what kinds of quality adjustments we want in our remaining life years.

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