Progress: Science of – or science in – society?

Which comes first? The interests of science or those of society, asks Stephen Rainey.

There is an ongoing push for scientific progress in society, in Europe and more globally. ‘Progress’ is thought of as an inevitable, linear and aggregative process based only in the serendipitous methods of scientific rigour. However, not least since the BSE, GMO and present Nanotech debates, there is mounting pressure that human, social interests be factored into scientific research. (The European Commission’s Framework Programme is the largest funding mechanism in the world for research, click here to see its programme.)

There are two other less well known words related to serendipity. Zemblanity is an antonym (the unfortunate discovery of unfortunate things) and Bahramdipity (the intentional suppression, by powerful interests, of discoveries.) Zemblanity was coined by Scottish novelist William Boyd and Bahramdipity is from Toby Sommer.

We can look at the science and society situation with these three terms. The ideal of scientific research is like that from the scientific revolution, where scientists were thought of as unveiling nature’s secret workings. It implies a confidence in humanity’s power to overcome natural limits. This is where serendipity plays a role, because the neutral, enquiring mind comes across things in nature, makes derivations of other things, makes hypotheses et cetera and progress comes naturally (‘progress’ is an important term… more later).

Zemblanity, though, is the flipside to this. Think of Marie Curie, whose discoveries ultimately killed her through long-term exposure to radiation. This would be an illustration of the point that there is inherent risk in relying on serendipity, so, perhaps paradoxically, the attempt to manage it must be made.

Part of this realisation of inherent risk is that the neutral perspective of the enquirer isn’t actually that neutral. The enquirer always follows a rationale and bases it in their interests. If we fast-forward from the scientific revolution a few hundred years and look at more recent scenarios, we see scientific research funded by national and supernational bodies, as well as industries. They all deal with risk as a matter of course, but because national and supernational bodies are linked to politics, they also have to deal with values and norms as assumed by their respective people (if we have democratic bodies.)

Industry is similarly constrained as they are linked to the market, and so they are linked to people’s desires and aspirations etc. (so, their values and behavioural norms at least.) In each of these contexts, politics and the market, even ‘risk’ is a matter up for debate and to be defined according to values, norms and so on.

Given this, the role of Bahramdipity has to be considered: there is a kernal of scientific research (of any research) that is somehow ‘primary’ and it’s important that such research and its related fields aren’t curtailed just by powerful interests. (It’s perhaps a failure of academia to have allowed market interests to have so saturate this primary research domain.) But it goes both ways. Research can’t assume to suppress or erase value and norm from its considerations to just the same extent that it shouldn’t expect to be curtailed arbitrarily. Bahramdipity is a risk from the perspective of science and from that of society.

The trick is to find a means of including the interests, values and norms of science and of society in each others’ perspectives. The means of doing this is thought to be inclusive governance. This isn’t regulation, but a space, or a means, or some manner of mediating between the social and the scientific interests such that each can communicate to the other their values. It’s a bargaining scenario.

It’s not meant to be the case that members of society dictate to a researcher when they should stop analysing, say, the atom. We don’t expect a random person on the street to be somehow there to tell Rutherford that his atomic model is good enough so that’s the end of atomic physics, or to tell Einstein that Newtonian mechanics is fine, so he should pack his bags and go back to the patent office.

By the same token, we can’t have a situation where scientific research carries on according to its assumed internal logic and confronts a public with its fruits whether or not they’re wanted, understood or needed. These concepts are socio-political and its at the level of socio-political interests, expressed in governance operations with science, that these issues should be meted out. That’s what’s meant in saying ‘progress’ is an important word: there is scientific advance, which is one thing, but then there is progress, which is a much more nuanced, value-laden, politically charged notion.

Image by Horia Varlan*. CC licenced.* ##### Editor’s note: This article was edited on July 21, 2012 to correct attribution of the coining of the term ‘bahramdipity’.

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