Science and technology, Education | Australia

29 August 2019

Science is great at solving problems, but research funding should also reflect the crucial contributions of other disciplines to that process, Merryn McKinnon writes.

When President John F Kennedy first addressed the US Congress in 1961 and proposed sending a man to the moon within the next decade, the challenge seemed insurmountable. Yet here we are, 50 years later, acknowledging the anniversary through the theme of National Science Week – Destination Moon – and discussing the next frontier of sending humans to Mars.

Kennedy issued a call to arms for the marshalling of resources and political and societal will to overcome a grand challenge. The grand challenges of the different eras have yielded tremendous outcomes for society. What was once inconceivable, such as a cure for polio or a certain technological capacity, is now commonplace.

We live in an era of yet even more ‘grand challenges’. The National Science and Research Priorities outline some of the most pressing.

But let’s pause and consider that title for a moment. Science is important yes, but is it really a distinct and separate entity from all other research?

Of Australia’s nine research priorities, all will deliver outcomes for society. The development of policy to inform decision making will be based on the evidence collected and curated under the focus of these priorities. Many will require the support of society to be effective, especially those relating to the environment, health, and energy.

This is hinted at in a few of the descriptors which include terms such as ‘trustworthy’ and ‘attitudes’, but overall it is very science-centric.

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Measuring concepts like attitudes and trust is not the typical task of pure science. They rely on the expertise of the humanities and social sciences, yet the knowledge generated by science appears to be privileged over that which can be gained from disciplines like sociology and history.

This is also seen in the Research Infrastructure Plan which allocated around $25 million out of a total pool of $600 million to social science research linking datasets to transport and infrastructure research.

Supporting scientific research is indeed valuable, but privileging that research and knowledge over other disciplines carries great risk, as perhaps best illustrated by Brian Wynne’s 1992 study involving Cumbrian sheep farmers and the Chernobyl disaster.

In the aftermath of Chernobyl, scientists imposed restrictions on the sale and movement of sheep in the Lake District of Northern England due to soil contamination from the radioactive fallout. Scientists were confident their predictions were accurate and created field-based experiments to formulate further advice.

They did not acknowledge the farmers’ in-depth knowledge of their own land, to their detriment.

Bans that were initially promised to last a few weeks became indefinite. Field testing consistently showed their predictions were incorrect. Farmers suffered extreme financial hardships.

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It was eventually revealed that the scientists were basing their predictions and advice on how the chemical element Caesium behaved in clay soils.

If the scientists had spoken to the farmers, they would have very quickly learned that the soils in the region were peat, not clay, and therefore reacted entirely differently to caesium.

This knowledge would have helped to formulate appropriate experiments to produce effective advice. But the scientists privileged their knowledge and expertise over that of the farmers.

Aside from the prolonged financial consequences for the farmers, the credibility of the scientists was undermined leading to a loss of trust. Once trust is lost, it is very difficult to regain.

This is an oft-cited example of why engagement with society is vital for science. Aside from the benefit of local knowledge, science and technology can sometimes go wrong or create negative consequences. Having established dialogue and trust may help minimise controversy if and when things do go wrong.

This is embodied within the Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) approach within the Horizon 2020 program in the European Union Programme for Research and Innovation.

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The purpose of RRI is to involve society in the whole research and innovation process, to foster inclusion and engagement. As a science policy framework, it is seen as a key mechanism to “bring science into democracy, and democracy into science”.

Last year, Professor John Keane from the University of Sydney wrote: “democracy is a living reminder that truths are never self-evident and that what counts as truth is a matter of interpretation”.

The quality of that interpretation will rely on the perspective taken and the body of knowledge underpinning that perspective. Is the singular perspective of science enough?

While science may generate answers, it does not have a monopoly and nor should it. The Academy of Science recognises this, specifically noting “the importance of research in all disciplines, including the humanities and social sciences, to the national interest”.

Our national interest requires us to address several grand challenges, many with society at their core. Understanding society through our history, beliefs, values, along with what makes us quintessentially human will strengthen, not detract from the future we envisage through research and innovation.

Science needs other disciplines to allow us to generate ideas and solutions at our full potential.

As Kennedy stated in his address to Congress “in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon; if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there”.

In our case, our research priorities tell us where ‘there’ is. Policy must support all disciplines to work together in order to reach it.

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