Why write about science policy?

Science is sometimes portrayed as a rational scepticism, its practitioners as Doubting Thomases who constantly question and seek more evidence to support their beliefs. Such a view was formalised in philosopher of science Karl Popper’s perception of science, one in which true scientists  constantly attempted to falsify the knowledge that they produced and hypotheses could never be proved.

Subsequent histories, philosophies, and sociologies of science have developed a different view. Science is not marked out by its refusal to believe. On the contrary, it is notable for its ability to generate informed consensus. Journals, statistical tests, methodologies, instruments, writing styles, and more have all developed such that they produce agreement amongst individuals who were not present at the actual demonstration of a novel scientific phenomena. Thomas needed to feel Jesus’ wounds before he accepted the truth of his resurrection, despite having heard the testimony of his fellow disciples. Scientists, on the other hand, cannot similarly repeat every experiment that they read about. Rather they trust in a paper’s authors, in the institute that they work at, the methodologies they used, their colleagues who reviewed the paper and the journal which published it. This, to me, is a far more attractive picture of science: a human activity which places confidence in the ability of others and in humankind generally to generate truths about our world upon which agreement by diverse and distanced individuals can be forged. Few other activities, if any, can so reliably create accurate consensus amongst individuals who have never met, speak different languages, have different nationalities, and may have very different values.

This remarkable ability is why science policy interests me so much. Policy is typically a contested area with competing but equally valid values at play. Bring in science and there is a possible core around which even the most diverse individuals and groups can agree (which is not to say that they always do). Science can delineate the range of effective policy actions, though it rarely points to one alone. Science policy is about guiding, facilitating, and using this capability of science to better our world. The term science policy covers two activities, both of them fascinating. The first is policy for science: how do we facilitate science, how do we choose which bits of science to pursue, and what do we want its outcomes to be? This asks what we want to use the capabilities of science for, and how best to encourage these intended purposes. The other aspect of science policy is science for policy: how do we use the outcomes of science to inform policy-making? The two activities do not always line up easily, because of the different speeds involved, the disjoint between the questions asked and the answers available, the differences in expertise, the varied aims, and several other factors. Nevertheless, there is a general agreement that evidence-based policy (a bit of a catchphrase in policy circles) is desirable, but differing views on how best to achieve this.

In this blog I hope to explore both of these aspects of science policy and more. I’ve a rather diverse set of interests and a multi-disciplinary  background, so I my postings shall probably be a bit eclectic. I’ll occasionally put together a series of posts with specific themes, and I’ll aim to do some interviews with interesting people, as well as commentating on current affairs in science policy. My next few posts will be on the principles and institutions of science policy in this country. If you’ve any suggestions for something that you’d like me to look at, or want to contribute something yourself, just get in contact at jameshynard@hotmail.co.uk or in the comments section below. For now, I look forward to hearing from you and to writing my next post!

Acknowledgements and further reading: The image of Doubting Thomas as patron saint of scientists is one popularised by Richard Dawkins, and insightfully discussed by historian of science Thomas Dixon. Karl Popper was a famous and influential philosopher of science even outside of his own discipline. His seminal work is The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Many authors and works have discussed the view of science I’ve presented here, one which perceives science as an activity formed to generate trust and agreement. I’d recommend Simon Schaffer and Steve Shapin’s Leviathan and the Air Pump. Partly this is because Simon is a professor at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science here at Cambridge, but it’s also because this is a very important work in its field which is nevertheless accessible and can be dipped into. It also deals with the early years of the Royal Society, which I think provides a fascinating insight into a formative moment for science and one of its premier institutions, whilst generating arguments which are applicable to science in the modern world. If you’d prefer your writings a bit less historical though, there’s Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch’s The Golem: What You Should Know About Science, which is also a nice accessible look at some of the normally unobserved mechanisms which make science work. It’s also split into case studies, which makes it very easy to read in short chunks. If you’d like any more reading suggestions (because you’ve probably just got loads of free time and hardly any work), let me know.

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