Bringing science and development together through news and analysis

  • The need to increase public engagement in science


There are inevitable limitations on the extent to which the public can become usefully involved in determining how science should be carried out. But that doesn't mean that demands for greater public involvement should be rejected.

How far should the public be directly involved in the work of scientists? In the distant past, when science was essentially a curiosity-led pursuit carried out by talented amateurs using their own funds, the question was largely irrelevant. Even today, there are many who still stick to the conviction that scientists should be left to get on with their work unimpeded by the public's view of their work. As a recent correspondent to Nature put it succinctly, "science, like art, is not a democratic activity. You do not decide by referendum whether the Earth goes around the sun".*

There is substantial logic behind this point of view. The fact that modern science — particularly the research carried out in universities and government laboratories — is paid for out of public funds means that the public has a legitimate interest both in what research priorities are pursued, and what results emerge. But that does not necessarily mean that the public also has an interest in the precise strategies pursued by scientists to obtain these results as effectively as possible.

Furthermore, where public values are allowed to impinge directly on the ways that scientists work, the results are not always beneficial. Take, for example, research using embryonic stem cells. Countries that outlaw such research for essentially religious reasons — namely that allowing the destruction of a fertilised human ovum is equivalent to endorsing abortion — are deliberately choosing to cut off work that could have important applications across a range of medical conditions.

Despite such objections, however, those who demand a greater democratic control of science, in both developed and developing countries, have a stronger case than their critics are frequently prepared to admit. The challenge facing policymakers is not to find ways of heading off such demands. Rather it is to develop ways of incorporating them into the mechanisms by which science is managed, while simultaneously ensuring that the intellectual imagination that scientists require to operate effectively is allowed to flourish.

The case for greater public involvement

There are three main arguments that favour an increased democratic engagement with the practice of science. The first, as indicated above, is that much of science is directly financed from the public purse. For that reason alone, scientists who benefit have a direct responsibility to ensure that their work aligns with the priorities of the public that supports them. This responsibility only increases in a political era that requires greater transparency and accountability from all those who receive public funding.

A second reason is more explicitly political. The alternative to direct public engagement in setting the research agenda is to allow this to be done by the requirements of the market-place. This has certainly been the dominant philosophy in the way that science has been funded in most developed countries over the past 20 years. During this time, both university laboratories and government research institutes have been increasingly required to mould their research agendas to the demands of market forces, in the name of promoting rapid economic growth.

The direct outcome of investment in market-oriented research has been the explosive growth of the so-called knowledge economy. And this in turn has certainly given rise to technologies that have benefited rich and poor alike. Those who criticise corporate control of the research agenda need to take account of the way that the mobile telephone — perhaps one of the most iconic outcomes of this trend — is now almost as widely used in developing as in developed countries.

But market-driven research agendas have also created significant mismatches between research priorities and social needs. One of the most glaring cases remains that of biomedical research. It is now almost a decade, for example, since the Global Forum on Health Research first pointed out that stark fact that only ten per cent of the world's spending on biomedical science goes on research relevant to the diseases that primarily effect the poorest 90 per cent of the world's population.

This statistic is a direct reflection of the fact that the latter do not present a potentially lucrative market for pharmaceutical manufacturers. Yet the most significant conclusion of a recent report from the same organisation is that despite the widespread comment this statistic has generated, almost nothing has changed in the intervening period.

Combatting distrust

The third factor encouraging greater public engagement in science is perhaps the most pressing. Without such engagement, the current widespread distrust in science is only likely to increase. And this in turn is likely to translate into a lack of the political support that is so vital if the full potential offered by science for achieving both social and economic progress is to be achieved.

This lack of trust is partly based on the political factors described above. One of the by-products of government policies that have encouraged scientific researchers to follow market-based agendas is that their work is increasingly seen as being determined by the dominant factors driving such agendas, namely private profit. This is certainly the case, for example, of any scientist who wishes to engage in research into the use of the genetic engineering of crops that could increase food security.

But a second factor that can also generate distrust is a "we know best" attitude on the part of the scientific community. This, again, has frequently been a characteristic of some of those engaged in research on genetically modified food crops, who have argued that the benefits of such food crops is self-evident. Excessive technological optimism of this kind — the belief in the magic bullet, to use a medical metaphor — is misplaced in a world that is increasingly wary of claims by scientists that their work only solves, and does not create, problems.

One of the functions of public engagement with such arguments is to ensure that those making such claims are required to justify them more fully than in the past. Here the media in general, and science journalists in particular, have an important role to play. For informed public probing can often expose the weaknesses of excessive optimism that might well have prevented some of the worst consequences of such optimism — such as the safety of the chemical plant that exploded in Bhopal, India, exactly 20 years ago.

Building a critical appreciation of science

Of course, the statement that "science, like art, is not a democratic activity" has an important element of truth to it. Science does not evolve through either consensus or majority voting. Rather, it requires a judicious combination of experiment and validation, both of which involve the exercise of specialist skills.

A prime example of this is the peer review process by which research results are judged appropriate for publication. Those who claim that all scientists should be allowed to present their work directly to the public — and that peer review acts as a form of censorship that eliminates uncomfortable conclusions — frequently ignore its vital role in ensuring that the science that is published is relatively robust and reliable. Such assurance is vital, particularly if the science in question is to be used as the basis of public policy.

Yet reducing the debate about public engagement to the issue of whether scientific hypotheses should be decided by the ballot box is to do a disservice to the many powerful arguments in favour of greater engagement than is currently encouraged. A common complaint of many developing countries, for example, is that their scientific communities remain locked in a mind-set inherited from the colonialist past, where universities remain ivory towers whose research agendas are deliberately cut off from the surrounding world.

The proper response to the increasing domination of research by market factors (including the pursuit of private profits) is not to reinforce this ivory tower mentality. Rather it is to explore new ways (for example, through technology assessment initiatives or so-called consensus conferences) through which public engagement can be encouraged.

This must be done in a way that includes an adequate appreciation by those on all sides of the debate of the importance of ensuring that individual scientists can work as creatively and imaginatively as possible. If this critical appreciation can be achieved, it will have established the foundation on which a truly democratic science can be built, without distorting the practice of science in the process.

* Nature 432, 271 (2004)

We encourage you to republish this article online and in print, it’s free under our creative commons attribution license, but please follow some simple guidelines:
  1. You have to credit our authors.
  2. You have to credit SciDev.Net — where possible include our logo with a link back to the original article.
  3. You can simply run the first few lines of the article and then add: “Read the full article on SciDev.Net” containing a link back to the original article.
  4. If you want to also take images published in this story you will need to confirm with the original source if you're licensed to use them.
  5. The easiest way to get the article on your site is to embed the code below.
For more information view our media page and republishing guidelines.