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There are good reasons to be sceptical about demands for a 'new social contract' between science and society. But there are also good reasons to endorse efforts to alter the way in which science accommodates and responds to social priorities.

One of the most frequently-heard demands in current international science policy debates — particularly those about how science and technology can respond to the needs of the modern world — is that it is time to create a 'new social contract' between science and society. The general idea is that, in return for continued financial support from the public purse, scientists should commit themselves to working on topics of direct value to society, rather than just seeking to satisfy their intellectual curiosity or provide the basis for new technological breakthroughs.

Such a proposal, for example, figured prominently in discussions before and during the World Conference on Science, held in Budapest in July 1999; indeed, outlining the terms of such a contract was intended to be one of the main purposes of the meeting. Similar calls are already surfacing in preparations for the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in August. For example, the creation of a 'new social contract' has been identified by the South African government as a key topic for discussion at the science summit that will take place in parallel with the official intergovernmental proceedings.

But the level of enthusiasm for this idea is seldom accompanied by a clear description of what such a contract would involve. Indeed, it is even unclear how it would differ in principle from the contract between science and society that currently exists, making it difficult to turn the catchy slogan into a practical programme for reform.

Early origins

Part of this confusion exists around the concept itself. It is frequently identified with the suggestions made more than 50 years ago by President Truman's science adviser, Vannevar Bush, in his report Science, The Endless Frontier. Under Bush's proposals, which were based largely on the success of the Manhattan project and laid the foundations for the creation of the US National Science Foundation, society provided scientists with the funding and the freedom to pursue their intellectual interests; in return, scientists agreed to come up with research results that would be economically or militarily useful to society. In fact, however, the concept of a social contract for science did not appear until several years after Bush's report. It is generally credited to a sociologist of science, Don Price, who used it in a much more restrictive sense to describe the contracting system under which government-financed scientists received research funding, while being left free to make their own judgements of intellectual value and integrity through the peer review process.

Furthermore, if there has been any promise of utility on the scientists' part, it has been implicit rather than explicit. Unlike, for example, the medical profession with its Hippocratic Oath, there is no document or agreed set of words that can be turned to as a formal contract setting out a scientist's responsibilities to society.

Recent shifts

To talk, therefore, of a 'new social contract' is somewhat disingenuous. It implies the reform of an existing contractual agreement that is something of a mirage; certainly (unlike a conventional code of professional conduct) no scientist has ever been penalised for breaking it.

There have also been important shifts in recent years suggesting that even the paradigm established by Bush has modified substantially. Funding restrictions alone have determined that the flow of money into research is increasingly determined by perceived social, rather than intellectual, need. Perhaps more importantly, widely publicised reports of scientific fraud or unethical medical research projects have generated doubts over whether scientists can be trusted, if left to themselves, to behave with integrity.

A growing number of regulations and monitoring agencies have been set up in response to such criticism. These now ensure that scientists adhere to socially-approved forms of behaviour, depriving them of some the freedom they used to enjoy to set their own rules.

Pertinent ideas

So is talk of the need for a 'new social contract' for science pointless? Not necessarily. For within this concept lies an important set of ideas about how the organisation and funding of science need to be modified yet further in order to reflect and respond to society's needs and concerns more closely than it does at present. Such modifications are particularly pertinent in the context of discussions about the contribution of science to sustainable development.

Firstly, there is a need for greater transparency in the way that funds are allocated, if only to restore some of the trust that has been lost in the peer review system. Whatever it's faults, judgement by peers remains the most effective form of strict quality control within science; but it is not an infallible system, and ways need to be developed to ensure that the process comes under greater public scrutiny. In other words, scientists can no longer be left to police themselves, and greater transparency — rather than rigid regulation — is the most effective way to achieve this.

Secondly, definitions of 'good science' need to be broadened to allow social criteria to be taken into account. Previously, such a judgement has been left to the scientific community alone. But an excessively narrow set of criteria tends to have been applied excluding, for example, an assessment of the potential value to society of a particularly line of research, or whether the research has been carried out in an ethically sound way.

It would be wrong to allow such additional factors to displace an intellectual judgement; to accept science as 'good' just because it is conducted in a politically-acceptable way is a trap that the Soviet Union fell into many years ago. But there is still scope for expanding the range of criteria that are invoked, for example to allow the acceptance by the scientific community of some forms of 'traditional knowledge' that have not passed conventional tests such as peer review.

Commitment to communicate

Finally, if there is to be a 'new social contract' governing the conduct of science, it must be one that includes a commitment to active communication and interaction with the broader community. One of the implications of the original contract was that that value of a scientists work was thought to be self-evident, and no efforts were therefore required on his or her behalf to communicate this value to the wider public. In the modern world, that implication is no longer sufficient; communication — and openness to communication — is essential if trust and accountability are to be maintained.

Making the case for a 'new social contract' between science and society is not as straightforward as it might appear. The old contract had many important elements (such as the freedom of scientific inquiry from politically-motivated interference) that must continue to be respected. Transparency has a cost that not everyone is prepared to pay (particularly when there are issues of intellectual property and commercial secrecy involved). And communication can frequently degenerate into 'spin'.

So we should not expect a set of universally-accepted rules of behaviour to emerge from the debate. But that does not mean that it should not be pursued with vigour. At the end of the day, the 'new social contract' is unlikely to be any more formal than the old one, providing a set of guidelines rather than a rigid description of required behaviour. But that could be part of its strength.

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