David Willetts on Science and Society

The UK’s Minister for Science and Higher Education, David Willetts, made his first official speech about science at the RI on 9 July 2010. What everyone is desperate to know is how big a cut the science budget will take. Willetts can’t answer this yet, but the background position isn’t good. We know that the budget of his department – Business, Innovation and Skills – will be cut by somewhere between 25%-33%. Science accounts for about 15% of this budget, with Universities accounting for another 29% (not counting the cost of student loans and grants, which accounts for another 27%). So, there’s not going to be a lot of room to protect spending on science and on research in Universities.

Having said this, this is a very interesting speech, in that Willetts takes some very clear positions on a number of issues related to science and innovation and their relationship to society, some of which are rather different from views in government before. I met Willetts earlier in the year, and then he said a couple of things then that struck me. He said that there was nothing in science policy that couldn’t be illuminated by looking at history. He mentioned in particular “The Shock of the Old”, by David Edgerton (which I’ve previously discussed here), and I noticed that at the RS meeting after the election he referred very approvingly to David Landes’s book “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations”. More personally, he referred with pride to his own family origins as Birmingham craftsmen, and he clearly knows the story of the Lunar Society well. His own academic background is as a social scientist, so it would be to be expected that he’d have some well-developed views about science and society. Here’s how I gloss the relevant parts of his speech.

More broadly, as society becomes more diverse and cultural traditions increasingly fractured, I see the scientific way of thinking – empiricism – becoming more and more important for binding us together. Increasingly, we have to abide by John Rawls’s standard for public reason – justifying a particular position by arguments that people from different moral or political backgrounds can accept. And coalition, I believe, is good for government and for science, given the premium now attached to reason and evidence.

The American political philosopher John Rawls was very concerned about how, in a pluralistic society, one could agree on a common set of moral norms. He rejected the idea that you could construct morality on entirely scientific grounds, as consequentialist ethical systems like utilitarianism try to, instead looking for a principles based morality; but he recognised that this was problematic in a society where Catholics, Methodists, Atheists and Muslims all had their different sets of principles. Hence the idea of trying to find moral principles that everyone in society can agree on, even though the grounds on which they approve of these principles may differ from group to group. In a coalition uniting parties including people as different as Evan Harris and Philippa Stroud one can see why Willetts might want to call in Rawls for help.

The connection to science is an interesting one, that draws on a particular reading of the development of the empirical tradition. According, for example, to Schaffer and Shapin (in their book “Leviathan and the Air Pump”) one of the main aims of the Royal Society in its early days was to develop a way of talking about philosophy – based on experiment and empiricism, rather than doctrine – that didn’t evoke the clashing religious ideologies that had been the cause of the bloody religious wars of the seventeenth century. According to this view (championed by Robert Boyle), in experimental philosophy one should refrain entirely from talking about contentious issues like religion, restricting oneself entirely to discussion of what one measures in experiments that are open to be observed and reproduced by anyone.

You might say that science is doing so well in the public sphere that the greatest risks it faces are complacency and arrogance. Crude reductionism puts people off.

I wonder if he’s thinking of the current breed of scientific atheists like Richard Dawkins?

Scientists can morph from admired public luminaries into public enemies, as debates over nuclear power and GM made clear. And yet I remain optimistic here too. The UK Research Councils had the foresight to hold a public dialogue about ramifications of synthetic biology ahead of Craig Venter developing the first cell controlled by synthetic DNA. This dialogue showed that there is conditional public support for synthetic biology. There is great enthusiasm for the possibilities associated with this field, but also fears about controlling it and the potential for misuse; there are concerns about impacts on health and the environment. We would do well to remember this comment from a participant: “Why do they want to do it? … Is it because they will be the first person to do it? Is it because they just can’t wait? What are they going to gain from it? … [T]he fact that you can take something that’s natural and produce fuel, great – but what is the bad side of it? What else is it going to do?” Synthetic biology must not go the way of GM. It must retain public trust. That means understanding that fellow citizens have their worries and concerns which cannot just be dismissed.

This is a significant passage which seems to accept two important features of some current thinking about public engagement with science. Firstly, that it should be “upstream” – addressing areas of science, like synthetic biology, for which concrete applications have yet to emerge, and indeed in advance of signficant scientific breakthroughs like Venter’s “synthetic cell”. Secondly, it accepts that the engagement should be two-way, that the concerns of the public may well be legitimate and should be taken seriously, and that these concerns go beyond simple calculations of risk.

The other significant aspect of Willetts’s speech was a wholesale rejection of the “linear model” of science and innovation, but this needs another post to discuss in detail.

9 thoughts on “David Willetts on Science and Society”

  1. I found this fascinating. Maybe I’m just shallow, but I don’t know how seriously to take Willetts philiosophical allusions. Is it seriously meant, or just the kind of name-dropping he thinks will appeal to his audience? I think I tend towards the latter because it all seems to skirt around the edges of the difficult decisions he faces. The things he says that you’ve picked up, they’re all very easy for a politician in his position to say.

  2. Ha! Well that certainly brings out the philosophical points I “glossed” over in my brief rant about evidence badgers 🙂 Yes, the Rawls aspect is crucial in thinking about Willetts thinking of pluralism. I read some Rawls during my MA in sociology of education – never thought it’d be useful in analysis of Tory science policy.

    I also noted the upstream allusions, the reference to reductionism, and Willetts’ explicit dismissal of the linear model. Quite STS in some respects. But then we could say that about post-BSE early New Labour science policy. So, I think the proof of this will be in the eating of the (FSA approved?) pudding though. I think William Cullerne Bown’s tweet earlier summed up the possible discontinuities on evidence based policy well, and I suspect the same will be true on engagement. As many involved in engagement will complain, it’s all very well to adopt the language of the House of Lords report early-00s-Demos, but actually meaning this is another matter (see, for example, Brian Wynne).

    Anyway, I really enjoyed the philosophical unpicking here, and I agree Willetts is an intellectual man who’s speeches deserve such analysis. But it’s government action I’m going to be keeping an eye on right now.

    I personally also had problems with the flippant approach he took to education. But that’s another issue (and, again, I suspect one to be studied when we see what’s going to be done, rather than just said).

    P.S. Re: Edgerton review. I always thought technological determinism was a bit of a straw man too. Confused me loads as an undergrad.

  3. William, I do tend to think Willetts means this, not least because I don’t think that this line of thinking would be at all popular with his audience if they understood its implications. The question to me is not whether he means it, but whether he has the power and opportunity to act to put it into practice. The FSA decision, if that happens as reported, is a case in point – it’s not his department and I don’t suppose he was consulted.

    Alice, I take your similar point about the difference between language and action and the comparison with early New Labour. But, and this is a big but, you would never have heard that sort of language from David Sainsbury. The key point is that using STS-speak doesn’t generally make you popular with scientists.

  4. OK. A question, as from a student.

    Rawls is “trying to find moral principles that everyone in society can agree on”, which I think must involve considering and discussing what all the different religions etc have to say on a given subject. How is this connected to the early RS idea of *avoiding* discussion of these things?

    (BTW doesn’t the RS motto substantiate the argument you cite here, “Nullius in verba”, implying don’t pay attention to words, only evidence.)

    On the FSA, he and the CSA should be consulted, and it must have gone to Cabinet with the health white paper. If you are saying your politics is rooted in certain philosophies – and it’s not just name dropping – then surely it means sticking up for those principles. Things are moving very fast and we only get glimpses of what’s going on inside Whitehall, but I don’t see that happening.

  5. William, I’m not sure I’m at all qualified to take you on as a student on these matters (neutron reflectivity studies of polymer interfacial structure, though, that I can do). But from what I understand, Rawls doesn’t propose that you have to understand what every different religion would say about some issue; rather you have to find a way of reasoning that every group would be happy with. This is the idea of “Public Reason” that Willetts refers to. So, Boyle would argue that experimental philosophy provides a method for settling arguments that everyone can agree with.

    Not reading, but I found this set of podcasts from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp really illuminating How to think about science” (the first one is with Schaffer and Shapin, they’re not all as good, but at least listen to Beck/Latour, Wynne, Fox Keller, Galison, Gibbons.

  6. Hi Richard,

    I saw this paper and thought you might find it interesting

    This professor of Econophysics is trying to apply the concept of Entropy to economic activities in an ideal market. He is specifically looking at salary distributions and makes the argument that the concept of entropy in economics should be interpreted as a movement towards “fairness”.

    Do you think that his interpretation makes sense?

  7. Thanks for the pointers to those very interesting posts, Patrick. I am intending to return to the question of the linear model when I get a moment…

    Jim, that’s an interesting paper. I’ve had a soft spot for those kinds of Ed Jaynes inspired maximum entropy arguments ever since I was briefly taught at Cambridge by Steve Gull. Nonetheless, it’s a shocking misuse of the word “fairness” to redefine it as equivalent to the outcome that would arise from a perfect free market.

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