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.