The quote (“Science is too important to be left to scientists alone”) is from an essay/speech in the UK’s Guardian newspaper in their political science section. Written by Imran Khan, chief executive of the British Science Association, it marks the association’s relaunch (from a Guardian Dec. 1, 2015 piece),
No-one should feel the need to apologise for not being a scientist. And yet when I tell people I work for the British Science Association (BSA), embarrassment is a common response. “I don’t really understand science”, I hear. “Oh, I’m more of an arty person”, they say, or, “the last time I did science was at school”.
Such embarrassment is misplaced; not liking science is fine. The real concern is when people are excluded when they don’t need to be – and this happens with science more than it does for many other parts of our culture. Music, literature, politics, and sport, for instance, can all be shaped by anyone who consumes, creates, or critiques them – not just by their respective professional classes.
… Science is too important, valuable and fascinating to be left to professional scientists alone. For the good of society, the public, and scientific progress itself, science needs a broader community.
The scientific method can explain the world around us in an elegant and creative way, but scientists cannot escape the influence of external pressures and personal bias. Scientists have been put on a pedestal and are often seen as entirely rational, objective and expert – but this paints science as a near-infallible institution that doesn’t want or require engagement from non-scientists.
That is asking for trouble.
Given how strongly I agree with Khan’s comments, I’m not sure I can give his essay my usual critical eye on his writing. Here’s more,
As Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, argues, a reduction in trust can be beneficial for those involved. In medicine, decades of activism and the prevalence of health information online is forcing greater transparency and improvements in medical practice. Can this approach be extended to the rest of science? Could we have a citizenship that critically questions all of the UK’s public institutions, including science?
Khan goes on to make some suggestions for more thoughtful science involvement,
For more people to be involved in science, we have to create a shared understanding of what science is. For instance, it’s tempting to see science as fundamentally progressive, an inherently benevolent force. But we have to recognise that it can have a dark side as well. This isn’t just an issue for scientists; the BSA believes that society as a whole should be able to bear some responsibility for how science is used.
Last year, for instance, we marked the centenary of the start of the First World War. It was one of the earliest – but certainly not the last – conflicts where the products of science were used to gas other human beings in their hundreds of thousands. Mustard gas, chlorine and phosgene were developed and deployed by both sides, despite previous treaties having banned them.
Nearly 200,000 British troops alone were struck by chemical attacks; non-fatal doses often scarred or afflicted soldiers for life. For many, this was the moment when we really became aware of the indiscriminately destructive potential of science. But, as part of the same conflict, science was also used to develop innovations such as blood transfusion, prosthetic limbs and reconstructive surgery.
Science does not exist in a moral vacuum. It is not inherently good or evil, but a platform for expressing human instincts, whether they be violence, kindness or creativity. We should celebrate new discoveries such as the Higgs Boson and the Mars Rover but we also need to find a space where scientists and the public can be involved in a debate about responsible scientific innovation. Both the innovators and the rest of us need to be held to account.
It is vital that the processes and products of science are readily available for the public to understand and interrogate. This is not to say that science isn’t regulated. One of the distinctive strengths of science is peer review; the process by which scientists hold each other to account. [emphasis mine]
Theoretically, peer review is the process by which scientists are held accountable by other scientists. However, it is an imperfect process as you can see in my Nov. 26, 2015 posting (A view to controversies about nanoparticle drug delivery, sticky-flares, and a PNAS surprise) which outlines one very current example of the difficulty two scientists have encountered when questioning results from a very prominent scientist in the field of nanomedicine. (There’s a formal peer review process which takes place prior to publication but informally scientists also respond to published research with letters to the journal editors critiquing the work.)
Getting back to Khan, he provides an example of a broad-based group with authority over experts in medicine and science (Note: A link has been removed),
As an example, when the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority was created in 1991, its rules stipulated that the Chair, Deputy Chair and at least half of HFEA members needed to come from outside medicine or science. The group currently includes several people who have undergone IVF – people who are directly affected by the technology that the authority regulates.
This is a strong first step towards making funding and regulatory bodies truly representative of the population. While it has been good to see more diversity, we need to take this further. Key decisions on scientific innovation should always involve public dialogue, and it should be the responsibility of such boards to ensure that this happens.
For my last excerpt, Khan discusses education (Note: A link has been removed),
A scientific profession that looked more like the rest of the UK, and where a greater diversity of people knew scientists personally, should be something that we all aim for.
But, for the benefit of those who don’t rub shoulders with scientists, we also need to challenge the assumption that the study of science is primarily for the training of future experts. Although a report by the Royal Academy of Engineering states that one million engineers are needed by 2020 to meet the UK’s demands, we can’t let such figures instrumentalise education. The core aim of science education should be to ensure students leave school with the skills and confidence to discuss and shape scientific and technological advances in society, whatever their career choices.
One way to do this would be to stop segregating science into disciplines at school. In an age of inter-disciplinarity, studying physics, biology, and chemistry as supposedly separate subjects could be seen as an anachronism even for those going on to become scientists. But it’s perhaps even less helpful for those who we simply want to be members of a scientifically literate society; might a better route be having young people look at the science of, say, climate change, alongside its historical, geographic, and political elements?
(For a somewhat related piece, see my Aug. 7, 2015 posting titled: Science snobbery and the problem of accessibility.)
A provocative set of ideas, I encourage you to read Khan’s piece where he takes his ideas much further than I did mine. Khan’s thoughts can be found in their entirety in his Dec. 1, 2015 piece for the Guardian.
For the curious, the British Science Association can be found here.