Democratic Science - A summary

SGR's work includes the promotion of constructive dialogue between scientists and non-scientists. An important condition for a dialogue between equals is that the assessment of science funding applications be democratised.

Article by Alan Cottey, late 2001

SGR works to promote a genuine, listening debate about the role of science and technology in society. (We will in the following refer mainly to 'science' but many of the remarks will apply to technology as well.) In the past, the debate has been less productive than it might be, because of mutual misunderstandings between scientists and wider society. SGR believes that these misunderstandings derive, in large part, from science being insufficiently accountable and democratic.

Using a broad brush, we may indicate two main misunderstandings

  • scientists tend to see, in critical comments from outsiders, only the critics' low level of specialised expertise
  • critical outsiders tend to see, in scientists, only self-interest.

Each of these caricatures can lead to hostility against 'them' and defence of 'us'. Yet there should be no them and us. All humans have a common interest in using the potential of science to help create a just and sustainable world. SGR's concern is to promote a cultural environment in which science can be used for constructive and not for destructive purposes. In such a cultural environment scientists and non-scientists will understand and respect each other.

If we are to correct those two main misunderstandings, we must first step back. We need a more distanced vantage-point, not that of a scientist or a non-scientist, but that of a human. Then the common interest - a sustainable world - becomes clear. And 'our' stereotyping of 'them' can be re-assessed.

Against the low level of expertise of non-scientists (and indeed of scientists not devoted to some narrow speciality deemed to be all that is relevant) must be placed the value of a degree of detachment. Further, everyone is qualified to speak about their own values - what they want for the future, and to what they personally give the highest priority.

Non-scientists are prepared to listen to experts as long as they are convinced that the experts' views are not subverted by self-interest. In the last few decades non-scientists have become more sceptical of scientists' claims exactly because of a greater awareness of the relevance of self-interest.

Many scientists, however, seem to cling to an unsophisticated, outmoded view about the objectivity of science. While many technical results in science can be said to have a high level of objectivity, this is not the whole story. 'Science' is a broad term. Its general meaning embraces also the selection of what is studied intensively, the assignment of importance to the various results, and the manner in which the results are presented. All of these three aspects - selection, assignment of importance and presentation - are far from objective, yet they are all significant aspects of what people mean when they use the word 'science'.

The misunderstandings we have here discussed lead to, mutual incomprehension and mistrust. At its worst, this escalates to conflict between the dogmatically anti-science and the gung-ho. SGR advocates mutual respect. Respect by non-scientists for scientific specialists' expertise on matters within their technical competence, and respect by scientists for the non-scientists' right to influence developments that may affect everyone.

There are many specific ways in which the general approach here advocated can be promoted. They are present, implicitly or explicitly, in much of SGR's work. See, for example, our pages on The Open Science Proposal and Science Funding. Manifestations of our ideas about democratising science appear also at many points in our booklet An Ethical Career in Science and Technology?

We end this page with a specific point concerning the non-scientists' right to influence the course of science. When an applicable discovery has been made, there is often a technological imperative for its application, regardless of whether that is in the general interest. Even the beginning of the actual work on a research project is too late for injecting social considerations. Once a project has obtained funding, wider social considerations can modify the course of the project only minimally. If science is to be done ethically and responsibly, all parties who may be affected must be represented in the deliberations before significant modifications have become unacceptable. Otherwise, 'democratic science' is a sham. The implication is clear ... the assessment of funding applications must be democratised. Non-specialists and non-scientists must be represented on funding application review committees. They will not be there to provide technical assessment - that remains the job of the specialists (peer review). They will be there to see that specialists' self-interest does override the wider interest. Specialists will gradually come to see that the non-specialists' and non-scientists' views are an essential part of the legitimation of science. SGR believes that, by innovations of this kind, a culture of cooperation between scientists and society can be developed.