Speaker by Various Artists

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The purpose of science and its limits

by Nicola Gaston

Does anyone remember the Great New Zealand Science Project?

The year before last, you may have noticed some ads on tv.  Ads involving scientists and small children – and with an associated Facebook page that got 16885 likes.  Oh, and the small matter of $60 million for investment in science, in the form of the National Science Challenges.

The National Science Challenges, despite having been announced in May last year, are still a long way from being reality.  Meanwhile, one of the most significant outcomes of the process is the 'Science and Society' Project now being developed by our Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment.

Last weekend, scientists and non-scientists got together in Auckland to talk about what this 'Science and Society' Challenge is all about.  The occasion was the annual conference of the New Zealand Association of Scientists and the people in attendance came from a range of geographic and disciplinary places.  I wrote a blow-by-blow report of the day which can be found on the Association’s website.

You might well wonder why such a meeting should matter to anyone other than scientists.  On the other hand, if you were inclined to be cynical about the motivations of scientists, you might wonder why so many of them are willing to sit in a room for ten hours on a Saturday to be lectured about their privilege and their responsibilities to society.

One answer is that we have an increasing number of scientists passionate about communicating their research to a broad audience: Michelle Dickinson, Siouxsie Wiles, Rebecca Priestley and Shaun Hendy and others.  This is a relatively recent phenomenon, although its current practitioners owe the late Paul Callaghan a certain something.

There is something more to it than just this, though.  A clue is provided by the way we started the day: with a thorough education in the responsibilities of an academic under the Education Act, ranging from the definition of academic freedom, to the requirement laid upon universities that they accept a role as critic and conscience of society.  In the context of the current controversial proposal to change the governance structure of Universities in the name of business-like efficiency, this all struck a chord.

However, the current situation is more complex than that.  There have been extensive changes in the science sector over the last 3 years: the closure of a Crown Research Institute (CRI), the creation of a new government agency to fund science, the closure of a Ministry, the establishment and closure of a second, and the subsequent establishment of a third (with significant loss of institutional knowledge at each step).

Current changes include the proposed closure of a major campus at another CRI and the establishment of a new funding mechanism (the National Science Challenges), at the same time as funding for our Centres of Research Excellence is up for grabs – all while we wait for a promised funding strategy, a National Statement of Science Investment.

So it was fascinating to hear an audience of scientists debate their "critic and conscience" responsibilities in this context, and to ask questions about the extent to which these provisions extend to the role of scientists at our CRIs.  The commercial context that the CRIs operate in – being required to return a profit to the taxpayer – is at odds with such a role, but then again: one of the science award winners this year, Graham Nugent of Landcare Research, gave a wonderful demonstration of how he and his team perform research for the benefit of New Zealand.  Their work on the scientific validation of methods of pest control is a wonderful example of public good research, which doesn’t necessarily fit a commercial return-on-investment model, either.

There have been other reports on the extent to which commercial imperatives are colonising science: a recent article in North and South by Donna Chisholm looked in depth at our culture of "science for sale".  Does this matter to you?  Scientific research in New Zealand is predominantly funded by the taxpayer – so should you care what sort of research the money is spent on?  How do you feel about public money being used for private good?  

Whatever your reasons for caring (or not) about science, if I needed to summarise the meeting last weekend in a single statement, I’d go with this: scientists care about society too.

The ways in which science can impact on society are not all positive, and the answers to questions that are raised through scientific investigation cannot always be found in science.  We discussed the manifold implications of neuroscientific and genetic studies of criminal behaviour: should an enhanced propensity to violence (assuming that such a thing can be as clearly stated as the writers of some popular nonfiction would have it) reduce personal responsibility, and therefore sentencing, or serve as a reason for longer incarceration?  The answer to such a question is not found in the science alone.

A persistent theme of the meeting was the social response – or lack thereof - to climate change, prompted by the opening function at which Thin Ice was shown.  The science communication award winner and film director, Simon Lamb, described his own motivations simply, mirroring statements made by the scientists he interviewed in the film: "I wanted to be able to tell my daughter that I had done what I could".

It seems to be becoming increasingly well understood that simply telling people that they are wrong about climate change is no way to change behaviour.  How then do we make progress as a society, if the simple precepts of the deficit model are so wrong?  How do we scientists contribute effectively to society, if the knowledge we produce is not, in itself, enough?

There are many things about last weekend’s meeting that deserve to generate some optimism.  Scientists, grappling with questions about the public understanding of uncertainty.  Discussions of Mātauranga Māori, extended well beyond consideration of a box to be ticked on a funding application. Deliberation over the privilege inherent in the scientific world view!  And also, the rare apparition of a politician in defence of science, when Russel Norman, who joined us as a panelist, pointed out that science has little privilege in a country where the Prime Minister can claim that scientific opinions can be provided to order.

I don’t want to move too far into the territory of cynicism here: I worry that one of the most insidious effects of the constant changes in our funding of science is that it leads to the survival of the most cynical.

What I’m talking about, is not about privileging science. Not at all.  I’ve been known to have a rant about companies that claim their products are chemical-free, or the poor reporting of issues such as the dangers of wifi in schools.  But I do so not because I am angry that people don’t understand the science.  I get angry because I know that people don’t understand the science – and I think, actually, that’s got to be okay.  Scientific knowledge is increasing rapidly, and none of us can be experts on everything.  So we need resources to support accurate reporting of scientific issues, and we need to find ways to communicate the value, if not the infallibility, of scientific opinion based on scientific fact.

I have mixed emotions when I see the kind of cardboard mounted science fair project depicted on the Great New Zealand Science Fair Project. I judged a science fair once, and despite all the great projects in evidence, I left feeling a little sick at the huge divide between the kids who had obvious parental engagement and support, and those who didn’t.  That’s without making any sort of judgement about the scientific understanding of the parents.  At primary school, I entered the science fair once – with the topic of my investigation: biodynamics.  Yes, I am talking about cow horns filled with dung buried under a full moon.  As I recall, the secret is something to do with how you alternate between clockwise and anti-clockwise stirring.

A lack of knowledge needn’t be a barrier to learning.  But if we don’t understand what matters to people, what motivates them, and what they care about – we’re only paying the barest lip service to communication.  That is the real challenge of science in society.

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Dr Nicola Gaston is President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists.

Her day job is Principal Investigator, The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology at the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington.

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