What Society Will Expect from the Future Research Community
Center for Values and Social Policy
University of Colorado, Boulder
Many scientists and policy analysts believe that we have entered a new era in the relations between science and society. In the good old days, roughly from the end of World War II until the collapse of communism, the relationship between science and society was clear and secure. Now it seems confused and chaotic.
In the good old days we were rich and scared. Because we were scared we wanted science to protect us. Because we were rich, money was no object—we worried little about the “opportunity costs” of investments in scientific research.
The research community lived up to its part of the bargain. It protected us from the Russians; gave us a great deal of international prestige by winning Nobel prizes and other awards; spun off new consumer products such as teflon and computers; and made us proud, happy, and entertained by landing on the moon.
Today we are no longer scared of the Russians, and science does not seem able to protect us from the threats that are now on our minds —crime, pollution, terrorism, recession, and so on. The military-industrial-research complex still has staunch and influential supporters, but the case made on its behalf nowadays appeals primarily to jobs, economic survival, and the welfare and self-respect of people who have served their country.
Not only are we no longer scared of the Russians, but we also no longer feel rich. We worry about tax dollars being wasted in pointless and trivial research, or being siphoned off so that college presidents can live in luxury. We have also become increasingly skeptical about whether scientific research really does lead to technology development that then results in better lives for all. It is hard for us to see the practical relevance of some research, such as the research enabled by the superconducting super collider; and when science does lead to technology development, it often seems to throw people out of work or to create new dilemmas of effectiveness and equity. The idea that investing in research leads to improved quality of life strikes many people as the science policy version of trickle-down economics. They wonder why we don't invest directly in programs that benefit people, for example, housing, health care, and education, rather than waiting for indirect benefits to result from scientific research.
Recently our most prominent political, economic, and scientific leaders have begun to discuss problems in the relationship between society and the research community. At the level of popular discussion there has been a tendency to blame one party or the other for our present problems—either it is society's fault for failing to support the research community in
the manner to which it has become accustomed, or it is the research community's fault for behaving like another greedy special-interest group.
Among elites a consensus seems to be growing that what is needed is more money for research and tighter linkages between science, technology, and societal needs. To many people this sounds like the “same old same old”—the solution to our problems is supposed to be a large dose of what got us into the mess in the first place (or at least what has failed to get us out of it). Insofar as there is something new in the idea of yoking together science, technology, and society, this smells vaguely dangerous to many people. It seems excessively rationalistic, and perhaps even un-American. Although we want to compete successfully with the Japanese, we do not want to become Japanese; we want to hang on to a standard of living that we feel is eroding, and also preserve our idea of the American way of life.
Clearly there are conflicts between the research community and society. The collapse of communism and the rise of federal budget deficits have exposed weaknesses that were there all along. The apparent peace and harmony of the good old days was in part an illusion sustained by papering over significant differences, and in part a reflection of the widespread acceptance of some convenient myths about the threat of communism and the economic benefits of scientific research. Furthermore, our golden memories of the good old days in which everyone agreed, in stark opposition to the present in which everyone fights with each other, are to some extent caricatures. There were dissonant voices in the 1950s, but they were dismissed and marginalized. Today the dissenters come from the heart of the science policy establishment; skeptics cannot be ignored if they are writing your budget. But although we now have visible and influential dissent, it would be a mistake to think that science policy is anywhere near the top of most people 's concerns. An occasional issue strikes the public fancy, but for the most part public opinion about science policy does not spring fully formed from the grassroots. Most of what we think about the research community is derived from views that we have about other matters such as education, equity, and economic growth.
There are, however, important differences between the present and the good old days. The environment in which science policy is made has become dramatically more democratic. This does not mean that the people rule, but it does mean that it is much more difficult to exclude them from matters in which they choose to take an interest. Public opinion and various organized (nonindustry) groups seldom are able to make the positive changes that they sometimes advocate, but they are very good at vetoing, delaying, and generally messing up other people's agendas. American society has also become more diverse over the last several decades. When we ask what society will expect of the research community in the future, it is important to recognize that there are plural societies with distinct values and interests, and their expectations are likely to be quite disparate.
In addition to these changes, broad forces at work in the United States and most industrial societies will help shape and form future expectations of the research community. Generally, people are quite cross with elite institutions, and the research community is not an exception to this. There is an increasing sense that those who have been granted privileges by society have turned them to their own advantage rather than using them for the public good. This both contributes to, and is a consequence of, the erosion of community. As the sense of community declines, people become increasingly envious and unwilling to forgo
benefits for the common good. What would once have been seen as noble or altruistic behavior is increasingly seen as “being a sucker.” One way this manifests itself is in a tendency to make contradictory or unreasonable demands and to resist trade-offs. If I feel stepped on, it is someone else 's job to make it right. If someone who feeds at the public trough tells me that I can't have it both ways, this is just an excuse for incompetence or outright duplicity.
The combination of inconsistent demands, an increasing diversity of voices, and a more democratic environment portends difficult times ahead for those who make science policy. In the future people will probably want snappy, telegenic “big” science but no pork barrel projects; better science education and lower taxes; wars on various diseases and disorders coupled with deficit reduction; and more mission-oriented research and less government interference.
Universities are already emerging as important sites for these conflicts. Surveys indicate that Americans are generally supportive of science but are becoming increasingly negative about state-supported educational institutions. Over the last decade public universities have become highly dependent on research grants to support their infrastructure of buildings, books, equipment, and personnel. As state appropriations have fallen as percentages of total budgets, demands have grown to deliver more education at lower costs and to increase services that directly benefit taxpayers. With the echo of the “baby boom” knocking on university doors, these conflicts are likely to intensify. Public universities will be under political pressure to have their faculty do more teaching and less research, and under economic pressure to have their faculty attract more research grants even if this means teaching less. One possible response to this is to further segregate public and private institutions. Public institutions will train and accredit workers, and private institutions will conduct research and deliver high-grade education. As well as offending our sense of equity, it is doubtful that this is a workable model on labor market grounds alone. Private universities simply do not have the capacity to conduct a sufficient volume of research.
Whatever happens in the future, it is clear that a cacophony of voices will be raised, and competing demands will be made. This has the potential to be very unsettling to the scientific community. Philosophers and sociologists of science have argued that part of what distinguishes science from other activities is its ability to establish and enforce closure. Science progresses by shutting off debate, delineating the limits of responsible disagreement, and moving ahead on the basis of what are regarded as settled results. A defense of Newton's views of space and time is more likely to be published in a philosophy journal than a scientific one: these views are false, according to science, and there is little point in wasting time on them.
The mechanisms of closure that are internal to science are highly effective when considering the views of dead or deviant scientists, but they are not nearly as effective when applied to living public policy issues such as those involving the relations between science and society. Policy issues often have important scientific dimensions, but they are not exhausted by them. Moreover, closure is difficult to achieve and enforce when it comes to issues that matter to large, diverse communities.
Scientists often express frustration with policy processes because they seem to go on interminably and irrationally. According to the ideology of science there is some fact of the
matter or there is not. If there is some fact of the matter, we should find out what it is and act on it. If there is not, we should decide what to do and get on with it. Either way there is little point in dithering. Decisions about the societal role of science do not conform to this model, and if they become progressively uglier, as they might, the research community may become increasingly ill-humored.
There are certainly signs of this in some recent responses by scientists to external critiques and evaluations. There is a surprising amount of hostility to the very idea of professional ethics for scientists, and a remarkable willingness for many in the research community to side with powerful figures even when evidence of misconduct has been strong. Similarly, the response of some scientists to recent work in the history, philosophy, and sociology of science has been strikingly defensive. Attempts to replace idealizations of science with more realistic accounts are often viewed as “antiscience.” Some scientists have even complained that the work of philosophers such as Kuhn and Feyerabend is responsible for the lack of funding for scientific research. Rather than a willingness to assess recent work in science studies on the basis of its scholarly validity, there has been a tendency to oppose it on the grounds that it threatens science's halo, and therefore its claims on the public treasury.
What is to be done in the face of these divergent voices, interests, demands, standards of rationality, and so on? At least three strategies are possible.
One strategy is to deny that incoherent and inconsistent demands are being made. In this view, a skillful enough leadership should be able to massage these diverse interests and points of view into a new consensus. Another Vannevar Bush could lead us forward to the good old days.
A second strategy is cynical. Society is hostile to scientific research, and contradictory demands cannot be satisfied; therefore the research community should go its own way and treat public demands on science as a public relations problem. Science is too important to be left up to the public.
I favor a third strategy. We should acknowledge that the research community got a free ride during the good old days and now must face the important challenges that are emerging. Some fundamental questions must be addressed, not in the spirit of an interest group seeking to promote its interests and protect its privileges, but rather as public-spirited citizens who have special skills and competences and who are engaged in an honest rethinking of their role in society. Among the questions that need to be addressed are these: What is the relationship between science and technology? What is the impact of technology development on social inequality and class division? What is the relationship between science and the good life? What is science anyway? Why is it important?
Answers to such questions must emerge from dialogue and discussion, in various fora and meetings. These are questions that should be addressed by society as a whole and not just by the research community. I cannot claim to know in advance what would be the results of such a dialogue. Nor can I legislate a preferred relationship between the research community and society. However, on the basis of my own reflections on these questions, I will offer some tentative suggestions about the future role of the research community. These suggestions are offered in order to stimulate discussion, not to end it.
In one important respect we need to “descientize” society in the sense of lowering the expectations that we place on the research community. We look to climatologists to solve the climate change problem, engineers to make us economically competitive, and cosmologists to tell us about the meaning of life. But scientists are neither priests nor magicians. To a great extent these are human and behavioral problems that can only be addressed by people acting individually and collectively. Science will inform our responses, but it will not determine them.
This point is relevant to an increasingly influential criticism of the research community: that it fails to provide policymakers with relevant information. The National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program (NAPAP) is often cited as an example of this failure. Congress created NAPAP in 1980 to investigate the causes and effects of acid deposition and to recommend strategies for the control and mitigation of adverse effects. After ten years and $600 million, the results of NAPAP were generally regarded as disappointing. What happened is that scientists went off and did science, and policymakers were left to make their own decisions about acid rain. The fear has recently been expressed that the U.S. Global Change Research Program will go the same way, resulting in lots of scientific publications but little help for policymakers. There is no denying that scientists can and should do a better job of communicating their findings. However, the main problem with NAPAP was a lack of understanding on all sides about what the science could hope to deliver. Too often policymakers turn to science in the search for political cover. If science will decide an issue, then a policymaker won't have to make a decision. After all, nothing could be a more authoritative basis for a decision than science. In their search for funding, the research community encourages this attitude. Indeed, over the last several decades leading scientists have sometimes made predictions about what they could accomplish with large sums of money that would have embarrassed P.T. Barnum (and in some cases their predictions have been just about as credible). There is nothing wrong with doing science that is only marginally relevant to policy. The difficulty arises when both science and society try to transform human problems into scientific ones. It is this tendency that we should back away from. We need to expect less of science in providing solutions to human problems, and scientists should claim less for what they can hope to accomplish.
At the same time we need to “rescientize” society by promoting the idea of science as a fundamental human activity that may be valuable for its own sake. The most basic reason for doing science is that it is an expression of a deep human desire to understand. Too often science has been promoted for instrumental reasons, as providing solutions to problems that it cannot really solve. Instead it should be celebrated for its connections with some of our most fundamental human needs and desires.
Rescientizing society will require better education. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, the gap between state-of-the-art research and science education is enormous. The best researchers are not always the best teachers, and the best teachers are not always the best researchers. The plain truth is that, on the whole, the scientific community values research more than education, and universities are structured in a way that expresses this priority. This privileging of research over education is wrong for at least two reasons. The first, which has already been mentioned, is that a large part of the justification for public support of science is its role in human fulfillment. It cannot play this role unless it reaches deeply
into the fabric of society. The second reason relates directly to the interests of the research community. Like artists, scientists have too often neglected the fact that education plays an important role in building a constituency for their “cutting-edge” activities. Without a better-developed link to education, some areas of research could find themselves in much the same position as symphony orchestras —imperiled because they are expensive and elitist and have done little to develop their audiences. Moreover, when people do not identify with a publicly funded activity, they often become alienated from it and even directly opposed to it.
The idea of research as elitist raises the question of equity and access. As state-of-the-art research becomes more expensive and centralized and-top-of-the-line American education becomes increasingly privatized, the challenge of making science accessible to people regardless of race, class, and gender will become even more important. Although in recent years there have been some attempts (with mixed success) to bring women and people of color into science, little attention has been paid to the class issues involved. Indeed, a great deal of American science is now done by foreign graduate students and postdoctoral research fellows. This is a dangerous trend with respect to public support for scientific research. The less the research community is part of the United States, the more it will be the object of skepticism and even scorn.
These considerations point toward the need for greater attention to education, participation, and public outreach. But from the perspective of the research community, this emphasis is part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Many people believe that more science education means less scientific research. Education programs at the National Science Foundation have been budgetary winners in recent years, while some research programs have not done as well as they had hoped. However, the moral of the story that I am telling may be that in the future the research community will have to play a more active role in delivering quality education to a broad cross-section of the United States if it is to enjoy public support.
Even if the research community enjoys public support in the future, it still may not get ever-larger budgets. But instead of focusing on resources, we need to think about how research can develop and thrive in a changing environment. The most important resource for the research community in the future may be its links to society. Future research activities are likely to be sustained both by feeding into, and feeding off of, education and other societal concerns. In a period in which we want to get greater benefits out of fewer resources, perhaps there is a point to considering how the concept of sustainable development may apply to the research community.
It is very difficult for the research community to come to terms with the idea that science may develop while budgets remain flat. In recent years in science, as in the economy, “bigger” and “better” have been virtually synonymous. Moreover, the research community is decentralized, and it is difficult to obtain benefits through cooperation and better communication. Institutional reform will probably be required if we are to get the most science possible out of the resources that are available. The government may require new legal and policy instruments in order to promote cooperation across sectors and to allocate fairly the costs of research among those who are its greatest beneficiaries.
The new era of financial limits also raises questions about how much science is enough and how our scarce dollars should be targeted. For the most part the research
community defends the idea that scientists alone should decide how much money should be spent and on what projects. Ideally, all projects that have scientific merit should be funded. Despite its many defenders, this view is a lost cause. Earmarking and mandates have already transformed funding decisions into political ones. In the areas of both medical and science policy, influential proposals are on the table that would require judgments to be made not just about what is effective science or medicine, but also about how much to spend and how to allocate resources across specialties and disciplines. The most profound institutional question that we face is not whether there will be bodies that make these decisions, but how they will be constituted. For it is not clear that there is anyone currently who is competent to make these decisions. New kinds of science policy specialists will emerge who have tools that will help in these decision-making processes. But we must resist the temptation to take these decisions away from scientists and give them to some other elite. These are societal decisions, and everyone in the United States who is affected by science should be represented in the decision process.
As I have suggested, we are a diverse society with different interests and values; yet we all want to be heard. As individuals many of us have contradictory desires. There are different ways of trying to encompass multiple perspectives in a fair decision-making process. One of the great challenges of the future will be to construct such inclusionary processes. At best the result will be wild and wooly; at worst it will be chaos and anarchy. However, I believe that we have little choice but to try to construct such processes. My guess is that, in the future, society will demand nothing less.