Following a recent fascinating lecture organised by the Foundation of Science and Technology (Royal Society) on ‘Science and Policy’, I reflected on the possible implications for scientists as policy makers and/or socio-political influences and the resultant responsibilities of educational provides, whether in schools, colleges or universities.
The role and influence of scientists in formulating national policy has never been more important. The scientific dimension is but one of a number of a wider range of complex and interacting dimensions associated with the social/political/ financial domain. With the increasing concerns about the long-term consequences of scientific and technological developments on the global environment and people’s lives in general, there is a need to achieve an effective balance between science policy and the wider domains.
Increasingly the concept of a nation state is declining as a focus of power, being largely usurped by the growth and influence of multinationals and the resultant global economies. There is a breakdown in the traditional paradigms for the way Government and society operate and function. This is, in part, a product of increasing disenchantment with party political representation and, I would argue, largely explains the emergence of the power of factional interest groups and single-issue pressure groups, together with market, competition and profit values which downgrade public ownership and responsibility. These undoubtedly question traditionally understood forms of democracy and other political philosophies.
Science and technology already dominate what people take forgranted in their lives and it is important that scientists and technologists recognise and accept their full responsibilities for these realities both as policy makers/ influences and as citizens. Scientific and technological influences will, in future, have even greater prominence in daily life and in the products and services which will be in demand worldwide.
Science education, in terms of its process and content, must be reviewed and planned, so that people are better prepared for involvement in a science and technology-based workforce, or for a more informed understanding about their applications in society. A scientifically literate society and workforce must be central in lifelong learning and a learning society.
There is a common perception that science and technology is damaging to the environment and people’s way of life. This produces a negative and hostile view of science which manifests itself, at worst, in indifference and passivity towards the subject, or a view that it is elitist and closed. Among the sceptics are many who are interested in environmental issues but distrust the physical sciences, which they perceive to have damaged the environment and lowered quality of life.
Products and services which people take for granted are increasingly based on science and technology, but paradoxically people do not wish to see or understand the production processes that are associated with these, viewing them as damaging to the environment. The growth in the various lobbyists and factional interest groups is a symptom of how people feel about science and technology. Some recent examples highlighted these issues, namely, the debates arising from the decision by Shell to sink the Brent Spar oil platform into the sea and France and China’s decision to resume nuclear weapons testing.
Whatever the rights or wrongs of these decisions, one is still left with an overwhelming sense of confusion and uncertainty about the impact of such actions, People must surely be able to balance all the apparently contradictory information and evidence in order to form a view about the relative merits of such activities. Education and training must play a vital role in informing judgements.
The exploitation of radiation in its medical and military uses is a classic example of the closed and mysterious activities of science. The extent of misuse of radiation, especially in the development of nuclear weapons, is just emerging with the fiftieth anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. Notwithstanding the inevitable political and nationalistic imperatives ofthetime, this distortion of the uses of science makes scientists the architects of mass destruction in society’s view.
Even with the development of radiation diagnostic techniques in medicine, particularly with x-rays, there is now evidence of early ignorance of its dangers, both by scientists and operators. In order not to repeat these mistakes, and to help dispel the negative perception of science, scientific and technological issues must be more openly discussed and be central to educational content and process, both at the compulsoryand post-compulsory stages.
The current concerns associated with, say, pollution, peaceful use of nuclear energy and genetic engineering, require acceptable solutions, whether based on scientific, moral, economic, or political grounds. This will only be possible with a more scientifically literate society, with open debate between the scientists, decision makers and members of society in general. The Nobel Peace Prize to Professor Rotblat highlights the need for interest groups, which work over many years involving a number of informed and influential social and physical scientists.
Lifelong education and training, including continuing science education, must become consonant with technological, economic, political and societal change and, it could be argued, should even move in advance of public understanding of all these and other elements of change.
In the past, the passivity of science has largely developed a reactive stance by people. If,in the future, people wish to influence the consequences of science and technology, whether known oryetto be demonstrated, there needs to be a culture of pro-activity. The growth of well informed factional interest and ‘single issue’ groups, with the resultant enhanced empowerment of the individual, could help develop this pro-activity. There are some real dangers with such developments and there needs to be a sensible balance between the overall long-term benefits to society and the views of the factional groups. The lobbyists will raise important and legitimate concerns about scientific and technological developments. However, they actually could impede important, strategic and beneficial advances. A more informed populace, which is also more self critical about its consumer needs, could bring about more effective and acceptable changes associated with the consultation and planning phases.
Practising scientists/technologists must be key players in policy formulation, as science contributes to many elements of current and future policy. Science sees itself as being objective and deterministic. It should and can moderate policy. The right questions need to be raised. The key is how they should be framed within the wider social/political/financial domain. Should scientists be ‘on top’ or ‘on tap’ and how should this be managed within the strategic partnership that will finally articulate and form policy?
There is a major challenge ahead for teachers and institutions to find ways to produce a more scientifically literate society, which can be more aware of the possible consequences of scientific developments. Equally important isthe preparation of front-line scientists/ technologists to network among and beyond themselves. They need to become more ‘aware’ of the consequences of their discoveries and their resultant productions and help society to understand the implications clearly.
Dick Evans is Principal of Stockport College of Further and Higher Education and chair of the ASE Post 16 Science Committee.