Saturday, 14 February 2015

When science is politics

“The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.” President Dwight D. Eisenhower - farewell address, 1961.

The majority of scientists are well-intentioned middle class folk who would love to do good science because that’s what they thought they were signing up for while jumping through all those qualification hoops.

Unfortunately there is a problem when those scientists come into contact with government money as I and no doubt thousands of others have found during our careers. Over the years I gradually became embalmed in the government way, signed witness statements and went to court on its behalf. On my behalf too because it paid the mortgage.

Professionally it isn’t particularly fulfilling, but as a friend and former colleague recently agreed, the weaknesses and inadequacies are not so easily seen from the inside. Those on the inside are enfolded by the system, by its security and endless exigencies.

The problem is not unconnected with post-normal science.

Post-Normal Science is a concept developed by Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz, attempting to characterise a methodology of inquiry that is appropriate for cases where "facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent" (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1991). It is primarily applied in the context of long-term issues where there is less available information than is desired by stakeholders.

Traditional scientists don't like the idea but post-normal science is real, especially in complex areas where political decisions are made and pressure groups are prominent. The so-called precautionary principle is part of the same problem.

In government science -

Politics and the legal and regulatory framework come joint first. The bureaucracy, finance, PR, health and safety, IT systems, diversity and fashionable fads all fight it out for third place.

Science trails in about tenth.

Science has social status, but in the political world that is merely something to be used. An angle. The time will come when science loses its social status, but at the moment it has some value as a means to political ends.

It is naive to build castles in the air based on a notion of science as a detached and incorruptible knowledge culture. Government science doesn’t come close to the ideal. It is not detached from anything – it is a government job embedded in government security and government exigencies.

We may as well get used to it.


Sackerson said...

And when science loses its credibility, all sorts of things will crawl out of the woodwork.

A K Haart said...

Sackers - they do and I can't see it changing for the better. Government is where the money is.

Demetrius said...

Have we in fact gone back to the 17th Century in much of our thinking?

A K Haart said...

Demetrius - in a sense we have in that the dead hand of officialdom counts for more than it should.