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Who Is Directing Science?

The relationship between science and society has changed. Much of our society now depends on technology, and although many technological advances are beneficial, there are also those that pose great risks. Whereas most people accept that technological advances should be carefully assessed before they're given the go-ahead, the question of who should control the direction that basic science takes is much trickier.

One of the main forces directing science is undoubtedly funding. And so who is supplying that funding and how it is targeted fall at the heart of many ethical issues. For example, the commercialisation of science was a hot topic at a recent meeting where Scientists for Global Responsibility ( SGR), a group of scientists who aim to 'steer science and technology into constructive and just directions', looked at the question of whether or not scientists can be trusted. As Stuart Parkinson puts it in a recent SGR report, "as scientists we should be concerned about who's pulling our strings."

So where does the funding coming from? Research is often supported by organizations with a vested interest in the results, but because they supply the funding, those organizations inevitably set the goals. Research with industrial or commercial applications is particularly likely to be 'directed' in this way. In contrast, academic research at first glance appears to be 'undirected' given the space it leaves, or at least left until recently, for scientists to exercise their imaginations. "One of the fundamental functions of undirected science is to explore all aspects of the natural world," said Professor John Ziman, FRS, at the SGR meeting. But funding bodies, whether they back industrial or academic research, are bound to have certain expectations and influence the way research is carried out. So does academic freedom actually exist? Or has academic science become so dependent on public and corporate funding that it is just as directed as corporate science?

Someone who believes that the distinction between 'directed' and 'undirected' science has become blurred indeed over the last decades is William Stewart, former chief scientific adviser to the prime minister and president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. "In the late 1970s, science became more subtly directed," he said at a debate hosted in April by New Scientist and Greenpeace at the Royal Institution entitled 'Can science be directed?' However, even though before that projects may have been less directed in terms of the areas chosen, they were very specific and funded for short periods of time, with research councils wanting regular updates. "I think that actually held science back," said Stewart.

So why the change? It was feared that the UK was unable to compete with the huge numbers of labs around the world in important fields such as health and the environment. To give the UK a competitive edge, key areas of research were chosen for funding--it became easier to lobby for support if the research carried an 'economic advantage'. But have things gone too far? According to Ziman, research has merged into a new 'postacademic' culture over the last 30 years, in which university science is now funded primarily for its potential impact and is potential market exploitation.

In Ziman's opinion these two modes of 'directed' and 'undirected' research are incompatible, and cracks are beginning to show. "The situation is already becoming noticeably serious," he says, and the costs can be counted in terms of plagiarism, withheld data, fraud, and bureaucratic management. But he also feels that there is no going back to traditional academic science. He argues that 'directed' science enables the development of beneficial products, and "to opt out of that way of doing science is to opt out of the modern way of life."

Panelists at the Royal Institution debate echoed Ziman's concerns. "Science is being directed by invisible actors," says Vandana Shiva, a physicist and environmental activist. She feels that the privatisation of science will destroy what little internal democracy there is. Parkinson also fears commercial interest. "Will the increasing emphasis on commercially driven science lead to technologies that are more profitable but less environmentally and socially beneficial?" he asks in the SGR report.

So what is the way forward for science?

While Stewart argues that the very best science should have freedom, he calls for restricted funding. He is against taxpayers funding all PhDs regardless of their quality. Instead, he feels that the bulk of science should be directed toward the best interests of the UK, and that when this is impossible the extent to which the taxpayer contributes to the cost should be questioned.

Another debate panelist, the Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, agrees with restricting funding, but he cites different reasons. He suggests that funding should be directed away from fields where the applications may be dangerous. While this would not stop blind research, it would slow it down. However he is aware that funding cuts could hold back the sort of discoveries that come from sheer curiosity, such as the discovery of x-rays.

Perhaps the public could, and should, have more say in the direction of science. Steve Fuller, a professor of sociology at the University of Warwick who also took part in the Royal Institution debate, feels that the public and science are at odds with one another. He wants to see the formation of a citizen's jury to improve public participation. Such a jury would consist of public jurors, who would draw up policy guidelines, expert witnesses from the scientific community, and special interest groups.

Some scientists might feel rather nervous at the thought of the public guiding the direction that their research takes. But Fuller stresses that rather than being ignorant of science, the public is simply not involved. He believes that members of the public are able to think beyond their personal experience--"People are not irrational about this," he says. Fuller prefers to think of scientific direction in terms of 'can we live with the consequences?' and feels that science policy should be reversible--risks can be taken but bad decisions must be reversed.

Such public participation could also help scientists with their public image, which has suffered badly over the years. The lack of trust toward scientists resurfaces every time a controversial issue hits the headlines. Michael Atiyah, former president of Pugwash, says in the SGR report that he wants scientists to take more responsibility for their work and the consequences of their actions.

There are good reasons to regain the respect of the public. At the end of the day it is the taxpayer who elects the government that controls the purse strings and, consequently, the direction that science takes.