Science in society: caring for our future in turbulent times

Science in Society: Caring for our Futures in Turbulent Times

Over the past two decades, concerns about the relation between science and society at European and Member State levels have gone through a number of shifts (see diagram below). This evolution reveals the continuous struggle to adequately address this relation. Previously, science enjoyed a large degree of freedom to pursue curiosity-driven inquiries without facing the scrutiny of democratic accountability. Then, a new social contract pushed the idea that scientific production should be demonstrating, in a clear way and with short-term goals, that it is beneficial for the public good.

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Turbulent times

As Europe faces numerous challenges, a recent report , called “Science in Society: Caring for our Futures in Turbulent Times”, appeared at a critical time. It was published at the end of 2013, by the European Science Foundation (ESF). Among the challenges we face, one is linked to the fact that science is increasingly governed simultaneously through multiple sites—ranging from policy institutions at European, national and local level, and funding agencies to civil organisations—and in disparate ways. Meanwhile, the dominant climate of continued turbulence or unrest, and of recession and austerity, also influences the governance of science and technology.

This situation raises significant implications for science-society relations.

In the context of the recession, the pressure for innovation ‘before it’s too late’ has been vigorously promoted in Europe. It is presented as the way out of the crisis and as the foundation for future prosperity. Solutions have been brought in to temper and repair the tensions arising from the science-society relations. They are often one-size-fits-all instruments, including, for example, communication activities, which are deployed to address rather diverse cultural context. This approach is based on the idea of a quite uniform European public with a shared set of values. It thus fails to see the local and context-specific character of socio-technical innovation processes. And it also fails to realise that Europe could become a ‘laboratory’ for developing new understandings of such innovation processes.

Shift in science-society approach

To address such disconnect, the ESF report advocates a shift of our approaches to science-society issues. It recommends moving away from a logic of clear-cut choices, which suggest the idea of a linear problem-solving by picking what would be considered the right solution. Instead, it presents the need to pursue a logic of care. This involves adopting an adaptive and more open-ended process of dealing with science and society issues in the face of diversity and rapid change; a trend already present well before the recession hit.

The report also calls for a more careful approach to the meaning of the notions ‘science’ and ‘society’, as articulated in many official programmes, activities and policy discourses. Neither science nor society are homogenous stable entities. Therefore, debate and actions should move away from an understanding of ‘Science’ and ‘Society’, seen as detached monolithic entities, as is common currency in science policy circles. Instead, it would be more appropriate to consider them within a more situation and context-specific framings. There, ‘science’ and ‘society’ become deeply intertwined and benefit from a dedicated space for engagement, as outlined in the diagram below.

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In order to successfully operate this shift in the science and society relations, key specific recommendations in the report touch upon five broad areas.

  • First, it recommends linking excellence to relevance and responsibility. This means moving away from defining excellence according to narrow indicators. It also suggests opening the notions of relevance beyond economic criteria. And it involves calling for considering more carefully the societal impact of basic research.
  • Second, integrating science-society perspectives into research projects is essential, while also creating space for the social sciences and humanities. The latter would be responsible for asking wider questions, beyond single projects, about the development of an innovation driven society.
  • Third, the report suggests taking the plurality in Europe, as a unique space of collective responsible experimentation. This means creating a better understanding of the differences between European cultures when it comes to developing and implementing science and technology. Innovation processes should, thus, creatively use these different experiences. Furthermore, the very notion of innovation should be broadened to include the social sciences, humanities and arts.
  • Fourth, the recommendations are in favour of abandoning the idea of controlling top-down science-society relations; often done via surveys. Instead, it suggests exploring and engaging with those relations in creative ways. This could mean, giving more voice to knowledge actors such as civil society organisations or other citizens ready to engage in processes of innovation.
  • Fifth, the final recommendation suggests dedicating more time and space for reflexive work within research. This would require creating visible incentive structures to make it possible for researchers to engage in these activities without damaging their career opportunities.

Overall, one key message emerges from the report is that the relationship between science and society is an on-going issue. The ESF report represents one contribution to further this unfinished debate.

Ulrike Felt, professor of science and technology studies at the University of Vienna, Austria


Daniel Barben, professor for future studies at RWTH Aachen University, Germany

Alan Irwin, dean of research at Copenhagen Business School, Denmark

Pierre-Benoît Joly, director of research specialised in innovation, research and society, at the National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), France

Arie Rip, professor of philosophy of science and technology at the University of Twente, The Netherlands

Andrew Stirling, professor science and technology policy at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom

Tereza Stöckelová, researcher at the Institute of Sociology, Academy of Sciences, Czech Republic

Featured image credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 by Rick Harris

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