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Responsibility

By deferring to their science studies colleague on points of ‘elsi’, scientists exhibit the kind of neutrality that Shapin calls ‘demoralisation’ (Shapin, 2008). He shows that the question of whether or not scientists’ expertise gives them a privileged position on moral issues is a contingent one, and the answer has shifted with circumstance: scientists deploy the different aspects of their ‘special’ and ‘ordinary’ status when it suits them or their paymasters, opting into and out of roles of power, influence and action. Shapin notes Pinker’s description of the scientist as a ‘moral nerd’, with its connotations of childish innocence. During the ‘science wars’ of the 1990s, scientists blamed the problems they saw in the science-society relationship on the public, on journalists and on academic science studies. I wrote about this briefly then, and argued that if scientists wanted to reshape their relationship with the public, they could start by putting some work in on themselves. The name I gave this work was ‘responsibility’ (Gregory, 2001). Responsibility is a non-distributed version of ethics: where ethics asks ‘What is the right thing to do?’, responsibility asks ‘What is the right thing for me to do?’, and then does it. It differs from the more symmetrical concept of citizenship, which confers rights as well as responsibilities; responsibility, on the other hand, does not ask for recompense. As Wagner (2008) points out, in the network society, scientists are as responsibilised as everyone else: as individuals, they have unprecedented potential to coordinate and publish their research beyond the reach of national governance, and to seek out and interact with new people and communities.

The word ‘responsibility’ goes in and out of fashion: its currency in the science studies literature of its formative years, the 1970s, declined in the 1980s and disappeared in the 1990s. Now it is creeping back into our vocabulary, most obviously in the professionalised and esoteric form ‘RRI’, which stands for ‘responsible research and innovation’ – a social research agenda that is being heavily funded by the European Commission (an organisation – as the British have recently been painfully reminded – that is primarily an economic consortium). But ‘responsible science’ has a much longer history, and scientists’ explicit commitment to it has emerged usually at times of crisis (Rose and Rose, 1969; Beckwith and Huang, 2005). After the Second World War, because of the Bomb, the atomic scientists took the lead, and the professional organisations in the USA, in particular the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), encouraged the discussion; and in the late 1960s, Vietnam, Silent Spring, and recombinant DNA mobilised scientists in the UK into less formal groupings, such as the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science (BSSRS) (Wilkins, 2003). BSSRS’s journal, Science for People, looks like many of the pamphlets and fanzines of the new social movements that were proliferating at that time; and, indeed, many of the topics the scientists in BSSRS were tackling – pollution, energy, war – were also taken up as causes by those movements.

Figure 1

Cover of Science for People magazime showing pen and ink illustration of a soldier carrying a gun attached by hose to a petrol pump

Science for People shows scientists publicly engaging with politics and economics, in the style of the activist movements of the time.

The short life of BSSRS was attributed by one leading member to its having been eclipsed by more competent lay activism (Wilkins, 2003). Geneticists Beckwith and Huang (2005) note that ‘events, not the education of the scientist, were the “educational moment” that generated social responsibility among scientists’. It takes an imminent global catastrophe to responsibilise scientists, and, as Beckwith and Huang remark, ‘Waiting for such crises will not do’. In any case, it seems that, in 1970s Britain, society preferred to rest its hopes with the activists rather than with the nerds.

There are some lessons for science from the discussion about social responsibility of scientists in the 1970s. Richard C Atkinson, psychologist and Director of the US National Science Foundation, saw responsibility in instrumental terms, as a way of retaining control of research in the face of intensifying regulation and policy:

A large measure of freedom is essential to the pursuit of science...scientists can best preserve that freedom by exercising a large measure of social responsibility. [...] Scientists must be prepared to exercise self-regulation when appropriate, or join with non-scientists in monitoring external controls if necessary. (Atkinson, 1978)

Atkinson’s advice acknowledges that preserving a special, elite status for scientists may mean not cutting themselves off from the social, but combining forces with non-scientists. Rip and Boeker (1975), writing from the Netherlands, also highlighted the tensions between the elite and the socialised, by identifying not only dilemmas of focus and outcome, such as those of academic research versus military or industrial research, but also the tensions of an elite, technocratic orientation in a social-democratic society.

Two central themes emerge from the discussion within the scientific community at this time. The first is about communication: scientists themselves have a responsibility to tell others what is going on in science. They should do this in order to facilitate the political process. (This is different from communicating science to have fun, make money, become famous, make science look good, or recruit future scientists.) The second theme is that scientists themselves have a responsibility to speculate about the future, and to improve their own understanding of the potential of their work. Rose and Rose (1969) sum these up:

The special responsibility that falls upon the scientist...must be that of both interpreting current science, and in helping to assess its consequences. This is a role that only he can fill. (p 247)

Rose and Rose contend, however, that scientists are not adventurous when tackling possible futures, and they do not enjoy it: their speculations tend to be conservative and bound to very particular values. Nearly thirty years on, Beckwith and Huang argue that scientists lack the education to undertake this important task; which perhaps explains why, in public engagement and RRI, science studies people are recruited for this work. Because science studies people take on this role and this responsibility, the scientists do not have to learn how. Scientists remain ‘as is’.

Among the young scientists involved in the responsibility movement of the 1970s was physics student Brian Martin, and it inspired him to pursue a career in science studies. However, by 1993 he was disappointed: he argued that the academic form of the critique of science had distanced science studies from social problems. In the 1970s, he wrote, ‘a critique of science was seen as a critique of society’ (Martin, 1993). Martin recalls his excitement as he worked his way through the activist-academics such as Bob Young, Rose and Rose, Jerry Ravetz and David Dickson, and then explored the knowledge-theorists Kuhn, Barnes, Bloor and Mulkay. But the more sophisticated these critiques became, and the more professionalised and institutionalised science studies became, the more the scholarship lost touch with what Martin calls ‘the flesh and blood struggles in and over science’:

...the radical activists are fast adrift from the discipline in the mainstream quest for job security and status which are achieved through professionalization and specialisation. Just as politics has become the study of government and economics has become the study of capitalism, so science studies has become the study of science as it is serving society as it is.

Martin argues that the increasing sophistication of science studies makes it less useful, especially when the theoretical trend is towards the analysis of the analyst. The professional work of science studies had become:

…a process of taking over the insights of the radical critics, recasting them in an academic and sanitized mould, and pursuing the dilemmas internal to the resulting intellectual terrain. [my emphasis]

This rings true not only about science studies, but also about the microcosm of public engagement, where first, we argued that public engagement would be a good way to tackle problems in science and society; then we neglected the problems themselves while we thought about democracy, governance, process and relationships; and now we reflect on our own involvement in public engagement.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160607/008