Science and innovation policy as though 'Somewhere' mattered

Joanna Chataway |

In his book, ‘The Road to Somewhere’, David Goodhart writes a powerful analysis of recent and unexpected electoral outcomes.  In his narrative, ‘Anywheres’ have dominated policy over recent decades.  Anywheres are highly educated, liberal elites committed to openness in trade and immigration policies, at ease with the ebb and flow of waves of cultural change and with a looser affiliation to traditional norms.  That domination has been dramatically derailed by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump to the White House.  The neglect of ‘Somewheres’ in policy agendas, the failure to address their concern with the disruptive impact of open social and economic political programmes, has found an outlet in populist politics and the break with ‘politics as usual’. The recent French election too has highlighted this tension between ‘Somewheres’ and ‘Anywheres’.

Reviews of the book have been numerous and split in their assessment of Goodhart’s analysis.  His message that Anywheres had better own up to their entrenched elitism and mistaken assumption that progress is manifest and on their side is difficult and for some problematic.   I won’t attempt a synthesis or overall reflection on the book here.  Suffice to say that I read the book with a sense of identification with its author, a recovering Anywhere, and respect for his willingness to voice profound unease with the notion that Anywhere is the only direction of travel.  I also have a notion that Goodhart’s analysis might be relevant to current dilemmas facing those of us working in science, technology and innovation policy.  In this blog I make a first endeavour to articulate the links.

If there is an area in which the logic of Anywheres seemingly makes total sense it is in the world of science.  While not all scientists themselves fall into this category, on the basis of Goodhart’s categorisation, it is probably true that the very large majority do.   The logic would seem clear.  The best science is achieved by the best scientists working with freedom of movement so that elite groups can congregate without being hampered by national borders.  How do we know this?  How can we trust that their science is excellent?  Well, because their peers acknowledge it as such and, subject to blind peer review, it is published in the highest ranking journals.   We know because those mechanisms purport to try and guarantee the sanctity of a ‘republic of science’, where national and other social allegiances are filtered out to produce distilled ‘truths’.  Defections from the republic’s line tend to be ignored or are considered as suspect.  The quality of work, rather than focus or orientation, is called into question.

Except now it is increasingly apparent that the guarantees don’t work perfectly at all and it isn’t that simple. In recent years there has been a recognition that our markers for quality are inaccurate and that what passes for excellent science is far from being straightforward to assess.  Versions of the critique have been produced by bastions of the scientific elite themselves.  From Nobel prize winners, such as Rudy Shekman, to numerous articles in leading journals like Nature and The Lancet, alarm has been expressed at the large amount of inaccurate and unworthy science that makes it through the ‘checks and balances’ we rely upon to guarantee excellence.  The Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC), and other science producing outfits that fund and operate outside conventional scientific research norms, have shown that not all who question aspects of the ‘republic of science’ can be easily dismissed on the grounds of quality of work.

Doubt around the mechanisms commonly deployed to assess the value and contribution of science have led some to question whether a universal criteria of quality, excellence and rigour are really possible at all.   One way of putting this is, can we rescue science from bad practice entrenched in a dubious system of flawed checks and balances, or should we think about science as so closely bound with political, cultural and economic power structures that universal norms and truths are meaningless?   Donald Trump, who speaks to and is heard by many Somewheres, is one expression of the sceptics and dissidents’ cohort that are moving away from the republic of science, who question the right of scientists and experts to call the shots on a range of issues including health and climate change. Michael Gove’s infamous allusion to the diminishing relevance of experts might also be thought of in this light.

When we move from translating science to innovation the contention that excellent science seamlessly produces positive outcomes is on more shaky ground still.   An industry of innovation analysts produce numerous academic works and consultancy reports making clear that the best science only benefits people when combined with productive institutional and organisational environments incorporating a host of complementary skills and activities.

However, with notable exceptions, acknowledgement of the limits of current efforts to adequately determine the excellence of science leave largely untouched a host of political economy, cultural and social identity issues that the scientific elite themselves and the policy community might need to grapple with, and which can be thought of as related to the concerns of Somewheres highlighted by Goodhart.   There exists a profound challenge with constructing policy for science and innovation that integrates the needs and preferences of those whose taxes pay for science, research and innovation.

In a preface to a study on using anti-retrovirals to prevent as well as treat HIV/AIDS which I worked on a couple of years ago, Desmond Tutu wrote that ‘All Science is Local’.  What he meant was that science only becomes meaningful when those to whom it is relevant believe that findings are real and beneficial.   Whether or not we can construct widely agreed upon and viable measures of scientific truth and quality of scientific outputs (I believe that we can and must), we must also deal with a growing disconnect between a world of ‘Anywhere’ science production and policy, and the needs and perceptions of those who reside in the discourse of ‘Somewheres’.  Numerous studies, including the one that Tutu was referring to, have made the point that the issues need to be thought about in terms well beyond the application of scientific results.   We need to diversify our funding of science and broaden our notion of excellence so that we acknowledge a diversity of criteria that can be used to measure the quality of science and scientific practice.  The critiques about what actually constitutes excellent science provides an additional opportunity for us to do this.

We are only at the beginning of grappling with this issue.  Part of this effort needs to be about how to fund science and innovation that directly addresses social, environmental and economic challenges. We should look at that agenda at the outset of research so that these concerns are fully integrated into the way scientists construct issues, problems and, therefore, research programmes.  This signifies a profound change for both the funding of science and the behaviour of scientists and innovators.  It should not be the only framing of science and innovation policy but it should be much more prominent than it is at present.

What might this new framing look like?  The Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex, together with research and innovation funding and policy agencies in Sweden, Norway, Colombia, Finland and South Africa have formed a partnership to work on this agenda.  The Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium aims to develop an understanding of how it might be possible to do science and innovation policy differently.  Fostering a new appreciation, expressed via funding and recognition, of science and research that addresses locally relevant contexts and needs, rather than internationally set agendas on the ‘cutting edge’ is important.  This type of approach would lead scientists and researchers by necessity to talk more to a wide range of people and disciplines, and not just their peers.  That will not prove popular with some scientists who object on the grounds that such undertakings are irrelevant and a distraction.  They, and others, will also point to the dangers of this being prejudicial against early stage work, which may have unpredictable benefits.   Those concerns need to be heard but we should make clear that the objective of TIPC is not to replace current ways of funding science and innovation but to diversify the way that science is funded and evaluated. To go back to the republic of science metaphor, as we rethink how we measure and assess excellence in science and what it is to be an excellent scientist, we may need to introduce into the notion of the Anywheres’ republic of science, the idea of federal domains relevant to the local and the concern of Somewhere.

References

Mapping Pathways: Developing evidence-based, people centered strategies for the use of ARVs as prevention.  http://www.rand.org/randeurope/research/projects/aids-treatment-prevention.html

Evaluation of the Structual Genomics Consortium.. http://www.rand.org/randeurope/research/projects/structural-genomics.html

Klienert and Horton, (2014) How should medical science change? The Lancet, Vol, 383, No.9913

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