Responsibility at the Science-Publics-Policy Interface: What I learnt at the 2013 Science in Public Conference

The village of Onna, after the 2009 L’Aquila
earthquake. Photo: Darkroom_Daze (Flickr)

by Stephen Whitfield
DPhil Student, Institute of Development Studies

This year’s ‘Science in Public’ conference hosted by Nottingham University was excellent. I came away from two captivating days of presentations, discussions and (at times heated) debates having learnt a lot… and inevitably feeling frustrated in the knowledge that there was so much more to be learnt from the panels that I wanted to, but couldn’t, attend.

This is my attempt to summarise the ideas and messages from the conference that most challenged and changed the way that I think about science and society.

Science in Public

In 2012 this annual conference series, which was originally known as ‘Science and the Public’, underwent a radical name change, becoming, as it is today, the ‘Science in Public’ conference. OK, so it’s not a particularly drastic change, but this subtle alteration reflected an important discontent about the separation of science and public as distinct spheres of operation. Of course, such a distinction is neither straightforward nor necessarily appropriate, as I’m sure almost everyone at the conference would agree – with the possible exception of the keynote speaker Harry Collins (whose presentation was aptly described in the most popular tweet of the conference as ‘unusual’).

‘Science in Public’ – which gives a nod to Gregory and Miller’s 1998 book – although perhaps slightly clunky, makes more sense than the previous name. In fact, what was clear across the panels was that science operates within multiple publics; that publics operate within science; and that politics, policies and power pervade. But the organisers can be excused for not opting to host the “Science in Publics in Policy in Science in Policy in Publics in Science” conference, which in all but name the conference was.

Across the panels that I attended, a number of really interesting ideas were expressed about how the components of the science-public-policy nexus relate to each other.  I summarise some of those that I found more surprising here:

  • The public are primarily concerned with how science is governed (even at very early stages). Karen Parkhill (Cardiff University) presented a fascinating report on her involvement in running public consultations around the SPICE (Stratospheric Particle Injection for climate Engineering) geo-engineering project.  She said that much of the public concern was not necessarily about the specific risks and benefits of the project, but that the project should be guided and regulated by structures and processes of good governance – that research funders and policy makers were being closely consulted about issues of uncertainty; that international governments were involved in the conversation around these; and that these conversations should be happening even at the early stage of project feasibility evaluation.

  • Funders and scientists must consider the diverse political implications and impacts of ‘basic’ research. Richard Jones (University of Sheffield) pointed out that there has been a funding shift in the UK from ‘applied’ science to ‘basic’ science (which focuses more on explaining fundamentals rather than developing products), and as a result there is more pressure on basic science to demonstrate impact. Kirsty Kuo, an engineer working on the SPICE project, described how she came to realise that even a feasibility study, which aimed to better understand the materials and properties of a tube that might ultimately deliver particles into stratosphere (and carried no direct risks or benefits), had political implications. She explained that concerns about the message that such a test may send out about the UK government’s long term geo-engineering intentions, ultimately led to the study being cancelled.

  • Policy makers need a better understanding of the processes by which science is legitimized. Franca Davenport, a specialist in science communication from the University of West England, pointed out that there is an appetite for and intention to pursue a pluralistic form of evidence-based policy amongst policy makers, but there are a number of challenges in translating multiple evidences into policy. One particular challenge is to be able to make judgements about evidence (a point that also came out in Harry Collins’ keynote), and central to this problem is that policy makers are not familiar enough with the processes (and subjectivities), such as peer review, through which science generates legitimized and accepted evidences. She argued that science communicators could have a role in bridging this gap between the processes of the science community and those by which evidence is translated into policy.

It seems that there are particularly important roles to be played for those at the interface between science, publics and policy. One of the strong themes of the conference was that the roles and responsibilities of science communicators and science media centres are contested, conflicting and often poorly defined, but nevertheless crucial.

Rethinking Responsibility

Coming to the conference, I was familiar with, but by no means an expert on, the Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) agenda (pdf) and I was relieved to discover at the conference that there isn’t really a standard interpretation, accepted definition, or application of the concept of RRI within Science & Technology Studies that had somehow passed me by.  Discussions over what RRI means – the how, why, what, by who, and for whom – took place throughout the two days. The panels led by Jack Stilgoe, which focused specifically on this subject,  were particularly engaging and evidently inspired new ideas, the seeds of which were emerging within the discussions themselves, and I’m sure will be developed as a consequence of them. I was struck by two points in particular:

  • Responsible innovation is also about making sure that innovation happens. Richard Jones made the point – which on reflection seems blatantly obvious, but it came as somewhat as a revelation to me – that responsible innovation is not simply about safeguarding publics against inappropriate or risky innovations; it’s also about the responsibility of ensuring that beneficial and important innovations do make it to markets and publics, such that the benefits are optimised and that innovation continues to be encouraged and motivated to progress. As such, responsibility relates not only to scientific processes or to the end products of innovation, but also to the pathways of innovation, involving critical and inclusive reflection on the risks and benefits associated with the possible (and uncertain) future trajectories of research and innovation.

  • We have a responsibility towards scientists. I am much more used to thinking about responsibility as something that scientists do for the public, so it was really eye-opening to hear from people considering the reverse relationship in terms of responsibility. I was fascinated to hear Ikuko Kase (University of Tokyo) talk about how Japanese scientists who had participated in public engagement exercises around the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear plant incident had been ‘wounded’ by the experience, during which they had felt politically conflicted and had been publicly criticised.

    This situation was echoed in the case of the Italian scientists prosecuted for the public predictions they made about the L’Aquila earthquake, a case study that was recounted by Giuseppe Tipaldo (University of Turin) at the conference. Ann Kerr (Leeds University) made the point, in relation to some of her work on the careers of post-doctoral researchers in health innovation, that there is a need to recognise a responsibility of care towards scientists and innovators. It was clear from the cases of Japan and Italy that some of this responsibility must fall on publics, media and policy-makers.

Responsibility is a concept that remains up for negotiation, and cases were differently made (and critiqued) for it being founded on principles of ‘justice’ and ‘care’ and involving attitudes of ambivalence and processes of anticipation, reflection, inclusion and response. But what is clear is that responsibility is multidirectional and cuts across the complex relationships that make up the science-publics-policy nexus.

I really look forward to reading the accounts and reflections of others at the conference, which also included sessions on social media (including a live link-up to the International Congress for History of Science, Technology and Medicine in Manchester); ‘science versus the greens’; storytelling as a means of public engagement with science; and the role of science fiction in the social construction of science and technology – all of which I wish I could have attended. I’m sure that the ideas and thinking that the conference has sparked will lead to some really interesting and insightful outputs within Science & Technology Studies over the coming months.

This article was originally posted on The Crossing.


  1. Thanks very much, Stephen. It was a shame I wasn’t able to make the conference, and this provides a very useful taste of what happened.

  2. If human population dynamics is essentially common to the propulation dynamics of other species and, consequently, if food supply is the independent not the dependent variable in the relationship between food and population, then a lot of what has been reported could be distractions that serve to dismiss rather than disclose vital but unwelcome science of what could somehow be real regarding the human population and, more importantly, why our behavior is so utterly destructive of everything we claim to be protecting and preserving. May I make a request? Could we focus now, here, on whether or not human exceptionalism applies to its population dynamics alone or is the dynamics of all species, including human beings, similar? Whatever your response, please make reference to scientific research that supports your point of view.

    It seems to me that if we keep engaging in and hotly pursuing worldwide overproduction, overconsumption and overpopulation activities, distinctly human activities that cannot be sustained much longer on a planet with size, compostion and ecology of Earth, then the human species is a clear and present danger on our watch to future human well being, life as we know it, and environmental health. If we can see ourselves to be ‘the problem’, then it is incumbent upon us to bring forward the best available evidence from science, especially when that evidence happens to relate directly to why we are pursuing a soon to become, patently unsustainable (superhigh)way of life. A tip of the hat is due Rachel Carson for making me aware of the superhighway. Should humankind emerge from ‘the bottleneck’ E.O. Wilson imagines for us in the future and somehow escape the precipitation of our near-term extinction, how are those survivors to organize life sustainably and not repeat the mistakes we are making now… and have been making for a long time? Without knowledge of why we are doing what we are doing, every one of us is forever trapped in an eternal recurrence of unsustainable life cycles, I suppose.

    Sincerely yours,

    Steve Salmony

    PS: Rachel Carson’s quote,

    We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road—the one “less traveled by”—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.
    Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964)

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