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Who's 'in charge' of science?

By Julian Cribb - posted Tuesday, 28 August 2007

The power of science and technology over human lives is rising inexorably - and so too is the power struggle over who governs science and how it should be done.

The options debated nowadays range from nobody to the scientists, the institutions, the free market, the government and the public. There are arguments for and against each.

If nobody governs science but the job is left to the push and pull of the various contenders in politics, industry, science and society then, it may be argued, there is no way to control some of the dangerous things that may arise from new knowledge and its misapplication. An example is the growing number of deadly human disease organisms (1918 flu, polio, ebola, smallpox, and so on) which are being artificially engineered in biotech labs around the world, for no reason other than to see if it can be done - and with the risk of slaying millions. Clearly, “no one” is in charge of these labs.


Scientists often insist, as the ones who best understand the potential of new knowledge, they are also best placed to decide whether it should be pursued and how it should be applied. Society and industry, on the other hand, are reluctant to buy the argument “we know what’s best for you” and push the cash under the lab door. So the “scientist rules” model of the 18th and 19th centuries has fallen into disfavour.

Institutions mostly “run” science today, but their power is ebbing as governments, business, lawyers, religious groups, NGOs, the media and others lay claim to it. The main drawbacks with institutions in the eyes of this competition are their insularity, inefficiency and tendency to self-importance. Also the fact that their science is often governed by unaccountable “stakeholders”.

Governments sometimes assert that, as the major funders of science , it is their prerogative to dictate what it does, on behalf of society. But governments are frequently out of step with social values and invariably way behind the knowledge frontier. Very often, when told something scientific that perturbs their political worldview - as in greenhouse - their response is to clap their hands over their ears and silence the offending researcher or institution.

It is fashionable to argue that science should be left to the market, as its competitive pressures will ensure the most economically useful outcomes from research and development - but the market has two shortcomings. It is often selfish and nearly always short sighted. On the whole it lacks the stamina for scientific investment, does not see a need for enquiry motivated research, and seldom gives a hang for the public good. It is also not particularly good at picking scientific winners, instead hankering after better mousetraps. Nonetheless, its dollars speak loudly.

The argument is now frequently heard that science should be more “democratic” and that the public should have a greater say in its governance. This sends a chill down many a scientific spine, aware of the public’s stunning ignorance of the most basic science, or even the principles of evidence-based inquiry. But till recently the public has had the whip-hand in one sense: if they didn’t like what science produced, they could reject it - as they have so far declined to eat weedkiller-ready food.

However science should not forget that the human race only got this far in the last million years or so by relying on the hunches of an uninformed public, which was both cautious and adventurous when it came to new things. The public knows what science sometimes forgets: no technology has ever been invented which did not have downsides. The public likes the upsides - but wants to know about the others.


Many scientists are willing to discuss these downsides publicly - but are frustrated because their institutions, commercial partners and governments do not want them to. They are, in short, gagged. The prevailing tendency to talk up the beneficial features of new advances and deny or ignore the adverse ones is more than disingenuous. It is dishonest. It is giving science a bad name.

A place to start in designing a better way to govern science than the tangle we have today may be with the basic human rights to safety, liberty, equality, due process and welfare. Outcomes of science which can’t deliver on all these fronts, or which may erode any of them, require stern governance and stronger public, legal, ethical and other forms of scrutiny. They demand open public debate.

So swift is the advent of new technologies today that human freedoms and rights may crumble before we realise it, making it essential to consider these matters at the outset of the research - not after the technology it yields becomes pervasive. Most of our scientific governance systems do not encompass this. They were built for yesterday, by elites.

They need renewal, in line with today’s Australian values and the power of the “disruptive” sciences. They need to recognise the society-wide trend to participatory democracy - especially if the public is funding the science.

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First published in The Australian on August 22, 2007.

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About the Author

Julian Cribb is a science communicator and author of The Coming Famine: the global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it. He is a member of On Line Opinion's Editorial Advisory Board.

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