Scientists shouldn’t be afraid of working for and with society.
We continue our reading of the chapter 3, Science for sustainable development, of the report The Future is now. And we are still in the introduction (and will be for a few posts to come).
In the previous post, we have seen that science for the SDGs has not only to do with science, but also with the ability of science to interact with societies. Today, we come to a part where this interaction is seen from the point of view of the individual scientist.
The authors acknowledge that it is not easy for scientists to take into account Agenda 2030 in their work. But they suggest that they try seriously: they shouldn’t stay “in their laboratories”, but work in the context of partnerships with other stakeholders.
Often driven by pressure to produce quick results, many scientists, engineers, and development practitioners continue to rely on simple framing and research, or intervention methods, even for difficult problems, such as the transitions to decarbonized energy systems. Instead, there should be innovative partnerships between science, technology, policy and society. Guided by the 2030 Agenda, scientists in relevant fields can work with diverse stakeholders to build consensus for specific transformation pathways.
Independence of research
Doing research in such a societal perspective raises however ethical issues. Especially, can scientists produce good science and independent results if they are involved in partnerships with other stakeholders, especially some who may have ideological or political aims? The authors answer that it should be the case, and that scientists must be able to produce high level science in such a context.
Are you convinced by their answer? It certainly should be discussed, by scientists and others. We are looking forward that IYBSSD 2022 will offer opportunities to do so.
Scientists, for whom professional independence and rigour are defining principles, may be wary about such engagement which is necessarily value-laden, worrying that it threatens independence, rigour and even the credibility of science. But that need not – indeed must not – be the case. Scientific research focused on sustainable development has to uphold the highest standards of scientific rigour, in particular transparency, reproducibility, falsifiability and compliance with specific standards of the discipline, but it should also consider relevant societal norms and objectives, as well as people’s and communities’ aspirations and preferences, and explicitly address these as part of the research.
Science for society?
The authors then provide some examples of interactions between science and society. With these examples, they intend to show that setting Agenda 2030 as a broad context to do research is not really a new way to do science: science has always been interacting with society. It has been used for (and in some cases, it has collaborated to) policy, for the worse and for the better.
This point too is a good start for a discussion involving scientists and different stakeholders, on specific examples. History, especially history of science, will be very useful here (and we are happy that IUHPST joined IYBSSD 2022 Steering Committee).
Complex interactions between scientists and wider society are not new. Throughout history, science has forged alliances with political forces. In some cases, that has served very narrow nationalistic, even imperial interests. Vivid examples include the colonial expansion of western powers from the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries.
At the same time, there are inspiring examples of scientific evidence stirring awareness of global challenges, such as stratospheric ozone depletion, deforestation and HIV/AIDS. And then there are cases of scientific knowledge that marked turning points in public knowledge or debates, but sometimes spurred sufficient action only decades later, as with the discovery of penicillin, Rachel Carson’s insights into pesticide use and the contribution of carbon emissions to climate change. Major international environmental agreements have scientific assessment bodies that present evidence to decision makers on difficult and complex topics.