Friday, June 12, 2009

Science and the Public Interest

There was a thought-provoking program on scientific innovation on Leading Edge last night, which I caught on my way to the Apollo in Herne Hill. They interviewed an author and engineer called Anne Miller who has studied how to overcome resistance to new ideas in some detail and has written about her findings in a book called The Myth of the Mousetrap.

They also spoke with someone called Don Braben, a scientist who is vehemently opposed to the idea of leaving science to the vagaries of peer review. He proposes that much more research has a genuinely 'blue skies' quality - that is scientific managers concentrate on hiring creative people and then give them the freedom and the time they need to explore things that interest them. This seems like exactly the right approach to science, and is close to what most of us think science is supposed to be about - a mass of divergent projects some of which might end up having some interesting results, a few of which will end up changing the world.

But the current model of proposal and peer review works against this culture of scientific freedom - ideas that might turn out to be world-changing will often (nearly always, perhaps) seem preposterous to a group of informed experts. The difference between a truly innovative approach and a blunder can only be established in retrospect.

I have been arguing for a while that in journalism the public needs to be much more closely involved in the commissioning process. In science I think the public's role is somewhat different. Part of our responsibility is to ensure exactly the kind of scientific freedom that Braben advocates. There is a place for applied research, that is for research within established parameters that does not seek to achieve game-changing results. This kind of research can and should be open to much higher levels of public scrutiny and involvement - it is, after all, our money. But some significant portion of research should be left at the discretion of scientists themselves. Every effort much be made to create a space in which curiosity is given free rein.

To put it another way, some science is like journalism, in that the researcher knows what they want to find out and broadly how to go about it. Some science isn't. It is speculative and easily dismissed up until it is proved to be correct. The challenge is to replace the oligarchy of peer review with a democratic field of public engagement with science on the one hand and an anarchic space for individual inquiry on the other.


Blogger Gregor said...

Hello Dan Hind

I’ve just found this excellent website through Aaronovitch watch. And have read a lot in it that is similar to ideas that I’ve been considering.

On this topic I think this is the worst case scenario:

A newspaper bailout. It would be a bit rich if public funds went towards paying our monolithically neo-liberal press to tell us that we have to spend less on the poor and more on foreign conflicts. What is most ironic is that newspapers tend to support free market fanaticism but think they should be free from what little democracy there is in free market consumerism.

As a border-line conspiracy theorist, I can’t help thinking that a newspaper bailout would be to the advantage of our neo-liberal rulers. If you select people (as most British editors do) by nepotism and their attitude towards received wisdom, there is a chance that one can create a profoundly conformist, self-censoring media.

8:33 AM  
Blogger Dan Hind said...

hi, Gregor,

Yep, a straight ahead bailout is a very real possibility, and it is politically vulnerable for the reasons you outline - it would clearly be intended to keep the public stuffed to the gills with the same old same old, minus any 'free market' justification.

This is the beauty of public commissioning - it is a bailout for journalists, not for newspaper owners. The downside is that newspapers don't like the idea. But that's where the internet comes in -


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