Friday 20

Can science be the cure if it’s part of the cause?

Posted by University College London on 20 Mar 2015

The World Economic Forum brought together the world's richest and most powerful in Davos in January. Looking through the programme, it was clear that science and technology was at the heart of their discussions. In fact the World Economic Forum's website boasted that they were welcoming "an extraordinary number of renowned researchers, acclaimed academics and stars in their fields." "Science" the forum proclaims "is about inspiration, solutions and collaboration." 

Perhaps it is unsurprising to find science at such ease with the World's rich and powerful. Because as well as bringing us life changing innovations like electric lights and antibiotics, science has also been extraordinarily good at making vast amounts of money. It's why governments are so keen to fund science after all. Science is, and always has been, the beating heart of industrialisation, globalisation and economic growth – the neoliberal dream.  

Can science be the cure?

For a very long time that is a fact that many of us have been quite relaxed about.  It has seemed like a situation in which no one can lose – apart from the occasional niggle about neglected tropical diseases and the role of the arms industry in all this, it is a situation that has been working fine. Scientists have had the resources to do their research, society has had great innovations, cures and labour-saving devices, economies have grown and we've all become wealthier. 

This week however, Oxfam have released figures that show that our world is becoming rapidly more unequal – next year the combined wealth of the richest 1% will overtake that of the other 99% of people. And it's not just the divide between rich and poor nations that is causing this. Oxfam's figures simply add to research from sources like Thomas Picketty and the Resolution Foundation, showing how wealth inequality has been growing rapidly in developed countries over the last 15 or more years. Indeed 6th January was labelled "Fat Cat Tuesday" by campaigners as this was the day on which the CEOs of the FTSE 100 companies had already earned more than the average UK worker will in 2015. Earning more in a week than the average citizen earns in a year.  The rich are most definitely getting richer – driven very strongly by the grip they have on the capital that funds science and innovation.

These economic inequalities are plainly unfair. But these figures should also be of concern to scientists because of the profound way in which inequality is worsening many of the problems many scientists are setting out to address. Whether it is improving health or educational outcomes, finding ways to reduce crime, create stable economies, or raise levels of general wellbeing, there is compelling evidence that inequality is at the root of the problems science is seeking to solve.

And that's where the irony lies – the very system that is giving so much support and kudos to science is actually making it harder for science to deliver the social goods it promises.

So what can we do? Addressing this paradox is difficult - it does, after all, touch upon the basis of our economy. But it is essential that we do address it if science isn't to head into new and more serious clashes with society. And the currently emerging concept of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) appears to be our best opportunity of doing that. Championed by the European Commission, RRI aims to make science with and for society – involving society ‘very upstream' in the processes of research and innovation to align the outcomes of research with the values of society. Typically this has meant focusing on useful outputs, balancing the risks and benefits and anticipating possible unforeseen impacts. When social justice has been thought about, it has been a question of whether technologies are being deployed fairly – how private companies store and use genetic information, whose privacy is affected by surveillance technologies, for instance.  

But perhaps it is time to extend the way we think about the risks associated with science and technology. We need to move beyond balancing the risks and benefits, anticipating possible unforeseen impacts, or considering whether technologies are being deployed fairly. While technologies that have no real social benefit beyond making money have always seemed relatively harmless, now we know how damaging unequal societies are to everyone, we should look at them differently. It is time to ask whether science is helping create a more or less equal society. 

"Science has a critical role to play in helping leaders understand why we have these problems and increasingly leaders are looking to science for possible solutions" the World Economic Forum website explains. Yet if science is to have this transformative power and deliver real social goods it also has to help deliver a more equal society. 

Melanie Smallman

Melanie Smallman works on RRI Tools at UCL in London, the RRI Tools Hub coordinator for United Kingdom.

This article was initially published in The Guardian. Melanie Smallman kindly authorized us to re-publish it here with small adaptations.


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