The seems to have been an interesting, inter-disciplinary meeting in Nottingham called Circling the Square : Research, media, politics, and impact. The goal seems to have been to explore the role of knowledge in policy making and brought together international scholars in the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities, practitioners at the science-policy interface, the public and the media.
I followed some of it on Twitter, and it seems to have been quite successful, but wasn’t without an element of controversy (which may well have contributed to the success 🙂 ). The controversy seems to relate to a perception that some of the social scientists were suggesting that everything – the physical sciences included – is politicised, or influenced by societal pressures, and that people should just accept this.
Some of the physicists who were present, seemed to object to this framing. Philip Moriarty has written an interesting post about this. It’s possible, as suggested by Warren Pearce, that there’s just a bit of a misunderstanding. What we choose to research and what is likely to get funded is clearly influenced by politics and by society. People, however, are not actually suggesting that the results of scientific research is influenced by politics. However, it’s also possible that some social scientists may not appreciate why physical scientists may take offense at the suggestion that the physical sciences is influenced – at some fundamental level – by politics/society.
In the physical sciences there are laws – conservation of energy, mass, momentum. Whether what you’re researching is societally relevant or not, if your results violate any of these laws, then they’re wrong. It doesn’t matter how badly you may want your results to be one thing or another, if your analysis doesn’t satisfy these fundamentals it is wrong. Of course, it’s maybe not quite that simple since most research involves assumptions and simplifications, but you can’t select these so as to get the result you want. You select these on the basis of the information available and on the physics – for example – that you need to include. So, I can see why some might be somewhat taken aback by a suggestion that the results of their research is influenced by politics/society. I think most would accept that what might be of interest, and what might get funded, is influenced by society, but implying that the results are influenced by politics is another matter.
Having said that, I’m certainly not suggesting that all physical scientists are as pure as the driven snow. I’m sure there are some that are not as careful as they should be, but that’s where the scientific method comes in. Because there are fundamental laws, others can carry out the same kind of research. If someone’s results are questionable, that would soon become clear – especially if it is something that is societally relevant. In fact, that’s – to a certain extent – the validation method. Numerous researchers carry out similar research and produce consistent results. I don’t start to trust a certain scientific result simply because someone clever produced it; I start to trust it if is reproduced by others.
So, as much as I accept that politics and society influence what research would be regarded as interesting and, consequently, what might be funded, I’m much less willing to accept that it influences the results of research in any significant way. Of course, it’s possible that this whole issue is just a mis-understanding and that noone was really suggesting that research results are strongly influenced by society. If not, however, that then begs the question of how those who suggest this perceive their own research.