Since I’ve written about Science and Technology Studies (STS) before, I thought I would comment on the formation of a new group called Association for Studies in Innovation Science and Technology. I encountered it in a Nature column called Recognise the value of social science.
I should start by stressing that I think that the social sciences are extremely valuable. I also think that doing social sciences well is extremely difficult; typically social scientists consider systems that are much more complex than those considered by physical scientists. I do, however, have a number of reservations about this new organisations and the motivations behind its formation. The article starts with
If the science community is serious about integrating social science into its thinking and operations — and statements by everyone from Nature and the UK government to Paul Nurse, former president of the Royal Society, indicate that it is — then we social scientists must do more to make this happen.
Seems fine, although I’m not entirely sure that I understand what is meant by integrating social science into its thinking and operations. Being aware of the society in which we operate seems quite reasonable. Being conscious of the society in which we operate when actually carrying out research may not be (at least not in the sense of it influencing how we interpret our research).
The article then says
And we want to make clear that social science — especially science, technology and innovation studies (STIS) — should be integral to science and does not merely handle external issues, for example by addressing ‘public acceptance’.
What does integral to science mean? Something that I think most physical scientists believe is that they’re typically studying systems that obey fundamental laws of nature. Our understanding of such systems is therefore expected to be independent of societal values or political ideologies. Ideally, our understanding should not depend on who does the research, or where it is done. Of course, in reality this may not be entirely true, but the goal is for the evidence to constrain our understanding in such a way that societal/political influences are minimised. So, how do the social sciences fit into such a framework?
One of the key goals for this new organisation is
to lobby for social-scientist involvement in the earliest stages of research projects, when emerging ideas are most open to discussion.
Why? In what way would including a social scientist help to improve how we interpret research results in the physical sciences? To be clear, it might, but it’s not obvious how. Also, if a social scientist has some interest in some other research area, they can presumably try to get involved and see if they can contribute something. Maybe they’d bring some new perspective, but it would still be in the context of trying to understand some physical system; not trying to impose some kind of social science context on our understanding of that system.
Science and society are not discrete, as some researchers seem to assume. Knowledge — about the impacts of climate change, for example — gets its value and usefulness only when rooted in particular contexts.
Our perception of the significance of the impacts of climate change might depend on the context, but whether or not certain impacts will occur does not depend on the context. How much we will warm if we emit a further 1000GtC does not depend on how society perceives the knowledge about the impacts of climate change.
The above comment is followed by
This makes it diverse and contested.
Yes it is diverse and contested, but why is this and what does it imply? Does it imply something with respect to the science itself? I can’t really see why. Should researchers really bear this in mind when interpreting their results? Again, I can’t see why. I don’t think the interpretation should depend on whether or not the result is likely to be controversial (okay, there may well be scenarios where we would want to double check potentially controversial results, but only because we might want to be sure, not because we might want to interpret the results differently).
I was going to say a bit more, but this is getting a bit long. The article ends with
To make the most of science, we must know how science operates, and understand the factors that influence it. Social scientists in the United Kingdom and elsewhere have been studying that for more than 50 years. We are ready and able to help.
This may explain why I’m slightly negative about this. My exposure to Science and Technology Studies (STS) might be a little limited, but if they have spent 50 years studying how science operates and the factors that influence it, there are a number who appear to still not understand it very well.
Certainly my impression is that they want to impose societal and political factors into the research process in a way that would make most physical scientists very uncomfortable. Rather than playing a role in helping to define how scientific evidence may influence society and – in particular – policy making, they seem to want allow societal and political factors to influence how we do research and how we interpret our results.
Maybe the above is an unfair characterisation of STS and maybe I simply don’t quite understand what they’re suggesting. However, I think I’m not alone in this and it doesn’t help if STS researchers don’t even appear to appreciate why physical scientists might have some reservations about what they seem to be suggesting. Similarly, if STS researchers think they’re somehow the ideal people to sit at some interface between science/technology and society, it’s hard to see why if they can’t even clearly explain their role to other groups of researchers.
I also think that research is about studying things and producing and presenting results. If there are a group of researchers in the social sciences who would like to study role of science in society and in policy making, go ahead. You don’t need some kind of buy in from physical scientists; just get out there, do some research, and let the results speak for themselves. However, this comment in the article makes me think that their goal is something more than simply being researchers who investigate science and technology in society
We want to work at national and regional levels, from the UK government and research-funding councils to professional science bodies and the devolved governments in the four UK nations, which are experimenting with science and technology policies.
Are these researchers, or lobbyists?