I got into a brief discussion on Twitter about democratising science, which some people seemed to think was a good idea. One thing I was trying to do was simply to work out what people meant. I’m still not sure, so this post is simply some thoughts, that may well change with time. One immediate issue is that science is inherently undemocratic, in the sense that one’s views are meant to be guided by the evidence, not by one’s opinions. I appreciate that those who are arguing that we should democratise science are not arguing that science should be influenced by people’s opinion, but if they are trying to engage with those who undertake scientific research, maybe they should be careful not to use terminology that makes it sound like they are.
Having come across this suggestion to democratise science, Warren Pearce highlighted a couple of articles. One called [t]ime to democratise science and the other called Forget politicising science. Let’s democratize science. I’m still trying to understand quite what is being suggested by the term democratising science, so below are just some semi-random thoughts.
- As often seems to be the case, there is the sense that those who are promoting these proposed changes to science see science as some kind of homogeneous system where everyone who does science, does so in the same kind of way. Although the scientific method underpins how we undertake research, the details can vary wildly between, and even within, disciplines. Some science is fundamental, other science is much more applied. Some is experimental, other areas can be more observational. The motivations can differ between different fields. The direct impact that some research areas have on society can be quite different to the impact of other areas. Consequently, some of what seems to be driving this democratisation of science are potentially problems in some fields that may not apply to others.
- Some of what seems to motivate this desire to democratise science seems to be issues with how we fund science, or how the results of science are utilised. These may be valid issues, but they’re not really doing science. In my view, science/research is the process of trying to understand some aspect of the world around us. It clearly needs some kind of funding and the results can clearly be utilised by others, but neither of these is actually doing science. I too have concerns about how science is funded and how the results are used (or, in some cases, not used) but this – in my view – is not something I would regard as democratising science; it’s more to do with the interaction between science and society. An impression I have is that some calling for a democratisation of science are doing so because they dislike our current socio-political-economic order and are trying to find some kind of scapegoat to blame for the problems they perceive, not because they really want to democratise science.
- In one of the articles I mentioned earlier, it says:
What democratization does mean, in science as elsewhere, is creating institutions and practices that fully incorporate principles of accessibility, transparency, and accountability. It means considering the societal outcomes of research at least as attentively as the scientific and technological outputs. It means insisting that in addition to being rigorous, science be popular, relevant, and participatory.
Nothing is ever perfect, but most institutions I’ve been associated with aim for accessibility, transparency and accountability. Most scientists, I think, do consider the societal outcomes of research, but regard it as something that shouldn’t influence their analysis (i.e., our scientific understanding should be driven by the evidence, not by societal/political influences). Most researchers do aim to do their research as rigorously as possible. Popular and relevant is tricky, because sometimes we don’t know – in advance – the relevance of a piece of research, but you do mostly have to convince some people that it is worth undertaking.
The issue of participation is a tricky one. Most researchers are simply people who followed a path (partly chosen and partly luck) that has allowed them to eventually be involved in science/research. They are participating. Many of those who do become scientists probably do start with some kind of advantage that helps them to follow that path, but there’s not some specific action that prevents others from also participating. We should be aiming (in my view) to widen participation and many institutions are doing their best to do so. However, this doesn’t change that those who are currently participating are simply members of the public who happened to become scientists; they’re not some special group who should now be excluded from being regarded as members of the public.
Okay, this has gotten rather long and it’s not all that coherent; as I said, I’m mostly just presenting some thoughts and don’t yet have strong, or even clear, views about this. My general impression, though, is that democratising science is a buzzword that appears nice and simple but is really a highly complex concept and, in many ways, seems to conflate science with all sorts of things that might be related to science, but that aren’t actually science (at least, not as I understand it). It also fails to recognise (in my view) that much of what it implies is already in place, even if there are many things that we could be doing better. Not only do I think that people who promote these things should try to be clearer about what they are actually suggesting (and why), they should also – in my view – be careful of trying fix what they perceive to be problems, by damaging a system that has proved remarkably successful.