The Royal Society's Jack Stilgoe discusses the 2010 Science Policy Gordon Research Conference.

View of the Earth's atmosphere from space

I’m at the Science Policy Gordon Research Conference in New Hampshire, mixing with a mainly American group of science and technology policy researchers and practitioners. Discussions have focused on pressing issues (the ethics of genetic testing, the regulation of chemicals , climate science etc), as  well as particular themes, for example, the role of social researchers in the governance of science.

The conference is off-the-record, which is a shame, given the insights of people like Dan Sarewitz, David Guston and Peter Weingart.  But I can give a short summary of my talk about recent changes to the governance of UK science and the possibilities for the future. I thought, given the 350th anniversary of the Society and our recent debate, I would do this through the lens of experiment.

The Royal Society was created “to improve the knowledge of natural things, and all useful Arts, Manufactures, Mechanic practices, Engines and Inventions by Experiments (not meddling with divinity, Metaphysics, Morals, Politics, Grammar, Rhetoric or Logic)”. In the years since, the Society has got better at engaging with politics, as well as with grammar and rhetoric (the seventeenth century equivalents of social science). But the idea of experimentation remains key – learning about the world by testing it and seeing how it responds.

Following controversies with Mad Cow Disease and GM foods, we have seen a decade of experimentation in the institutions and practices of science policy. Public understanding of science has given way to public engagement with science and then to upstream engagement, as represented by the Royal Society/Royal Academy of Engineering report on Nanotechnologies:

“The upstream nature of most nanotechnologies means that there is an opportunity to generate a constructive and proactive debate about the future of the technology now, before deeply entrenched or polarized positions appear.”

This report was followed by a series of nano public engagement experiments, each hoping to open up debates about science and technology to new voices sufficiently early so that they can make a difference. We have since seen similar work with Synthetic Biology, Stem Cell research, Genetic Databases, Geoengineering and more. These have certainly been innovations in governance, but have we learnt as much as we could have done from them? In certain cases, they have provided policymakers with new insights, but when those insights have been too challenging, they have had little impact. Policymakers have looked to the public for answers, but what they often get back is a new set of questions.

At the same time, the practice of expert advice to government has changed substantially. Where experts would once gather in smoke-filled rooms, these discussions now often take place in the open. The Phillips report of 2000, all 16 volumes of it, provided a new model of how experts should engage. Organisations such as the Food Standards Agency were created in this mould. Their expert committees contained lay members to help challenge, bolster or communicate the advice of scientists.

A change of government and fiscal troubles may provide an opportunity for new experiments in . At the moment, policymakers are asking questions that go right to the heart of the governance of science – why and how should science be funded? Who benefits from research? Who should make decisions, and on whose behalf?

Such questions have always driven science and technology policy researchers, and in getting to the answers, we need to include their voices.


  • Jack Stilgoe

    Jack Stilgoe