On Science, We All Need to do Better

This article was first published on Research Blogs:

The Science and Technology in Society forum positions itself as the Davos of science—an annual meeting aimed at “creating a global human network based on trust and providing a framework for open discussions regarding the further progress of science and technology for the benefit of humankind.”

When the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology asked me to represent them at the forum, I was intrigued. The role of science in society is one of the key questions of our time. Science and technology are driving a number of important social changes—from social media to the Arab Spring. They are also expected to be at the heart of our response to various threats and opportunities—such as through smart grids to help address climate change, smart cities to manage increasing urbanisation and smart homes for an increasingly aging population. Yet the general level of debate of, and even interest in, science and technology is low.

So I was intrigued by the STS forum and wondered why I hadn’t heard of it before. It is held every year on the first weekend of October in Kyoto so perhaps suffers from being eight time zones away. But the opening session, which brought together 800 people from 80 countries, made it clear that the global science elite were out in force. I have never been in the same room as so many Nobel laureates, present and former science ministers, national research council directors and company chairmen of every nationality. I began to worry that the session I was chairing on the future impact of ICT, might be considered below par, consisting as it did of only a shadow minister, two chairmen and three CTOs.

This being Japan 2011, nuclear energy was one of the key themes of the agenda, together with global health and innovation for economic recovery. But Fukushima was present even when it was not on the agenda, a constant reminder of science’s duty to society. There have been protests in Japan that the risks of nuclear energy were not openly debated and the population not fully informed of earlier safety lapses. But as one Japanese scientist put it, the reason Tokyo regained its blue skies was that the country switched from coal fired to nuclear energy. Was that decision taken by properly advised representatives of the people, following informed debate by the people? Given, as one speaker put it, that nuclear facility lead times are so much longer than the political cycle, was that ever a realistic possibility?

To hear nuclear experts, senior policy makers and business leaders discuss the multi-dimensional challenge which is energy security and nuclear energy’s role in it, was instructive. Equally, in the global health sessions, comparing health outcomes across the world with leading scientists and policy makers on hand to explain the implications and limitations of their research was very illuminating. Never has it been brought home to me so forcefully that demographic changes are a global challenge, or that the key parameter which correlates with life expectancy is finishing secondary school education.

In the closing session, the Imperial Crown Prince spoke about the importance of science whilst former Prime Minister Abe thoughtfully analysed the challenge policy makers across the world face as the ever expanding stock of knowledge is increasingly compartmentalised leaving few able to provide comprehensive advice. This, he suggested, prevents the public engaging fully with science.

Was the STS forum addressing this? The chairman, Koji Omi, former science and finance minister, was clear that his objective was not to popularise scientific debate but to ensure that political and business leaders engaged with scientists.

But effective communications skills are not a prerequisite of academic success. Scientists were often at a disadvantage in getting their points across against political and business leaders more adept at engaging audiences.

The most talked about contribution by a scientist was that of Nobel laureate Sir Richard Roberts. He told us what people should eat (GM foods) vote for (politicians who did as scientists said) not believe (religion) and not work for (banks if you are a scientist or mathematician). It was entertaining and provocative but didactic rather than engaging.

As a forum for debate and exchange between scientists, policy makers and business the STS Forum attracts a wide range of high-level delegates. But there remains a gap in the market for a forum aimed at popularising science, to enable more informed and more democratic policy making.

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