Is there a way to govern science without damaging it?

By Aidan Woodley

My first thought to this question was to not give it an answer in the yes or no format, but instead to respond with another question. This question can be put simply as ‘have we not considered that science is already being governed?’

From my current knowledge, science is already being governed. There are multiple ways in which this governance appears, some that we agree is necessary, and at least one in which we may have issue with. None of the methods of governance I will mention are certain to provide good governance, but that is for future conversation.

There are two methods of governance that I would agree are particularly useful, to ensure both good science and positive global impacts (or more specifically not bad impacts). These are the use of ethics boards, and health and safety standards. Ethics boards govern science by ensuring any research done does not unduly harm others, which would to most people, I argue, be viewed as a positive thing. However, as said by Carol Brown in 2020 “Researchers often experience the ethics committee as unsympathetic to their research endeavour”.

The other form of governance accepted by most is ensuring health and safety standards are followed. This would almost certainly be viewed positively by ordinary people; not wanting an explosion to occur in their local university or a man-made deadly virus spreading across their community, to name a few extreme, although possible, cases. The researchers would most likely also want to ensure the safety of themselves and those around them and thus this seems like a non-contentious issue. However, this is not necessarily the case as Van Noorden wrote in 2013: “The biggest barriers to improving safety in the lab were “time and hassle” and “apathy”, scientists said.” Acceptance of both forms of governance mentioned, therefore, is more controversial than it may initially appear.

You would think that health and safety would be a non-contentious issue… but this is not necessarily the case

The final, and in my opinion most important, form of ‘governance’ that I want to bring up deserves to be discussed in detail separately. It is a more complex, contentious issue than the two mentioned above to the extent that not everybody would agree that it does act as a form of governance. This is the act of indirect scientific governance found within the organisations and companies that award scientific grants. To put my argument simply, if the people with the money want a certain area of science to be researched, they will give more grants to those studying in that area. If there is an area of science that they deem unnecessary to research, no money will be given to researchers in that area. So, what scientist in their right mind (and assuming scientists should be in their right mind) would research in a scientific area that is awarded no grants, one that gets no money! This seems to me to be indirect scientific governance by the grant suppliers, governing what gets researched.

Now that the ways in which I think science is already being governed has been discussed, I will return to the original question, “Is there a way to govern science without damaging it.” If we are to assume that I am correct in the previous section (that science is already being governed), there are two ways to look at this: either this governance is or is not damaging science.

Firstly, if one were to argue that governance does not inherently imply damage to science, we can say that current science is not being adversely affected through the governance already in place, and we have no issues. This does not mean that all governance will necessarily have a positive or neutral affect on the practice of science but such a claim is not required to respond affirmatively to the question above.

If the answer to the above question is no, then we would have to admit that science must be damaged already

However, if one were say governance causes damage to science, we would have to admit that because science is already being governed, science must be damaged already. This is obviously a bad thing and therefore should be fixed but to do this we would first need to identify where the damage is. Science in its modern conception appears to me (a lowly undergraduate) as largely accepted by all those working with its framework, so surely if there are major faults or cracks in the system they would have been noticed by now? Or maybe not. Maybe those working within science have been ‘academically brought up’ in this leaky monolith of science, and therefore cannot notice it? If one agrees that the original statement is correct, then they must agree that current science is flawed in some way, maybe a new conception of what science is and what is should do, is needed.

One final way we can think about this issue is to consider it from a different angle by asking the question “is science damaged?” This will not give us a definitive answer to our original question because, even if we answer ‘yes, science is damaged’, it does not put the blame on governance. However, we will still reach a similar conclusion as above because those within the framework of science may not, and possibly cannot, know whether science is damaged. Maybe this should be a question best left to the philosophers to argue over for the next millennia and not the active researchers who have better and more important things to do.

Overall, I still don’t know which side of the argument I would place myself on, studying primarily science within my degree, and having been ‘academically brought up’ in its structure, I cannot for certain say whether or not science is flawed, at least not at this point in my studies. So, as I have shown, ones opinion on this topic seems to have some relation to their opinion on whether or not science is flawed in it’s current state. Therefore, I will be suspending my own judgment for now.

Image: Chris Liverani via Unsplash

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