Science and social responsibility: An ongoing discussion

11 Nov 2016

Prof Maja Horst. Image: University of Copenhagen

We need to talk about the social responsibility of science, says Prof Maja Horst, ahead of her talk at the HSTM Network conference in Dublin City University. Claire O’Connell reports.

How much risk from medical treatments should we tolerate to cure diseases? How can we ensure that gene-based technologies are used safely and responsibly? And just what is the social responsibility of science? These are big questions, and when Prof Maja Horst from the University of Copenhagen went looking for answers about what scientific responsibility means, she found a variety of responses. 

Horst will give a keynote address tomorrow (12 November) at the History of Science, Technology & Medicine Network of Ireland conference in St Patrick’s Campus at Dublin City University (DCU).

There, she will speak about her research into scientific social responsibility and how an interactive installation allowed members of the public and citizens to engage in discussion about the issues.

Views on responsibility

When Horst and colleagues went looking into literature for views on scientific responsibility, four broad themes emerged – and not all of them were in agreement.

“We found four different ways of thinking about responsibility,” explained Horst, who is professor of science communication and head of the Department of Media, Cognition and Communication at the University of Copenhagen.

“For some people, the foremost responsibility of science is to make sure that science is protected from all the biases and special interests, that the true knowledge is not influenced by economics and power. Then on the other hand, some people say the only way you can make research responsible in a complex society is to integrate lots of stakeholders and different viewpoints, and make sure the science is in accordance [with] values of society.”

Some views focus on the outcomes of science and the potential problems that can arise, while others take the view that taxpayers support research and should deliver results on topics that society wants to prioritise. 

“We had a sense that we all agree that science should be responsible, but we disagree about what that means,” said Horst. “We need to talk about it, the different opinions and the reasons for all these norms.”

Maja Horst installation

Participatory installation for the ‘Social Scientific Responsibility’ project. Image: Maja Horst

Tower of science

To spark public debate, Horst and colleagues took a practical step and built an interactive ‘tower of science’ with four entrances, each one symbolising an ideology about scientific responsibility. 

People could walk into the tower and give their thoughts about who is accountable for the responsible use of science. Is it politicians? Researchers? Citizens? Consumers? Industry? They could also suggest who should decide on how we prioritise research, writing their hopes and fears and prioritising the problems they would like to see solved.

In one interesting exercise, visitors were asked that if science had found a cure for a disease that was expected to save a million people, what is the limit to how many people should be put at risk?

“People could put elastic bands around figures to show their answers,” explained Horst. “Then afterwards, we would ask how much of a difference would it make if it involved children or not. The whole point is to make people reflect.”

The ‘tower’ has offered diverse subjects – synthetic biology, stem cell research and the role of science and society – and just like in scientific literature, public opinion is varied. 

“There was not one clear answer,” said Horst. “People have quite nuanced views and reflections, they usually say they are more confused, but now it is at a higher level, they understand why people might have different opinions than they do. It broadens people’s framework for thinking about this.”

‘It is a question of trust, and the only way of building trust is by engaging openly in discussion’

Jump between policies and practice

Horst is also interested in how high-level policy discussions match up, or don’t, with the day-to-day practices of science.

“There is quite a large jump,” she said. “The policy discussions tend to be quite general and deal with abstract concepts, and when you go and talk to scientists, they have lots of things to say about their own responsibility – but it is not very well connected to the policy discussion.”

She has concerns about that gap: “In the EU, there is a danger right now that these policies are made at too abstract a level, that scientists see [them] as irrelevant or an extra burden they have to comply with,” said Horst.

“Most of the scientists that I have interviewed and known are conscientious, and think a lot about responsibility. We should start with how they think about their own responsibilities rather than the abstract policy.”

Horst is a fan of experimenting with different forms of science communication to engage more of the public, and she would like to see more scientists talking with non-scientists about their work.

“It is a question of trust, and the only way of building trust is by engaging openly in discussion,” she said.

She also describes the social responsibility of science as a “continuing discussion” and one that needs ongoing engagement.

“Science is about things we don’t know, so we will run into new things that we then have to discuss,” she said.

“We need to learn ways of having that discussion in a robust, respectful way where we respect that lots of people come to the table with different contributions.”

The History of Science, Technology & Medicine Network of Ireland conference takes place today and tomorrow (11-12 November) at St Patrick’s Campus in DCU.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication