Making science democratic: is that possible or even desirable?

Dr. Sonia Bussu, Research and Learning Coordinator, Local Trust and Participation Lab Advisory Group member


I attended an interesting debate on Citizen Science, organised by the Forum for European philosophy at the LSE on 16 March 2017. At the event, a panel of scientists and philosophers engaged with big questions about the tension between democracy and science and what to do about the growing distrust for experts in our populist times.

The premise of the conversation was that there is a disconnect between science and the public, where the latter is often blamed for being either: 1) ill-informed, or 2) distrustful of experts.

On the first point, academics might have to take their share of responsibility: scientific research is often beyond the reach of most people (academic journals are very expensive, although the open access movement is growing) and even when it can be accessed, it’s hardly accessible!

On the second point, the public might have some reasons to distrust science:

  • experts often present their opinions as facts on the back of their expertise, doing a big dis-service to their discipline;
  • scientists are not always open about their research and its limitations (see the latest controversies on the failure to ensure replicability and on the peer-review process being less reliable than it sounds);
  • the incentive structure for academic research is the biggest issue here, with limited funding for ground-breaking and innovative studies and too much pressure on academics to publish on high impact factor journals as the only path for career progression.

This is certainly NOT an attack on the scientific method and scientific expertise, which are the backbone of our continual development as a society. But we need to find ways to bridge the gap between the public and science, by making it easier for the public to engage with scientific research and by dispelling myths around scientific certainty that can create further distrust when scientists don’t meet our idealised standards of science. One of the panellists suggested that science, like democracy, is not a process leading to clear outcomes – broadening education about what goes on behind back doors and the ground work that leads to scientific discoveries is crucial.

So, can Citizen Science be a part of the solution? Projects like Open Plant and Zooniverse are great examples of collective intelligence in action. Open Plant involves the public in developing new tools and methods for plant synthetic biology. Zooniverse includes some 55 projects, from identifying the internal structure of galaxies to spying on penguins, where anyone can help collect data.

While Citizen Science can be a fun way to get involved, we also need to do more to re-connect high level scientific problems to the very real needs of local communities.

  • Science Shops can give people a chance to set the research agenda, by asking the research questions and get researchers to support them in getting the answers they need. Alice Mauchline is organising a workshop to explore setting up a Science Shop as part of the Participation Lab in June (read more about the project here).
  • Community-based research can enable communities to collect evidence themselves often challenging traditional evidence – like the Whitley Researchers’ great work on transport needs and social exclusion in their community in South Reading.
  • Patients increasingly play an important part as active participants in health research and evaluations of health services.

One of the problems with engaging the public is that the evidence they produce may be looked at with distrust by institutions that are used to more traditional evidence. The truth is that traditional evidence also comes with plenty of caveats and anyone doing research would know that. Perhaps it is worth thinking about how to develop institutional capacity to be able to use the important evidence that citizens provide and that could complement and enrich traditional approaches.

I think that where citizens can provide a great contribution to science, as well as policy making more generally, is on value-laden issues. Scientists often get wrapped up in their research without thinking about the implications for society, which can often be profound – think of nuclear, nanotechnology, the internet of things or Artificial Intelligence (AI). Opening up a dialogue with the public can help us reflect on what course we want science to take in the long-term. This could happen in different ways:

  • engaging in more open debates with activist groups;
  • investing a lot more in reaching out to communities through schools and museums, helping (young) people to think critically about science;
  • using deliberative minipublics (panels of randomly selected citizens) where citizens can have conversations with scientists, debate among peers and make informed recommendations. There are some great examples from the Netherlands, but also in the UK. These dialogues often prove to be a real eye-opener for scientists and policy makers as much as for citizens.

This doesn’t mean the public should set the agenda for all research – after all we need visionary researchers to push the boundaries. As Henry Ford once said about his great invention, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Yet, broader public engagement can benefit us all. So yes, science can and should be democratised!

To learn more about ways of engaging citizens in science and technology, you can find some practical resources here.