2015 Marie Jahoda Lecture: Promises in the land of scientific uncertainty. By Simon Hazelwood

In an age in which ‘impact’ is becoming the yardstick by which we measure research success, Professor Helga Nowotny founding member and former president of the European Research Council, has hadNovum-Organum-frontispiece more than most. A prolific and influential researcher in the field of Social Studies of Science, she is perhaps best know for her contribution to the concept of ‘Mode 2’ knowledge production.

It was fitting, then, that Professor Nowotny was chosen to deliver the 2015 Marie Jahoda Annual Lecture, SPRU’s annual lecture to celebrate the contributions of one of the department’s most prominent former researchers.

The lecture was based around the concept of promises. Citing the political theorist Hannah Arendt, Professor Nowotny explained that promises are a mechanism for reducing the unknown, creating reliability and predictability in the face of uncertainty. In fact, promises are particularly relevant in the field of scientific research, which Nowotny describes as ‘an institutionalised space for bringing futures into the present’.

A tour through the history of science and the scientific method showed the continued presence of promises in science. From Francis Bacon ‘s ‘Novum Organum’ to the EU’s Horizon 2020 funding framework, science has offered answers to humanities problems. While noting the similarities in expectations in improving the human condition, Prof. Nowotny highlighted a significant change in the delivery of scientific promises.  With the introduction of formal funding schemes and funding bodies, the contracts of scientific promises have been tightened; radically shortening the timescale allowed in which promises must be fulfilled.

Prof. Nowotny acknowledged that there are some benefits to this shortened approach, in particular an increased efficiency and targeting of research. However she was also quick to point out the pitfalls, the significantly lowered chance of unpredictable serendipity and a decline in perceptions of science as a cultural, rather than purely utilitarian, activity. For Prof. Nowotny, the result of all this is to transfer science into just another lobby group, vying for more money.

The talk moved on to three specific examples of promises made by modern science, and how society and government had reacted to these promises in the face of uncertainty and risk.

First, Prof. Nowotny introduced progress made in IVF and associated assisted reproductive technologies as an example of a promise that has been delivered. Many of those that would once have considered themselves infertile, are now able to have genetically related children. In fact there are now over 5 million children born using these techniques. However, as Prof. Nowotny describes, these promises are also changing our conceptions of relatedness and family. Promises do not exist in a social or political vacuum.

Prof. Nowotny also examined the topics of stem cell research and personalised medicine. Both of these developing ideas promise huge improvements to the health of humanity, but are as yet not entirely fulfilled. And again, these promises come with uncertainty and risk. As an example, in the early 2000’s the Bush Administration largely outlawed embryonic stem cell research, due to fears and values linked to an emotive abortion policy debate.

The final example was the holy grail of personalised medicine, now seemingly a real possibility following the recent meteoric rise in genome sequencing capability. It offers the promise of tailoring health care treatments to the individual, allowing more effective care and a deeper understanding of disease. As before, Prof. Nowotny argues that these promises must be thought of as a social contract, with associated embedded values and uncertainties. What are the risks to personal privacy? And should we be positive or concerned about a cultural shift towards personal medical responsibility?

As Professor Ben Martin pointed out in the questions, the talk was largely optimistic in its outlook on science. For example, the challenges of coordinating Big Data for personalised medicine and other purposes, were described by Prof. Nowotny as an opportunity to encourage a sharing culture in science.

As Professor Nowotny said, ‘all science makes promises’. The ways in which society and government interact with these promises demands investigation. Past disappointments and unpredictable consequences may have led to the loss of trust that is characterised by modern sciences shortened expected delivery times. With current rumblings of doubt around the UK’s continued commitment to a dual support funding system, Prof. Nowotny’s call for recognition of the unpredictable advances of long promises stands as pertinent reminder to not lose our patience with cultural science.


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