The normalisation of scientific progress, by Calum Kennedy

-“Hey, have you heard about the new Samsung Galaxy, it’s meant to be even sexier than the iPhone!”

– “Damn, I only just got the iPhone 6”.

-“Well, on the bright side you could get the Apple watch to go with it.”

-“But what about the new android series?”

This sort of conversation is completely normal to me. Any discussion of new science or technology becomes a series of segues into other announcements or discoveries. It has gotten to the point where scientific and technological change is now ubiquitous with modern life.

Change in this context is usually taken as a good thing. The announcement for a new medical treatment means that more people (possibly you) can live longer lives with more opportunities, new telescopes or other astronomical exploratory equipment can result in a deeper understanding of our place in the universe, and more efficient renewable technologies provide hope for a zero carbon future.  However, there are also negative reactions. People voice their displeasure at having their private emails and online activities read and monitored by new and complex computer systems, we worry about the effect of new and expensive technologies on financial inequality, and we balk at the development of new and powerful military applications.

No matter how we react to novelty though, it still remains that we expect it. The constancy of scientific ‘progress’ in western culture is so complete that novelty has become normalised.

This expectation has led to a situation where there is little discussion of the government’s role regarding science in public debates because there is no pressure on politicians to visibly support something that the population takes for granted. This only seems to change when we approach a topic like climate change or big data, where the responsible use of new technologies and proper contextualisation of scientific findings is being discussed in a public forum. Unfortunately, what is not discussed is the complex system of funding and policies required for the development of these technologies in the first place.

Unless we acknowledge that scientific progress is not a natural law, but rather a product of direct human intervention, then we are in danger of becoming increasingly reliant on these advances coming from systems that we have little control over or insight into.

This blasé attitude we have developed towards the funding of science is allowing us to ignore the loss of accountability that the government should have towards the people when deciding on funding policies. If we want to bring a focus to public spending on science then we first need to remind people that science needs funding and that novelty being the norm is not the same as advances being secured for the public good.

If we can increase the public’s perception (not just an intellectual understanding but a reflexive and persistent link) of the financial reliance of science then hopefully we can instil a further sense of ownership for science funded from the public purse. And with ownership comes a need for understanding.

Opening a dialogue between the public and scientific spheres has always been difficult. The lack of debates on science policy and funding in the run up to the general election is just one sign of that, and is one that is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future as the expectation for progress prevails.

One culprit for the lack of comprehension regarding the cost of science is the same media selection bias that clouds public comprehension of so many other matters. We hear about projects as they pass important milestones, make big announcements, or cause some scandal. What we don’t hear about are all the projects that either fail, or are slowly running behind the scenes collecting data that is less sexy, but no less valuable.

We are thus inundated with an unending stream of final products referred to as ‘science’ or ‘technology’ and everything else is black-boxed out of our cultural perception.

Personally, my blasé attitude towards science is facilitated by that new mobile phone. Not the one that people are sporting in their pockets now, but the one that was just announced. For the past decade there has barely been a moment when I haven’t been waiting for some new phone or other gadget that has been promised to me by tech firms. Each time I do buy one, I dread that the next day I will wake up to the announcement of another that I want even more.

I don’t wonder how they manage it. I know that they have large and well-funded research labs, but I don’t think of those. Instead, I see the advertisement on my screen, and I am completely unsurprised.

We should not be used to the changes that come from scientific inquiry and technological progress, we should be rejoicing in them. What we need now is a new public understanding and appreciation of what it means to fund science. Only then will there be a reinterpretation of its actual value. This change in outlook is essential in moving the issue of publicly funded research from the background, into the spotlight of national debate.


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