Testing times for evidence and expertise: what lies ahead for science and innovation?

1 December 2016


Reported by Richard Smith, NERC-funded CSaP Policy Intern (Sept - Dec 2016)

Will political events of 2016 provoke a fundamental rethink of the role of institutions at the intersection of science, innovation, expertise, politics and power? What lessons can we learn from recent political events, such as the Brexit referendum and the US Presidential election? How can universities chart a way forward that addresses, rather than exacerbates, the political tensions and conflicts recently highlighted?

A roundtable discussion hosted by CSaP brought together experts from the physical and social sciences, humanities and beyond to discuss the role of evidence and expertise following recent political events in the UK and US.

“What has science policy ever done for Barnsley?”

Professor Richard Jones (Professor of Physics, University of Sheffield) opened the discussion by speaking about how, while in Cambridge and London the positive effects of investment in science are clearly visible, areas with less investment in science may question the benefit to them of scientific research. Asking “What has science policy ever done for Barnsley?”, Professor Jones suggested that some people might see science merely “as an ornament for a prosperous society”.

Professor Sheila Jasanoff (Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Harvard Kennedy School) followed with a perspective from the US, where several previously ‘left behind’ towns have recently shown economic resurgence. Professor Jasanoff commented on the uncertainty surrounding science in the US in coming years, spurring participants to explore historical contexts, where ideas of ‘nation building’ have at times provided a major boost to science. How can science adapt so that it flourishes in the years to come?

The role of universities

Participants discussed the power of universities to attract funding to local areas, helping to nurture diverse ecosystems of knowledge and expertise by drawing together public- and privately-funded organisations. But could science sometimes be perceived to damage people’s lives? For example, does research into automation and robotics lead to low-skilled workers losing their jobs, or does local university knowledge of efficient manufacturing processes attract investors and jobs?

Following a rich and varied discussion, one thing was clear: the worlds of science and policy still have much to learn from each other.

An expanded and revised version of Richard Jones's opening remarks is available here.

(Banner image: Election count, flickr; thumbnail image: Voting..., flickr)

Professor Sheila Jasanoff

Harvard Kennedy School

Professor Richard Jones

University of Sheffield