Dr S T Lee Public Policy Lecture 2013: The value of uncertainty in science

30 November 2013


Reported by Ursa Mali CSaP Researcher

Professor Helga Nowotny, President of the European Research Council, speaks on the value of uncertainty in science

On 28 November, Professor Helga Nowotny delivered the Dr S T Lee Public Policy Lecture, chaired by University of Cambridge Vice Chancellor, Professor Leszek Borysiewicz.

You can watch and listen to the lecture recording here:

In her lecture, Nowotny spoke about the significance of uncertainty in the scientific process. Whilst she argued that humanity had been craving for certainty since its beginnings, it was uncertainty that was often proven generative of new discoveries, particularly in science.

Nowotny began by charting the great expectations raised by science to deliver change and improvements in the human condition from the Enlightenment onwards. Such belief in a better future facilitated by scientific discoveries, however, seemed to have declined in the late twentieth century, when promises of a better future were to a large extent replaced by the existence of multiple volatile and fragile futures.

Such disillusionment with ‘promises’ of progress may also be seen as characteristic of science, for instance, out of a large number of articles written in the field of Chemistry in the past decade, only a small number of promises seem to have been translated into practice.

As a response to this, Nowotny argued for a more active involvement of citizens in the scientific process itself, suggesting that the public ought to be more than merely presented with scientific outcomes, or ‘day science’. Instead, citizens could also be made aware of, and included in, the messy and often confusing scientific process itself - what Nowotny called ‘night science’. If the latter was shared with the public, Nowotny suggested that this could go a long way in better matching the promises made and expectations fulfilled by science.

At the heart of Nowotny’s lecture lay the message that as science thrives on uncertainty, scientists need to be able to communicate the fact that the certainty reached by science will often be of a ‘tender’ kind. Rather than being shunned, therefore, uncertainty ought to be embraced as it is precisely in the ‘unglorious’ side of science, full of errors and uncertainty, where the potential for new discoveries lies.

Nowotny thus emphasized the importance of presenting science to the public as an open and evolving system, where some promises made over the years have been fulfilled, and some discarded. Importantly, such uncertainty may not be seen negatively as a drawback, but rather as a fertile ground for scientific advancement.

S T Lee Lectures

The S T Lee Public Policy lectures were established in 2003 thanks to a benefaction from Seng Tee Lee, Singaporean business executive, philanthropist and Honarary Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge. Each lecture considers aspects of scientific, medical or technological research and developments that are likely to have significant implications for public policy over the next decade.

Banner image from Cambridge Punting via CC4.0

Professor Helga Nowotny

European Research Council (ERC)