Threats to the university, humanities and science

21 July 2011


This report was prepared by Dave Bosworth.

Despite generating an historic amount of research in fields barely imaginable a generation ago, some consider the reputation of science to be at an all time low. Events such "Climategate" at the University of East Anglia amongst others have led to many becoming disillusioned with science and questioning the role that scientists and universities should play in the modern world.

The "Threats to the University, Humanities and Science" conference, co-organised by the University of Cambridge and Arizona State University, brought together leading figures from a variety of fields involved in the modern university. Representatives from government and university governance came together alongside lawyers and academics to discuss the range of challenges which will shape the next 10 years of academia.

The miscommunication between scientists and policy makers was discussed at length in a panel discussion supported by CSaP. James Wilsdon of the Science Policy Centre at the Royal Society believes that it is vital not to point the finger at either party – both sides are equally guilty of oversimplification. Instead we must embrace openness and widen the public understanding of the scientific method.

Matthew Freeman of the MRC Laboratory in Cambridge contested that the public's view of science as consisting of hard immutable facts is at odds with the reality, particularly when relating to advising policy. The view of science as consisting of uncertainty, scepticism and repeated experiment, while more representative of modern science, can give the impression that the scientific opinion is divided, unclear and therefore is of lower value.

Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University expressed the view that scientists need to learn to sell their product to policy makers. But this involves a better understanding of the policy process and its nuances. For scientists the facts are the whole story, while policy makers must balance this advice with other factors such as economic concerns or public opinion. An oft-quoted example of this is European policy on genetically modified food; despite clear advice from the scientific community, the concerns of other stakeholder groups were the determining factor in the eventual policy decisions.

The failings are by no means limited to the academic side of the relationship. Martin Rees, Master of Trinity College Cambridge, made the point that scientists are poorly represented within politics at that may in part lead to a lack of understanding within government of the scientific method. There is a fundamental disparity between the long term research which forms the majority of academic work, and the short term concerns regarding health scares and natural disasters which form the majority of topics for which the government requires scientific input.

Lord Rees combined many of these concerns in his 2010 Reith lectures when highlighting the need for science to communicate more effectively:

Often science (has) an urgent impact on our lives. Governments and businesses, as well as individuals, then need advice – advice that fairly presents the level of confidence, and the degree of uncertainty.

Having identified that both policy makers and academics need a better understanding of the processes involved, the question was raised of how best to resolve this issue. Most policy makers and academics in the UK spend their entire careers in their chosen field; there is little movement between the two. It is important therefore that both parties learn about the other as part of their professional training. This concept can also be expanded to cover educators, teachers, lecturers, university officials and regulators of education but must start within the context of a university education. Traditionally there is little mixing between the sciences, humanities and the arts. Consequently, graduates have a narrow range of knowledge, which can leads to siloed thinking and exacerbates the problem.

These themes of clearer communication with the public and government agencies were present throughout many of the discussions, in particular with regard to data protection and freedom of information laws. The perceived closed nature of many academic institutions leads to a lack of trust which in turn creates an atmosphere of fear and doubt. Only if the science and policy communities make their work suitably transparent will they gain the trust of the public.

By bringing together specialists from a range of backgrounds the conference was able to offer a unique insight into the challenges facing universities around the world. Perhaps the most interesting result of the meeting was to highlight the common ground and indeed common solutions for many problems facing both the academic and policy worlds. Through continued meetings of this type it is likely that solutions to many of these problems will be determined and with sufficient resolve these challenges can be overcome.

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