Thursday, January 24, 2008

DIUS ex machina

Buried in a comment on his blog, Scribe points to a recent speech at the RSA by John Denham, UK Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS press release, Times article) Denham wants to improve public engagement in science and increase the influence of scientific evidence on public policy.

But are scientists adequately equipped to contribute to public policy? If this is now seen by the UK Government as an essential part of the function of a scientist in a democracy, how will DIUS develop the additional skills?

For example, for a scientist to contribute intelligently to a debate on some controversial topic such as genetic engineering or nuclear power, it is not sufficient to have a thorough command of some narrow slice of technical knowledge, it is also surely necessary to have a broad understanding of the nature and history of technological development and risk, and an ability to assess and communicate the latest technology in a proper social context.

Will these topics now become mandatory parts of the undergraduate science curriculum, or will scientists be encouraged to take some additional courses (a "PostGraduate Science Policy Certificate" perhaps) to qualify them to act as expert witnesses in public policy debate?

Or does Denham assume that scientists will generally be on the "right side" of any political controversy, so he merely wants to coopt their general support for things the government has already decided to do.

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