4a. Science and society vs science in society: Imagining new arrangements

Research Team: Peter Weingart, Luz Maria Hernandez

In this project, we attempt to provide a systematic overview of the content of the new portrayals of science that have appeared in mainstream fiction since the end of the 1980s. What pictures do they provide of science and its place in society? Can we identify patterns or common motifs in the ways that institutional arrangements for science are portrayed and imagined? We then examine this data in the context of what science studies and history tell us about the place of science in modern democratic societies.

Separation between the practice of science and the rest of society has been built into institutional configurations since the dawn of modern science. The Royal Society charter of 1660 stated that the Society's “business and design” was to “improve the knowledge of natural things, and all useful arts, manufactures, mechanic practices, engines and inventions by experiments—(not meddling with divinity, metaphysics, morals, politics, grammar, rhetoric or logic)” (cited in Ornstein, 1928, 108, Fn 63). This demarcation of the special nature of science with respect to other realms of knowledge and, most significantly, to society's centers of authority, accompanied the development of science but took on new implications in the 19th and 20th centuries when the extraordinary powers conferred by application of scientific knowledge in the economic and military realms became apparent. In the aftermath of WWII, as industrial democracies grappled with the conundrum of how best to benefit and protect themselves from the often unpredictable outcomes of scientific research, science policies developed around the distinction between basic research—"performed without thought of practical ends" to provide "general knowledge and an understanding of nature and its laws"—and applied research, which should "provide solutions to important practical problems" (Bush 1945 ) If science was to serve the well-being of society, government should provide direct support for basic research, as determined by scientific factors free of economic and political pressures, while applied research should be encouraged but—except in the case of politically useful applications such as weapons—determined by the private sector. The institutional configurations generated by such a model—autonomy and isolation for basic science, secretive state-run weapons labs, and a profit-driven applied research sector—were based on a certain blind public trust in science, a public carte blanche. But as the unmitigated consequences of scientific applications made themselves apparent and the distinctions between basic and applied research became less and less clear, the public became less willing to grant that trust.

Bauer (2007) describes three different conceptualizations of the gap between science and the public, and the respective roles of the public, scientists, and communicators that have emerged since the 1960s: science literacy (1960s onwards), public understanding of science (after 1985), and science and society (1990s-present). Since the 1970s, science-based policy decisions (e.g. nuclear power, genetically modified foodstuff, energy conservation) have come under closer public scrutiny, NGOs and governments have tried to establish direct connections between scientific knowledge and the public interest, and scientific institutions are expected to respond to societal needs and subjected to performance measures and competitive rankings. Science PR campaigns and popularizing efforts are commonplace, and, in many institutions, communicating to the public is considered part of the scientist's work mandate (Peters et al. 2008). A certain level of scientific literacy has joined the ranks of competencies needed by citizens and their representatives participating in the decision-making processes of Western democracies.

The media has responded to these changing dynamics between science and the public with a steady increase in attention to science across a broad spectrum of informative, arts, and entertainment media that both reflects and feeds a growing public interest in science. This forms the social and historic context for the recent increase in the quantity and quality of attention given to science in mainstream fiction, works read by a largely college-educated readership (Bradshaw 2004).

Research questions and methods

We will interpret data from qualitative content analysis (in collaboration with projects 3a and 4b) of a full spectrum of science novels in the FMS database, as well as a small selection of commercial "best-sellers" that don't exist within the corpus but have been identified to have significant science-related content and have been published in the same timeframe (1990-present) (e.g. Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park or State of Fear). What pictures and patterns emerge? Do they reflect a rising expectation that science (and scientists) be responsive to societal concerns? How are the links between basic and applied research portrayed? Who, or what, is held accountable for the societal impacts of scientific discovery? Are scientists depicted as longing for power or as citizens responding to their society’s challenges? Is the scientific workplace portrayed as isolated from outside society, or integrated? What is the role of women, and how are they portrayed? Are the individual scientists lone rangers or socially adapted? Which particular fields of science are described as taking risks, which as harmless? What differences do we see between the FMS literature and the contemporaneous popular literature analysed? Throughout most of the 20th century, representations of science in popular literature, fiction film, and comics adhered to a set of stereotypes and myths that date back to the medieval practice of alchemy or earlier (Among others: (Haynes 1994; Locke 2005; Flicker 2003; Nefen 2006; Weingart et al. 2003; Skal 1998; Hüppauf & Weingart; 2009). What happens to these old entrenched stereotypes under this new scrutiny? We don't expect they will have disappeared. But many of them draw on deep-seated human fears of the hidden and unknown: if science is indeed becoming a more open realm of society, if these authors find it more familiar and accessible, then we may indeed see significant changes in the stories they tell and the characters they create.

We will use the answers to these questions and others, together with a survey of sociological literature (on institutional arrangements for science, science as work, media relations, etc) to examine how contemporary culture sees or envisions the various possible constellations of social and institutional arrangements for science and what this might mean in 21st-century democratic societies.