Sunday, June 25, 2017

Led by: Samuel Evans, Harvard University
Description:  There is much talk about how scientists and engineers need to be more aware of the various publics that are impacted by their work (and which also impact their work). There are traditional methods for determining what constitutes good science or good engineering, and those metrics still seem to stand, though such things as ethics and stakeholder awareness may now be added on top of them. But what about the researchers who look at science and technology policy? What process do we go through to determine what counts as quality work in our field? It is not necessarily the standard number of academic articles in top journals, nor the prestigious post at a top university. And yet, these are the traditional measures of success for posts in the academic community. As young researchers and practitioners, do we hurt our chances of ever being established in the academy by our desire to focus our efforts more on policy engagement?

The one idea for research

Q: What is the measure of “quality” of STP research when considering the rightful place of science?
A: The degree to which it is useful.

Useful research is always defined in relation to an expected social use or goal.  In a plural society, however, there cannot be assumed unanimity of goals (except for trivial cases).  Useful can then be defined differently according to different normative theories of “social order” and the “good life”.  However, if history taught us something it is to distrust anyone who claims to posses the absolute best normative theory, the absolute moral truth.  Useful cannot be defined then in any unique, complete, and unequivocal sense. There is no bliss point where the social function is maximized.  Useful research is inherently contextual and contested, and thus any definition is heuristic.  Hence, we can adopt rules of thumb to recognize what is useless. This will render not an unequivocal conception of usefulness but at least will help to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Example Rules of Thumb:

  • The “What To”: Don’t speak truth to power, speak “defiance to power.” STP research is useful (non-useless) when it challenges the discourse of the establishment. If political power is articulated in certain established discourses, challenging the assumptions, premises, or the logic of those discourses is a sign that we are doing something good. If we can identify the discourse that wields the greatest power in any domain, attacking it is “useful.”  E.g. challenge presumed goals of consensus such as “development,” “competitiveness,” challenge dogmas like “objective science,” challenge long standing “institutions” and even sacrosanct terms as “democracy,” “the inalienability of private property,” etc.
  • The “How To”: STP research is useful (non-useless) when it advances the aforementioned challenges, but when it does so seriously. Learned criticism. Historically aware criticisms. Context nuanced criticism. Not jejune, half-baked, repetition of theories or ideological mantras. Hesitate if your criticism fits nicely a well-established ideological position. Hesitate if your criticism becomes popular.
    • Corollary of the above: If we try to represent “quality of research” with quantitative indicators we undermine the meaning of the term quality as a guide to do research. This is because by seeking to quantify quality we either reaffirm the values of the establishment (current standard measures of quality) or simply create a new establishment with its own protected class (those who meet the new quantitative standards of quality).
  • The “For What”: give voice to the disenfranchised, and provide tools to reconfigure the established power structure

The one idea for education
Proselytize! Speak up the critique, discuss the critique, rethink the critique. Let us start with our own departments and our own universities. Our students and colleagues.  Our friends and family.

When asking about the rightful place of science, education should focus on questioning the power structures in place within the policy world. Such questions include:

  • Who is in power?
  • How is science used to further particular policies?
  • How do the established institutions direct scientific inquiry?
  • What ends are being served by that inquiry?
  • What are the tools that would allow for a society to reshape those with the power?
  • Science in policy is not speaking truth to power, but rather using one form of power to shape another.

The one idea for outreach
Outreach should not be a one-way street (from us to them). If that is outreach we advise against it. What we need is to create spaces of dialogue, where we create an inviting space for the others to also reach for us, where the exchange of ideas and the debate is both ways. Our proselytism should be a constant engagement with others by means of which we review our convictions.

Technical Note: Anticipating the criticism that we all live and think within certain discursive formations and thus this advice could be self-serving. It may be so only if we “justify” a discourse that lends strength to the powerful. That is why the advice is to challenge that which we identified to be comparatively a powerful discourse, whether its the discourse that justifies our powerful tribe or that which denounces the tribe that oppresses the other.

One Response so far.

  1. Adam Briggle says:

    I really like the idea that challenging the discourses of the establishment is what we should be doing. This is a great way to co-opt and broaden the term “useful,” which itself is part of an established discourse that needs challenging. But the establishment is not going to accept counter-narratives as “useful,” and we must beware of telling these counter-narratives only within journals read by those who already agree.