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What is Responsive Science: Sam's perspective

An initial short thought piece on what I think we mean by "Responsive Science". To be read in conjunction with other peoples thoughts.

Published onOct 16, 2017
What is Responsive Science: Sam's perspective

We have spent millennia exploring different forms of governing our societies, but we have spent only about a century trying to explicitly govern science. For virtually all of that century, the premise for governing science has been an assumption that the process of science works best when it is independent of the rest of society. But we can see the cracks in this assumption at every turn these days. Pressures to publish, to patent, to build on the work of predecessors, and to craft research projects in terms that funders want to see are only a sampling of the ways science is intimately connected to the wider society. By stating that the power and value of science lies in its independence and objectivity, we are at the same time saying that science must be its own governor.

Those of us working on the concept of ‘responsive science’ think differently, though we are still in the early stages of working out what that means. I propose one basic assumption is that the methods we use to generate knowledge about the world should be subject to oversight and change by society as a whole, not just the scientific community. This assumption puts in place not an idea of autonomy, but of scientific democracy.

Of the forms of political governance civilization has explored, democracy has shown remarkable resilience and a continual drive to open up decision making to scrutiny and change. What would it mean to govern science according to democratic principles? This is the primary question I am interesting in exploring through the concept of Responsive Science.

This question is not new; answers have been put forward for several decades. For example, non-scientists could govern science, but only if they knew as much about the science as the scientists themselves. Another example is to conduct citizen juries and focus groups to learn what topics publics would like addressed through science, or which areas of research should be avoided.

The difference with Responsive Science, I argue, is that it is a method of generating answers to the question of how to govern democratically, rather than the answers themselves. It is a process, not an outcome. The two approaches to engaging oversight mentioned above, in contrast, are often presented as one-off events that provide political approval. Each of these methods has serious flaws in the ways it constructs science, publics, and democracy.

I am assuming here that we do not know the ‘right’ way to govern, so we need to build in an ability to continually renew how we govern as we gain new knowledge and change the political, social, natural, and technical environments. Just as there is a process for changing political constitutions and the ways we implement political democracy, there should be routinized ways that we change the ways we produce knowledge about the world and build tools to reconfigure that world.

This website is a space where we, meaning you and everyone else, can work through what the concept of responsive science means by acting it out and reflecting on the results. Vital to this process is to have different ideas on what should count as ‘responsive’, ‘science’, and what topics and methods are best to address. As such, this though piece on the concept of responsive science is only one that is launching this site. I encourage you to read Kevin’s and Jeantine’s as well.

Jack Park: The two links given in this piece are broken: they have two /pub/ references where one is sufficient.
Sam Weiss Evans: Thanks. I’ve updated the links.
Jack Park: Several of the 95 theses of the book Cluetrain Manifesto relate to Sam’s perspective in the sense that the web has changed the conversation for markets, which maps to changed conversations for science. But, before Cluetrain was written, Douglas Engelbart was arguing for an ensemble of concepts which were named capabilities infrastructures, networked improvement communities, and dynamic knowledge repositories. From my perspective, a key point he made in the context of networked improvement communities, expressed as composed of human and tool systems and the knowledge growing in that ensemble, is that there are co-evolutionary processes engaged on the entire ensemble; as humans improve, their tools must improve, as knowledge grows and improves. Mapping that to Sam’s perspective, and given the vastly broader conversations enabled by the web, it seems to me that responsive science, the term, entails a much broader perspective; as Sam points out, it’s the process - the journey - and not so much the destination. Loosely channeling Engelbart, the human system in the responsive science context and as suggested by the Cluetrain authors, is much wider than just the scientists and their funding sources; the human system in that context is everyone. The familiar hashtags #opensource, #openaccess, #openscience, #citizenscience, and #opendemocrary clearly seem appropriate to this conversation. Over