Assessing contemporary science
Assessing contemporary science

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Assessing contemporary science

2.1 The applications of contemporary science

One of the reasons this course focuses on contemporary science is because of the potential influence and impact that new knowledge can have on wider society. This can come in the form of novel challenges and opportunities.

In the case of the ESA Rosetta Mission, for example, it led to some unexpected developments when the technology initially developed by the Philae scientists was adapted by them for further use. The next activity provides more information on these developments.

Activity 2 The application of contemporary science

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes

Study the following video: ‘How space science is making a difference on Earth’, featuring Geraint (Taff) Morgan. Taff works in the Department of Physical Sciences at The Open University. Through his research he has contributed to a number of space missions.

Skip transcript: Video 1 How space science is making a difference on Earth.

Transcript: Video 1 How space science is making a difference on Earth.

GERAINT MORGAN
The Open University is best known for its distance learning. What surprises people is the amount of research we do here and the relevance to the modern world. For the last 20 years or so, I’ve been working on the recent Rosetta mission here at The Open University. For me and the team, the 12th of November 2014 was an incredible day. It was the day that the Philae Lander finally landed on the comet after its 10-year, 4-billion mile journey around our solar system. On-board, within the Philae Lander, was the Ptolemy instrument that I and my colleagues at The Open University and Rutherford Appleton Laboratories designed and built. Ptolemy is a miniature research laboratory that sniffs and detects the chemical and isotopic make-up of the comet. Missions like Rosetta really push the boundaries of science and engineering and, for me, the really exciting thing is that space technology can help save and change lives here on Earth.
Here in the lab, we are developing pioneering new ways to detect cancer in humans using smell. Since 2004, we’ve known that dogs can sniff cancer and what we have done is effectively build a robot dog that can work 24 hours a day and seven days a week. One of the application areas we are exploring is prostate cancer, one of the most deadly cancers for men in the UK. Currently, 80 000 men per year are incorrectly told that they may have prostate cancer based on the PSA blood test. Our technology should help reduce the number of false positives and help save the NHS over 50 million pounds per year.
Another application of our research is this box. It contains several instruments which will measure and sniff the air quality inside British submarines. The atmosphere analyser allows the crew to measure the atmosphere continuously so they can react quickly to the build-up of any dangerous gases. Our technology will make the environment much safer for hundreds of British sailors. This box is a vital piece of safety equipment; it’s smaller, better, cheaper and most importantly, it’s British.
On a more day-to-day basis, you might like to think about our work the next time you take a shower or use expensive perfume or use a deodorant. Our sniffing robots are being used by perfumers in Paris to add to the information they get from human panels to help them optimise their perfumes. And so the expertise and the know-how we have developed to analyse the faraway comet can be applied back here on Earth for important things like hospitals, submarines and even perfumes. That diversity is the important and fantastic thing about research here at The Open University.
End transcript: Video 1 How space science is making a difference on Earth.
Video 1 How space science is making a difference on Earth.
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Now answer the following questions, before revealing the discussion below.

  • What other scientific areas have developed from this space research and associated technology?
  • Who might be influenced by the development of the social and economic impacts of these technologies?
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Discussion

The work has led to scientists developing methods to:

  • Detect prostate cancer by ‘smell’, with the potential to perform more accurate diagnoses, thereby saving lives and expenditure in the National Health Service (NHS). Patients, carers and medical professionals, in particular, could benefit from the application of these technologies.
  • Analyse the air quality in submarines, acting as an additional safety measure for submariners.
  • Optimising perfumes, complementing the work of humans in producing scents, complementing and enhancing the work of companies and the professionals working for them. Consumers could also benefit from the production of better quality scents.

This video shows that one of the reasons scientists and other stakeholders (citizens, medical professionals, carers, patients, consumers, military personnel, business people, etc.) care passionately about the sciences is because they have the potential to influence our lives.

To use an oft-cited cliché, ‘science matters’, which is why the work conducted by scientists and other stakeholders can be linked with politicians and other policy makers. The next (optional) activity explores these ideas further.

Optional activity: why should scientists engage with policy makers?

Timing: Allow about 30 minutes

Study the following video: ‘Why should scientists engage with policy makers?’, featuring Ian Bateman. Ian is Professor of Environmental Economics and the Director of the Land, Environment, Economics and Policy Institute (LEEP) at the University of Exeter. As you watch, make notes on the questions that follow, before revealing the discussion below the text box.

Skip transcript: Video 2 Why should scientists engage with policy makers?

Transcript: Video 2 Why should scientists engage with policy makers?

CAPTION: Why should scientists engage with policy?

IAN BATEMAN
Well, if you’re not interested in actually getting your science to change the world then you don’t have to. That’s absolutely fine, you know, if you just want to be sort of an ivory tower academic with no engagement in the real world then don’t bother but, if you actually are interested in changing things, then it’s absolutely vital to engage with all those people that actually make decisions in the world and policy makers are a large influence within that community, but I also add that business people, NGOs and also the general public as they are the arbiters of preference and values.

CAPTION: What are the biggest challenges to using scientific evidence in policy making? How can scientists help to overcome this?

IAN BATEMAN
You’ve got to think about the real-world challenge that the decision makers really face. The vast majority of decision makers that I’ve met actually do want to make a good job, they want to improve society. The problem is they are faced with unlimited want, unlimited ways to improve people’s lives – hospitals, better transport systems, better environment – and limited resources. So they got this real problem that they have got to handle all these different demands upon those limited financial and other resources.
If you simply go to them and say I know that this particular bat will react in this way and you give them no way to actually judge how important that issue is compared to the other issues that they have to deal with, then you’re really almost adding a problem rather than trying to find a solution. If you were a decision maker faced with all those different competing demands, what would you do?
Now, I think answering honestly you’d want to know how important the bat issue is compared to a lot of the other issues that decision makers face, so translating that information into a language that they can actually trade off against different competing calls on resources is absolutely vital. It’s part of the scientific challenge and if you duck that, you’re basically putting yourself into a very small category where you’re saying ‘my interest comes in a totally different unit, a totally different way of looking at things to everybody else’s interest’; so you know doctors might be telling you to do this and transport engineers might be telling you to do something else, they’re all making their claims in nice commensurate units, and they’re just saying this will generate this value or that will generate that value, and I’m just saying ‘no, you have to do this which is absolutely imperative’.
You need to put yourself in their shoes and realise that they have a very difficult job to do and you need to try and translate your findings into units and language that they can actually understand, otherwise they won’t really be able to deal with your information.

CAPTION: What practical steps should scientists take to engage with the policymaking process?

IAN BATEMAN
Number one, talk to them! I know it sounds very obvious but a lot of scientists don’t. These are typically intelligent non-specialists. They need to understand what you are talking about in language that is not overly complex, that actually relates to the real world decisions they have to make.
You also need to present information in ways which can be comparable with the other issues that they have to deal with, so imagine you are providing some information on some particular species to a decision maker who is also having to make decisions which will affect whether somebody’s house gets flooded or not, or whether somebody keeps their job or not, so you need to actually try and put yourself into their situation and generate tools which will help that comparability across that complexity of issues.

CAPTION: What examples have you seen of scientific evidence leading to a real policy change?

IAN BATEMAN
I was very lucky early on, well, a few years ago, to be part of the UK National League System Assessment. That was an attempt to try and look at the state of health and trends in UK ecosystems, and it did it in a way which was both scientifically credible but also accessible to decision makers.
It resulted in really quite a major impact upon the natural environment White Paper that came in afterwards, resulting in a whole host of practical initiatives but also the setting up of the Natural Capital Committee which I was fortunate enough to be part of, which has in turn led to a commitment by the government to set up a 25 year plan for the natural environment, which is what we need. The natural environment has been degraded for the last couple of centuries, we need a long term plan if we are actually going to deliver on that White Paper goal of not just halting the decline in natural capital but actually reversing it and leaving the environment a better state than the present generation has to deal with.
End transcript: Video 2 Why should scientists engage with policy makers?
Video 2 Why should scientists engage with policy makers?
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Questions:

  • Why should scientists engage with policy makers?
  • What are the biggest challenges to using scientific evidence in policy making?
  • What practical steps should scientists take to engage with the policy making process?
  • What examples does he offer to illustrate where science has influenced policy?
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Discussion

Professor Bateman begins by arguing that science has the potential to change our lives. He calls on scientists to make active decisions about whether they want their research to benefit society. If they answer yes to this fundamental question, then scientists need to identify which decision makers connect with their science. This could include policy makers at an international, national, regional, and/or local level. It could also include a whole range of other stakeholders, including non-governmental organisations (NGOs), community groups, industry and members of the public.

Professor Bateman argues that one of the biggest challenges facing scientists is to understand the context that decision makers are working within. This includes multiple, and sometimes conflicting, demands on them. Decision makers rarely have the luxury of having a single, simple issue to debate at any given time, and they are routinely faced with limited resources.

In effect, decision makers have to prioritise. Scientists therefore need to communicate their science clearly and within the context of ‘real-world’ challenges. At times this may require them not to communicate, i.e. to be selective about which scientific evidence is essential to resolving a given issue. At other times, they will need to identify and present scientific evidence in shorthand. This approach can seem very different from communicating with other scientists in a research context, e.g. a laboratory, on location in the field, at academic conferences, or through research papers.

He argues that one of the most obvious ways to engage with the policy making process is to talk to decision makers. Crucially, this requires careful selection of information, packaged in a way that is equivalent to other forms of evidence that decision makers will receive.

Finally, Professor Bateman describes an example of this working in practice related to research into ecosystems. By engaging with policy makers he, working with other scientists and stakeholders, ultimately delivered a long-term, 25-year commitment to improving the environment.

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