Who benefits from science? A comment on Barry Bozeman’s ‘Public Value Science’ Who benefits from science? A comment on Barry Bozeman’s ‘Public Value Science’

Who benefits from science? A comment on Barry Bozeman’s ‘Public Value Science’

In a new article for Issues in S&T Barry Bozeman argues that current science policies benefit the rich more than the poor, thus reinforcing social inequalities. This blog post discusses his argument in the light of related views on how science can contribute to wider social well-being.

Barry Bozeman’s new article on ‘Public Value Science’ raises one of the most fundamental questions in science policy: Who benefits from science? His answer is clear: right now the benefits tend to go to the rich while the ­negative impacts, such as unemployment or pollution, differentially affect the poor. Bozeman thus concludes that science and technology can be a regressive force in society as they reinforce current social inequalities.

The argument is sharp, sound and convincing. Although it is focused in the US, it is a relevant discussion across the globe, even in welfare democracies such as the Netherlands or Sweden. Many innovations related to economic growth reduce job opportunities to low and middle classes. Many innovations related to consumption are mainly enjoyed by those who can afford them–even in health. And the harm caused by innovation affects more directly disenfranchised communities.

Under the special status that science enjoyed in the 20th century as a central factor in ‘modernity’, science policy seldom took notice that innovation could do harm. If there were negative outcomes to knowledge production this was assumed to be the result of inadequate downstream policies for environmental, health or welfare issues–not a problem of science policy. Irrespective of research agendas, it was seldom questioned that science would or could result in benefits for all.

The importance of Bozeman’s article lies in highlighting that many research trajectories (or directions) supported by public policies are surprisingly well-aligned with dominant economic and political interests–rather than being concerned with wider social benefits. This is obvious in publicly funded health research, with a relative focus on expensive treatments and chronic diseases of wealthy nations which is astonishingly similar to private R&D. Yet in other sectors as well incumbent groups can be seen to shape research agendas according to their interests rather than the public good. See, for example, the persistently large investment in nuclear fusion research (still €5bn, thus 6% of all European Commission research spending for 2021-27) in spite of the current success of greener renewable technologies. Thus, science tends to benefit more the wealthy than the poor because research agendas are shaped in a variety of both explicit and invisible ways by incumbent groups (by the political economy) without open debate on public values and wider societal benefits.

The picture drawn by Bozeman is concordant with diagnoses presented in recent years by innovation studies scholars such as Andy Stirling, Johan Schot or Mariana Mazzucato. However, the proposals for improvement by the different authors have interesting differences in emphasis. Mazzucato’s focus is on (rather top-down) state-led missions that would spearhead innovation in directions consistent with public values. Building on sustainability transition theory, Schot proposes that transformative change in innovation systems need the coordination (orchestrated by state policy) of the various actors involved. Research can indeed contribute to change innovation pathways but it will only succeed when synchronised with ongoing transformations downstream. Concerned about how allegedly progressive transformations become captured by particular interests even when led by public policy, Stirling emphasises the need for supporting a diversity of innovation trajectories and plurality of perspectives in appraisal of agendas. He thus stresses participation, precaution and responsibility given that the benefits of science are often not self-evident, and that different social groups may have disparate preferences.

Bozeman proposes a five-step program for making science more attuned to benefiting all citizens: 

  1. Graduate education on science’s social contributions
  2. Evaluation of research impacts
  3. Ring-fencing curiosity-driven science while making other research more accountable
  4. Diversifying the research working force
  5. Fostering public participation on the goals of science

I would fully endorse Bozeman’s plan -- let me notice its similarity with some of the European initiatives on Responsible Research and Innovation, e.g. in terms of gender or participation. Now, its comparison with Mazzucato, Schot and Stirling’s perspectives raises interesting questions. Are decentralised and piece-meal steps as suggested by Bozeman more likely to succeed than grand schemes as in Mazzucato’s missions? To which extent should or could public agents coordinate with innovation actors (further downstream) to achieve transitions à la Schot? How can a ‘public value science’ be supported in controversial contexts (in labour, environment) while keeping Stirling’s attention for diversity and plurality?

Bozeman’s provocation succeeds in showing that a sizeable part of research is now serving mainly the privileged and potentially harming the disenfranchised–and in spurring much needed-debate on how science policies could help in making research (again?) a progressive force in society.

(This comment will be published in Issues of Science and Technology in the Fall 2020)

Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

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