As the dust kicked up by the Spending Review settles on Whitehall, civil servants are gathering to whisper to each other, ‘What does the Big Society mean for us?’ The devolution of responsibility to citizens makes more sense for some government departments than others. People might be able to gang together and start a school. They’d be less good at building a police force, an army or a rail network.

So what does the Big Society mean for science?

Scientific research is increasingly specialised, a trend accelerated by the emergence of Big Science – an expensive, equipment-heavy team sport – in the second half of the 20th century.  This means it’s pretty hard to democratise much scientific research. Big Society science probably won’t therefore involve street gene-sequencing parties or the Women’s Institute designing a particle accelerator.

And yet science is amenable to new forms of collaboration, with experts and non-experts. At the margins of scientific research, some interesting partnerships have formed, under the umbrella of what is sometimes called ‘Citizen Science’. The spectrum of citizen science activity runs from wide-but-shallow to narrow-but-deep:

  1. At its broadest, citizen science takes the form of things like SETI@home, which borrows the massed computing resources of the public to speed up calculations.
  2. Then you have things like Galaxy Zoo, that have members of the public as ‘eyes on the street’, asking them to do the scientific legwork of data collection.
  3. In the middle are things like science shops (the recent UK incarnation of which is the Beacons for Public Engagement). This is where citizens help scientists set research agendas and research questions at Universities.
  4. Next, there are amateur naturalists, astronomers and others who have become used to engaging with professionals in the shaping of scientific research. Here, citizens are experts too. See, for an illustration of this, the “Amateurs as experts”(pdf) project run by the Natural History Museum and Lancaster University. Looking to innovation more broadly, there is plenty of evidence for ‘user-driven’ design and engineering. And the Open Source computing movement is pretty well-established.
  5. There are a number of cases of patient engagement in research, where citizens’ interest in science has been thrust upon them by circumstance. The best-told story of this is from Steve Epstein, who describes how AIDS patients in the 1980s grabbed scientists’ research agendas and twisted them towards greater relevance, becoming experts themselves in the process.
  6. Finally, you’ve got the really disruptive stuff, in which particular circumstances reveal a knowledge vacuum that concerned citizens act to fill. My favourite example is of the parents of a child with a rare genetic disorder who initiated and managed their own research programme and did some of the science. The mother, Sharon Terry, is now a patent holder on the gene for the disease.

Public engagement in the production of science is one side of the story. The other side of Big Society science is the governance of science. Here, the trend is towards greater engagement as policymakers and the scientific community take the lessons from controversies around GM crops and Mad Cow Disease into debates on nanotechnology, synthetic biology and geoengineering. The emerging realisation is that the group of people involved in discussions about the how, what and why of science needs to be expanded beyond the scientific community. Philosopher Bruno Latour, writing in Science, throws down a gauntlet:

“Scientists now have the choice of maintaining a 19th-century ideal of science or elaborating – with all of us, the hoi polloi – an ideal of research better adjusted to the collective experiment on which we are all embarked.”

Latour’s suggestion is that science moves, like medicine is starting to do, beyond paternalism. Innovation, in this way of thinking, becomes a task for society at large, steered by its social, as well as economic, value (Simon Denegri from the AMRC has an interesting take on this here). Maybe this ‘collective experimentation’ is the real task of the Big Society science.

(P.S. For French social theory fans, Michel Callon is another obligatory passage point).

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