Science and Technology undoubtedly are one of the main driving forces in modern times and might contribute to tackle societal challenges of our times. Nevertheless, they are presently facing complex societal challenges and are undergoing fast changes, especially affecting how they are socially managed and perceived. In this section, some of these challenges and changes are briefly discussed.
In general terms, scientific research and innovation are experiencing a complex transition. Different interpretive models have been developed to account for it, including the Mode 1/Mode 2 model of scientific knowledge production, the Post-academic science, the Post-normal science, the Triple Helix approach, the Academic Capitalism, or the Innovation System.
Although in different ways, they overall describe the “paradigm shift” still occurring from the consolidated social model of science, often expressed with the image of the “Ivory Tower”, to an emerging model, sometimes referred to as “Open Science”.
The main features characterising this shift are summarised in the box below.
The Paradigm shift in the social model of science
The consolidated social model of science sees it as:
- Substantially autonomous from society
- Largely separated from the facts, worries, and practicalities of society and, in general, of the real world
- Based on forms of self-direction (it mainly advances on the basis of scientists’ interests)
- Internally organised in well-defined disciplinary fields
- Not involved in the actual implications and use of its outputs (in terms of knowledge, discoveries, technologies, but also impacts and risks).
The emerging model thinks science as:
- Fully embedded in society and strongly connected with political, economic, and societal dynamics (de factolimiting its autonomy)
- Open to the external lay actors and sensitive towards expectations, needs, worries and problems of society
- Increasingly adopting multidisciplinary approaches
- Based on forms of co-direction and co-production with stakeholders and the public at large
- Directly concerned with the actual implications and use of its outputs.
This transition is not proceeding in a linear way and contradictions also emerge. For example, while the disciplinary boundaries are weakening, the application fields are rapidly expanding and fragmenting into thousands of research strands. Moreover, the organisational ways to produce research are changing, with the effect to make science less and less a unitary, ordered, and consistent entity. Science-society relationships are also more problematic and complex, the access of research organisation to public resources is more uncertain and the public support to science is less evident and homogeneous.
This transition is not only altering the quality of science relations with other sectors of society, but is also modifying its most basic and intimate mechanisms, related to the very production of “scientific knowledge” (for example, the reproducibility of data or the evaluation of research quality) with impacts on the contents of the scientific research and, sometimes, on the epistemological ground of disciplines.
The changes occurring in science are part of a wider array of transformations touching contemporary societies as a whole, usually referred to as the shift from modern to post-modern or late-modern society.
The globalisation processes affecting any social sphere and the diversification of cultures and values are leading to a general weakening of social structures, including political, religious, and state institutions, especially against the increasing capacity and autonomy of individuals and the groups they are part of, e.g., in making their own choices, in developing their own worldviews, or in triggering social changes. The weakening of social structures is also making people more exposed to risks of a different kind (health risks, environmental/climate change risks, weakening of welfare, etc.) and making the boundaries among social institutions and among social spheres more blurred and uncertain.
Like any other social institution of modernity, also science is now put under pressure because of these broader transformations. For example, globalisation is propelling a harsh competition among research organisations on a global scale; the growing presence of non-academic organisations involved in research and the expanding demand to turn scientific research results into marketable products in a short time are making the boundaries of science more uncertain and penetrable by, e.g., policymakers, industries, citizens and citizen groups.
As said above, these transformations are particularly affecting science-society relations.
Science and society are interconnected entities: they have always co-evolved in some way. However, their interaction is now more problematic, for different factors, such as:
- The decreasing authoritativeness and social recognition of scientific institutions, often leading to anti-science attitudes and pseudo-scientific beliefs (see, for instance, the no-vax and the no-mask movements)
- The ever-stronger connection between science and ethical and policy issues, triggering and feeding social tensions on controversial issues and “public battles” among experts
- The increasing sensitiveness of the public towards science-related risks
- People’s decreasing trust in scientific institutions, leading to a growing demand for accountability and transparency
- The need for science institutions to increasingly demonstrate their social and economic usefulness to citizens as taxpayers.
These and other factors are plunging science and technological innovation into a paradoxical condition: while they are increasingly important for people’s life and future, they are also more and more socially weak. Specific risks raised, in particular, by an inadequate connection between science and society, concern:
- The disconnection of science from the needs and demands of society, with the consequence to make science unable to successfully address key societal problems
- The decreasing capacity of science to be inclusive with respect to, e.g., women, youth, or minority groups, with the consequence of waste precious human resources
- The incapacity of science to fully exploit the knowledge produced because of, e.g., conflicting relations with external actors, distortions due to power dynamics or lack its decreasing social status
- The risk for science to be more and more questioned (see some controversial issues such as vaccination, the use of GMOs, animal experimentation, the use of stem cells, pharmacological research, atomic energy, etc.), with the consequence to further decrease the authoritativeness of science and researchers or to get involved in broader social tensions and conflicts.
The overall picture is anyhow ambiguous. For instance, the increasing openness of science towards society is both leading to social conflicts and controversies but is also favouring the emergence and consolidation of new participatory approaches, such as citizen science.
The trajectory and outputs of this transition are still unclear. Nonetheless, there is an increasing perception by key science actors of the need to revise the usual mechanisms of governance of science for anticipating and managing risks and opportunities. This is perhaps even truer in this period of great emergency related to COVID-19.