Scientific freedom | The engineer

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A real democracy requires not only freedom of speech, but also freedom of science, says technology philosopher Peter-Paul Verbeek, rector magnificus at the University of Amsterdam from 1 October.

The Corona pandemic has had a huge impact on the relationship between science and society. The hunt for vaccines has led to faster article review, even more intensive links between science and industry, and even more pressure on science to deliver results quickly. In addition, the need to make major political decisions created an even closer connection between politics and scientific research: scientists had more influence than ever on decision-makers’ choices, and society’s opposition to some policy measures led not only to threats to politicians, but also to politicians, too from scientists.

This development seems to herald a new phase in the relationship between science and society. Science is socialization and society is scientific. The old image of science as an ‘ivory tower’ is now completely outdated. The ivory tower had been shaking for a while: the old idea of ​​pure science, driven by curiosity and not by societal questions or challenges, had long since ceased to fit with all new forms of applied and socially engaged science. In addition to curiosity-driven research, there is also mission-driven research – although that distinction is not so fortunate, because commitment and curiosity do not exclude each other, but instead promote each other.

Covid-19 marks a new phase
in the interweaving of science
and society

Covid-19 seems to mark the beginning of a new phase in this intertwining of science and society. Engaged science is perhaps the best description to indicate this interrelationship. Scientific research continues to strive for a better understanding of the world, but at the same time is constantly aware of the social implications it has. And scientific research no longer only takes place within the walls of the academy, but also outside: More and more social parties are actively participating in it, from companies and social organizations to citizens participating in citizen science projects.

This new intertwining of science and society also brings new ethical questions. Scientific integrity, for example, can no longer be limited to the prevention of fraud, but will also have to focus on an honest connection between scientific research and societal issues and parties. It raises challenges, for example with regard to the quality of scientific research. The need for speed, which played a major role in the first phase of the corona pandemic, should not come at the expense of the thorough assessment of research results, which is so characteristic of good science. The haste of policymakers must be balanced with the calmness necessary to conduct good research. And with regard to research carried out together with the social partners, the same quality standards must of course be set as for research ‘within’ the academy.

But because of this interdependence, responsible research practice now also requires social responsibility. This primarily applies to the handling of uncertainties. The hopes that politicians sometimes have for absolute truths are usually in vain. It is part of the scientific method to be critical of itself and always examine how certain the knowledge it produces is. Society cannot expect infallible political advice from science, only a provisional basis on which to base political decisions.

Above all, this social responsibility means that threatening scientists is as unacceptable as it is politicians. Now science has finally caught up open science has developed, it is high time for a real open society, where an open debate can be held based on input from both scientists and politicians. A true democracy requires not only freedom of speech, but also freedom of science.

Text: technology philosopher Peter-Paul Verbeek. Verbeek starts as rector magnificus at the University of Amsterdam on 1 October. This is his last contribution as a columnist for The engineer.
Photo: Micha Verbeek

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