Jouna Ukkonen and Richard Wilson outline how we can and should build a global science transparency index.

Scientific and technological development profoundly shape our lives in many different ways, and yet this is one area of modern society where it has, until recently, been very difficult for ordinary citizens to know, let alone influence, what is happening. It is now widely acknowledged that there needs to be more transparency and more public dialogue over how science and technology are developed and managed – especially when it comes to new areas such as GM or nanotechnology that can have significant and unforeseen societal impacts.

The approaches to public engagement with science are developing quickly, but with significant variations between different countries, often apparently reflecting the different organisational and political cultures in each country. We recently compared this practice, on behalf of Sciencewise, in eight developed countries including the UK, focusing on some key aspects of dialogue and engagement at the national level. You can find the report here.

One of the key findings was that, despite increasing calls for more public involvement, science engagement is still very much seen as a ‘niche’ field of activity in many countries, rather than a standard and systematic part of scientific research and decision-making. While some countries seem to do better than others, especially in terms of the linkages between public dialogue on scientific issues and the political system, a key question is: how can we learn from all of this in order to genuinely and effectively democratise science, across national boundaries?

Although many of the deep-rooted political and cultural traditions underlying science policy-making cannot be changed overnight, we believe that creating an international ‘science transparency index’ would be a helpful first step in the right direction. By assessing and comparing how different countries fare in areas such as the transparency of their scientific system, the opportunities for people to be consulted, or the political attitudes towards public involvement, such an index would enable us to:

  • More systematically explore and understand what constitutes a ‘good way’ of doing science, and its link to healthy democracy
  • Make explicit the hidden interests and assumptions that are embedded in current processes of scientific development and research
  • Study the different approaches to engaging the general public on science and technology, and the factors underlying these differences
  • Take an international focus, more closely reflecting the way that scientific development and especially its societal, ethical, economic and environmental impacts are rarely confined by state boundaries
  • Encourage mutual learning as well as competition between countries in the field of science engagement that would help to accelerate innovation and good practice.

The comparative metrics used in our report (on page 12) can form a useful starting point, but the index would mainly be developed through an open and ‘living’ process, based on the constructive input and interaction of a range of relevant and interested actors from across the globe. It would help to depict the rich tapestry of science engagement and dialogue internationally and provide an interesting basis for further analysis; but also contribute to the wider debate about whether, why and how modern science can and should be democratised.

We will be building on some of these ideas in future blog posts, so watch this space. We also welcome any thoughts or comments you might have.

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