Consideration of the need for transformative science

  • 2021-10-11
  • Guest article by Jan Freihardt
  • Comment
Visualization: A man walks through a concrete gate into a better, greener world
© GettyImages/NiseriN

Something astounding happened in March 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic was rapidly bringing social life in Germany to a standstill. Scientists became the focus of public attention and their expertise was in demand as seldom before. The Federal Republic was spellbound as it followed the daily press conferences by the Robert Koch Institute and the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina were eagerly awaited. Virologists were in demand as guests on chat shows.

The increased presence of scientists in public discourse was also reflected in the , which measures the public's trust in science on an annual basis. That trust increased dramatically to previously unknown levels just a few months after the start of the pandemic. At the same time, more than 80 per cent of Barometer respondents agreed with the statement that political decisions should be based on scientific findings.

Such results may not seem all that surprising at first glance. But we could rub our eyes in wonder if we put them in the context of another major development of our time. Scientists have since the 1980s been warning of drastic changes as a result of climate change if our way of doing business does not promptly change. Solutions such as renewable energies or reducing our consumption of animal products have been discussed for decades.

Courted during Corona, often ignored when it comes to climate protection

Yet little has changed so far. On the contrary – new record values for CO2 emissions are being reported almost every year, vehicles are consuming more and more fuel and meat consumption is decreasing hesitantly at best. What is going wrong here? Why have scientific findings and recommendations been so consistently ignored for decades and partly (cue Donald Trump) even put in question?

These are big questions to which there are no simple answers. One potential explanatory approach is offered by the widespread understanding in science of how the interplay between science and politics functions. Frequently paraphrased as Speaking truth to power, the role of science is to provide new knowledge to policy-makers. The task for policy-makers is then to enact laws based on these findings that steer society and the economy in such a way that societal goals are achieved.

Sounds impressively simple, but in reality it has a substantial drawback: scientific findings are not the only factor to influence political decisions. Popular expectations, economic interests and political dynamics also play an important role. Pure knowledge then is just one factor among many that can be the deciding factor in some cases (as with coronavirus), but in others it loses out to other factors (as in the case of climate change).

Transformative science can make a difference

Against this backdrop, there has for some years been discussion under the rubric of transformative science about how science can take a more active role in addressing societal challenges. The key assumption here is that science and society will have to collaborate much more closely than has generally been the case up to now.

Scientific findings should therefore not merely be communicated to the population and policy-makers after completion of our research, social stakeholders should rather already be involved in defining our research questions – in other words even before the actual research begins. The aim is to increase the likelihood from the outset that the knowledge gleaned will actually find its way into practical implementation and trigger social change.

Yet as good as that sounds, there are currently many dynamics and logical processes in the science system that still run counter to such society-related science. The vast majority of state research funding flows into the development of technologies for industry. Higher education institutions are strictly segregated by discipline which stifles transdisciplinary activities. And “good scientists” are still often defined as those who write a lot of articles in high-ranking journals.

Self-transformation of science

The term transformative science therefore has a second dimension. It also challenges science itself to critically question its own practices and institutions: which practices actually contribute to a more active role for science and which are instead a hindrance? Only when science transforms itself in part, can it meet the high standards of transformative science.

The phenomena mentioned in my introduction mean that the coronavirus is currently creating a window of opportunity to reflect in detail on the relationship between science, politics and society: what role should scientific findings play, and is there a limit beyond which science should not enter the realm of politics? And what do these discussions mean for our own work, whether in science, politics, civil society or the economy?

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