Bid to rebuild trust in science

International Science Council
Hugh Hunt
Science is humanity’s way of discovering truth. And yet science is increasingly in the crosshairs of populist governments.

Politics needs science more than ever - and science has to be at the core of every great project today.

A hot summer day in Paris this month saw the birth of the International Science Council (ISC).  The inauguration event was held at le Maison des Océans, in the heart of the Universté de Paris. About 400 scientists and policymakers from around the world witnessed something special, and genuinely exciting. 

The ISC has grown out of two preexisting organisations. The first is the International Social Science Council (ISSC), formed in 1952 to promote the social sciences, including the economic and behavioural sciences.

The second is the International Council for Science (ICSU), formed in 1931 devoted to international cooperation in the advancement of science. For many years there has been pressure to merge these two important bodies. What, after all, is science for if it does not fill a social need?

The new ISC President, Professor Daya Reddy, from the University of Cape Town, is an inspired choice. His opening pitch was upbeat: “The ISC will protect the voice of science and will have the ear of the public, the government and the scientific community”. 

At the same time, Reddy admits that science cannot ignore public opinion and that the ISC will work to halt the spread of misinformation and, as overly cited by certain politicians, the reduced trust in institutions and experts. 

Post-normal science and the explosion of knowledge

“Science is not like it once was”, says Gluckman.  “Do you remember rote-learning the periodic table?  That was when science was based on certainty.  Now science is all about managing and understanding uncertainty.” He calls this post-normal science where certainty is replaced by probability. 

Take climate change, for instance, where the role of science is to provide clear and unambiguous input to the debate. Science doesn’t give the answers but it grounds the discussion in evidence. Management of knowledge is the key.

Gluckman again: “Interpreted knowledge for decision making has been displaced by non-interpreted knowledge – or no knowledge at all”. 

But management of knowledge is not straightforward. “Global connectivity”, says Reddy, “brings both opportunities and challenges. It has led to the spread of misinformation and reduced trust in institutions and experts”.  

Professor Tolulla Oni from Cambridge said: “There's a discrepancy between government policy on science and the new science that we need for a changing world.”

She adds: “There is now an opportunity for the ISC to articulate these new skills.”

There has tended to be a high level of distrust towards science when it involved engineers trying to come up with ideas and experiments that could lead to solutions for the worlds major problems. 

The ISC has many partner organisations representing engineers. I spoke with Marlene Kanga, the president of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations (WFEO).

She said: “Engineering is science for the public good.” As a chemical engineer herself, she adds: “Young people need to know that engineering is a career with tremendous impact.” 

Time is running out for science

The ISC will have to make a difference. The big issues facing the world today, such as global food security, water, energy, climate change, need to be driven by government policy based on sound science and well-interpreted knowledge. 

All of these issues have potential in the coming decades to deal devastating blows to our expectations of civilization. If science is to have the impact on policy that is required, then the ISC needs to be quick off the blocks. If ever there was urgency then it’s now. “As the largest NGO in the world”, says Reddy, “our mission is to protect the voice of science.”

The day ended with some inspirational words from the all-star award-winning mathematician Professor Cédric Villani, nicknamed the Lady Gaga of mathematics.

There was a gasp of breath as he walked in, sporting the widest of ties and an enormous spider broach:  “Politics needs science more than ever,” he said, “and science has to be at the core of every great project today”. 

He is right, but it will take enormous effort for the public and policymakers to make his statement a reality.

This Author

Dr Hugh Hunt is chairman of the Cambridge Climate Lecture Series and a Reader of Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.  He can be followed on Twitter at @HughHunt

More from this author