December 14, 2014, by Brigitte Nerlich

Scientific citizenship


John Robie Eastman (1836-1913)

I recently read an excellent thesis on scientific citizenship by soon to be Dr Beverley Gibbs (whom you all know from her posts on this blog!). She uncovered various as yet under-explored aspects of scientific citizenship, focusing in particular on membership, rights & responsibilities and participation (and I hope she’ll write a blog post about all this in the future). So, as a former historian of ideas, I became intrigued by the concept of scientific citizenship, its history and its various meanings.

From reading the thesis and following the literature examined in it, I came to see that there are at least three meanings of scientific citizenship, but, of course there may be more. One meaning is rooted in Science and Technology Studies and two other meanings are rooted more in scientists’ own reflections on science and society, one of a more UK persuasion, the other of a more US persuasion.

I won’t reflect on the concept of ‘citizen science’ (or civic science) which, although linked to the ideas of scientific citizenship and of scientific citizen, has now developed quite a different meaning (a meaning that is still evolving). I just want to point out that, unlike scientific citizenship, ‘citizen science‘, in the sense of ‘scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions’, actually has an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, with a first attestation of 1989. The OED also has an entry for ‘citizen scientist’ (with a first attestation from 1912), which is defined as ‘(a) a scientist whose work is characterized by a sense of responsibility to serve the best interests of the wider community (now rare);  (b) a member of the general public who engages in scientific work, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions; an amateur scientist.” But let’s now follow the conceptual trail of scientific citizenship, which Bev’s thesis made me track.

Citizens are scientists too

The most important contribution to exploring scientific citizenship in Science and Technology Studies has come from Alan Irwin. He established a particular definition of scientific citizen and scientific citizenship which became a cornerstone for many future studies. This definition is nicely summarized here “Scientific citizenship is the active and aware participation of citizens in the democratic process in the knowledge society. Public decisions are more and more complex and involve highly specialised knowledge. To achieve better outcomes in decision making processes it is necessary to combine the knowledge of the experts with citizens’ knowledge and values. Scientific citizenship requires an open dialogue between science and citizens and transparency in information and knowledge exchange.”

One of the core issues for STS scholars is, as Melissa Leach has expressed it, “how citizens mobilise to claim rights around knowledge and expertise in relationship to science”. Others focus more on “citizen participation in S&T policy-making”. And, of course, Bev has even more to say about all that.

Scientists are citizens too

Bev also referred to a somewhat different framing of scientific citizenship which one can find in various lectures by Lord Rees; for example, in his 2010 Reith lectures and his 2012 lecture for the Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy. He points out: “But — and this is important –  even  if there were  complete certainty about how the world’s weather responded to CO2 changes, there would still be divergent views on what governments should do about it. And scientists should engage in these debates — though on the more general issues they should do so not as experts but as ‘scientific citizens’ […] Politicians need the best ‘in house’ scientific advice in forming their policies. But, more than that, these choices should be part of a wide public debate, and such debate must be leveraged by ‘scientific citizens’ — engaging, from all political perspectives, with the media, and with a public attuned to the scope and limit of science.

This view of the scientific citizen also influenced the creation of the Longitude Prize (which was championed by Lord Rees). In this context, a blog post appeals to scientists as ‘upstanding scientific citizens’. (This all would need some further dissection and reflection though, see here, with a reference to citizen science, and here a more critical view).

A parallel notion of scientific citizenship seems to have developed in the United States, and I’ll come to this concept now, before turning to its possible roots in the 19th century.

Scientists are political too

Here the focus is again not on citizens acting with or as scientists but on scientists acting as citizens. As one post by American physicists put it, we are dealing with the issue of ‘civic scientists’. These can range from scientists engaging in outreach and public engagement activities, to scientists in government, to scientists as political dissidents and even revolutionaries. As another post points out: “Civic scientists aren’t holed up in isolation in their labs performing calculations and experiments and ignoring the rest of the world. They are actively supporting both scientific and non scientific causes and involved in local and maybe even national politics.”

Biologists in turn have also reflected on scientific citizenship. There is even a little video by Larry Goldstein on this matter. The text above it says interestingly: “Like other forms of citizenship, scientific citizenship comes with certain rights and responsibilities. Goldstein explains that as scientists, we have responsibilities both to our colleagues and to those outside of the scientific community. Ultimately, practicing good scientific citizenship may make us better scientists and better global citizens.”

Interestingly, these topics are not as new as one might think. When trawling the internet, I came across an article published in Science in 1897 and entitled “The relations of science and the scientific citizen to the general government”, which is worth reading in full by those interested in science and politics, the nature of scientific advice and, of course, the intellectual history of the concept of scientific citizenship.

This paper was read before the Philosophical Society of Washington, D. C. on 6 February 1897 by John Robie Eastman (1836-1913) and published in Science on 2 April 1897. Eastman wrote the paper a year before retiring from his post as astronomer at the Naval Observatory at Washington. As a very recent blog post about Eastman points out: “Prof. Eastman was the first President of the Washington Academy of Sciences, and vice-president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and president of the Washington Philosophical Society. He was one of the founders, and once President of the Cosmos Club, of Washington DC.”

In the following I’ll quote some largish chunks of Eastman’s paper where he talks about the tensions inherent in being a scientist and a citizen and the tensions inherent in being perceived as a scientist and a citizen by government. And of course, at the end of the 19th century, a scientist/citizen was a man, not a woman.

Scientific citizens are human too

Part of Eastman’s paper reflects on the status of science and scientists in US government departments since 1787. But as you’ll see, the following quotes have a very modern flavour. Read them! They will make you smile!

“From one standpoint, he [the ‘scientific investigator’] is regarded as a human prodigy, gifted beyond his fellows, able to fathom all the subtle mysteries of nature; one by whom all moral and social as well as physical problems are readily solved with more than ordinary human certainty. On the other hand, when the practical politician, or some other fortunate man born to direct affairs, assumes the direction of a branch of the government service he looks upon the scientific man as a more or less harmless eccentric, a feeble specimen of manhood, but unfortunately, sometimes necessary to the existence of his bureau. Pity for his assumed helplessness is mingled with crude flattery in such proportions as are deemed expedient to secure the necessary professional work, while at the same time the unhappy man of science is assured that he is peculiarly fortunate in having the guidance and protection of a man of affairs who knows the ways of the world.” (p. 527, col. 1)

“It is hardly necessary to say that, as a matter of fact, both these extreme views of the scientific man are usually wrong. […] He may be a good chemist, and shirk every duty of a good citizen; a learned mathematician, with manners and tastes that bear no trace of gentle breeding or moral training; a gifted biologist, but with a selfish greed that puts him out of touch with the best citizens, the wisest government or the true unselfish seeker after truth in any sphere of human endeavour; in short, the manifestation of ability in scientific pursuits, as in other walks of life, does not necessarily imply the possession of good morals or the other qualities that make the good citizen.” (p. 527, col. 2-528, col. 1)

“The sooner he is freed from the injustice of absurd flattery on the one hand and ignorance and vicious criticism on the other, and is permitted or obliged to stand on his own merit as a citizen and as a scientific worker and investigator, the better it will be for science and for our country.” (p. 528, col. 1)

“Again, the real scientific man [and, of course, woman!] has no more need of a business manager than has a lawyer, a doctor or any other professional man.” (p. 528, col. 1)

Amen to that!

Added 17 December, 2014: The debate, which is particularly difficult in the context of climate change, continues here:

Image: John Robie Eastman, 1836 – 1913, U. S. Naval Observatory astronomer, in 1898 elected the first president of the Washington Academy of Sciences. (pers0070, NOAA’s People Collection)

Posted in citizen scienceScience and Governmentscience and politics