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Science’s new social contract

with society
Michael Gibbons

Under the prevailing contract between science and society, science has
been expected to produce ‘reliable’ knowledge, provided merely that it
communicates its discoveries to society. A new contract must now ensure
that scientific knowledge is ‘socially robust’, and that its production is seen
by society to be both transparent and participative.
These trends can be observed interna-

odern science has until recently

flourished partly because of a stable, tionally, even if their precise form and timing
underlying agreement between its has varied between countries. Cumulatively,
practitioners and the rest of society. In other they signal the end of the institutional
words, there has been a social contract arrangements through which science flour-
between science and society, an arrangement ished during and after the Second World
built on trust which sets out the expectations War, and thus mark the expiry of the social
of the one held by the other, and which — in contract between science and society that
principle — includes appropriate sanctions has dominated this period. A new social
if these expectations are not met. contract is now required. This cannot be
This social contract has been made up of achieved merely by patching up the existing
several individual elements, reflecting framework. A fresh approach — virtually a
broader contracts between government and complete ‘rethinking’ of science’s relation-
society, between industry and society, and Traditional boundaries between university and ship with the rest of society — is needed.
between higher education and society. The industrial science, and between basic and
contract between university science and applied research, are disappearing. As a result, Reflecting complexity and diversity
society, for example, has been based science and society are invading each other’s One aspect of this new contract is that it
traditionally on the understanding that domain, requiring a rethinking of previous needs to reflect the increasing complexity of
universities will provide research and responsibilities. modern society. For example, there are no
teaching in return for public funding and a longer clear demarcation lines between
relatively high degree of institutional auton- university science and industrial science,
omy; under this contract, the universities, for example, have moved many government between basic research, applied research and
often supported through research-funding research establishments into the market product development, or even between
agencies, have been expected to generate place. With the relaxation of the Cold War, careers in the academic world and in indus-
fundamental knowledge for society, and to governments have shifted their priorities try. There is now greater movement across
train the highly qualified manpower from security and military objectives to institutional boundaries, a blurring of
required by an advanced industrial society. maintaining international competitiveness professional identities and a greater diversity
By contrast, the contract with industrial and enhancing the quality of life. And many of career patterns.
research and development (R&D) has been long-established industries have been But the price of this increased complexity
based on an understanding that industry denationalized, while in many countries is a pervasive uncertainty. One way of
would provide for the appliance of science companies previously dependent upon looking at this is in terms of an erosion of
through the work of its laboratories, and government for R&D support through society’s stable categorizations, namely the
thus carry the discoveries of basic science military technology projects have had to find state, market, culture and science. Alterna-
into product and process innovations. In these resources elsewhere, or in partnership tively, it can be seen as the cumulative effect
turn, government science was meant to use with others, to compete in international of parallel evolutionary processes. For there
research establishments to fill the gap markets. has been a co-evolution in both society and
between university science and industrial Meanwhile the expansion of higher science in terms of the range of organizations
R&D. The understanding has been that the education has been accompanied by a with which researchers are prepared to
state has been directly responsible for carry- culture of accountability that has impacted work, the colleagues with whom they collab-
ing out research related to national need; for on both teaching and research. In research, orate, and topics considered interesting.
example, in defence, energy, public health many academics have had to accept Whatever viewpoint one takes, science is
and standards. objective-driven research programmes, now produced in more open systems of
For most of the twentieth century, univer- whereas research funding agencies have been knowledge production.
sities, government research establishments increasingly transformed from primarily One consequence is that the norms and
and industrial laboratories have therefore responsive institutions, responsible for practices of research in university and indus-
operated relatively independently, develop- maintaining basic science in the universities, trial laboratories have converged. There are
ing their own research practices and modes into instruments for attaining national still differences between universities and
of behaviour. Recently, however, this relative technological, economic and social priorities industry, but these do not impact on what is
institutional impermeability has gradually through the funding of research projects considered sound scientific practice1.
become more porous. Privatization policies, and programmes. Indeed, science and society more generally
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aspects. First, it is valid not only inside but

also outside the laboratory. Second, this

validity is achieved through involving an
extended group of experts, including lay
‘experts’. And third, because ‘society’ has
participated in its genesis, such knowledge is
less likely to be contested than that which is
merely ‘reliable’.

Socially robust knowledge

My argument is that we are currently
witnessing a significant shift from ‘reliable’
to ‘socially robust’ knowledge. Three obser-
vations can immediately be made. The first
is that the basic conditions and processes
that have underpinned the production of
‘reliable knowledge’ are not necessarily
compromised by the shift to ‘socially robust
knowledge’. Indeed, if these conditions and
processes have been undermined, it may
have been as much by the narrow outlook of
Both pressure groups and ordinary consumers are demanding that the debate surrounding the health much scientific practice as by any attempt to
implications of GMOs be broadened to include the perspectives of the non-expert community. widen the range of stakeholders, or more
systematically to take into account the
context in which science is produced.
have each invaded the other’s domain, and its organization, division of labour and The second observation is that reliable
the lines demarcating the one from the other day-to-day practices, and also in its episte- knowledge has always only been reliable
have virtually disappeared. mological core. within boundaries. Science was recognized
As a result, not only can science speak to In relation to the former, for example, as inherently incomplete because it is,
society, as it has done so successfully over the research carried out in both industrial and primarily, a method rather than a final
past two centuries, but society can now government laboratories, as well as the fund- answer. But to achieve a reasonable degree of
‘speak back’ to science. The current contract ing policies of research-funding agencies, reliability, the problem terrain had also to be
between science and society was not only have opened up to a wide range of socioeco- circumscribed, and judgements on what is
premised on a degree of separation between nomic demands, admitting more and more included there restricted to those of a peer
the two, but also assumed that the most cross-institutional links, and thus altering group, rather than opened to the scientific
important communication was from science the balance between the different sources of community as a whole.
to society. Science was seen as the fountain- funding of academic research. Thus in Both aspects of reliable knowledge are
head of all new knowledge and, as part of the ‘speaking back’ to science, society is carried forward into socially robust knowl-
contract, was expected to communicate its demanding various innovations, for edge. But although knowledge remains
discoveries to society. Society in turn did example the pursuit of national objectives, incomplete, this is no longer only in the
what it could to absorb the message and the contribution to new regulatory regimes conventional sense that it will eventually be
through other institutions — primarily and acknowledgement of the multiplication superseded by superior science; rather
industry — to transform the results of of user–producer interfaces. it means that it may be sharply contested,
science into new products and processes. In relation to the latter, the epistemologi- and no longer remains within the controlled
Science was highly successful working in cal dimension, the increasing importance of environment of scientific peers. This shift
this mode, and for as long as it delivered the ‘context’ is also reflected in a relatively rapid involves renegotiating and reinterpreting
goods, its autonomy was seldom contested. shift within science from the search for boundaries that have been dramatically
Yet this success has ironically itself been ‘truth’ to the more pragmatic aim of provid- extended, so that science can no longer
instrumental in changing its relationship ing a provisional understanding of the not be validated as reliable by conventional
with society, drawing science into a larger empirical world that ‘works’2. John Ziman, discipline-bound norms; while remaining
and a more diverse range of problem areas, former physicist and long-time contributor robust, science must now be sensitive to a
many lying outside traditional disciplinary to social studies of science, has described much wider range of social implications.
boundaries. It is this increasingly intense science as a form of ‘reliable knowledge’ that An example is the current debate
involvement of science in society over the becomes established not in terms of an surrounding genetically modified organ-
past half a century that has created the abstract notion of objectivity but, concretely, isms (GMOs). Here, specialist peer groups
conditions that underpin the growing com- in terms of the replicability of research have been challenged not only by pressure
plexity and the pervasive uncertainty in statements and the formation of a consensus groups but also by ordinary consumers,
which we live, and encouraged the social and within the relevant peer group3. Reliable for whom the research process is far
behavioural experiments described above. knowledge is therefore defined as such from transparent, and who are demanding
But if it is widely recognized that science because it ‘works’. that it be more so. Here, knowledge of the
is transforming modern society, it is less But what ‘works’ has now acquired a health implications of GMOs may be
often appreciated that society, in speaking further dimension that can best be described ‘reliable’ in the conventional scientific sense;
back, is transforming science. I will use the as a shift from ‘reliable knowledge’ to what but it is not socially robust, and will
term ‘contextualization’ to describe this Nowotny et al. call ‘socially robust’ knowl- not become so until the peer group is broad-
process, and ‘contextualized knowledge’ as edge4. The latter characterization is intended ened to take into account the perspectives
the outcome of this reverse communication. to embrace the process of contextualization. and concerns of a much wider section of the
Contextualization affects modern science in For ‘socially robust’ knowledge has three community.
C82 © 1999 Macmillan Magazines Ltd NATURE | VOL 402 | SUPP | 2 DECEMBER 1999 |
A failure to persuade fragmentation. Such narratives are challeng-

the broad public of the ing to their participants. Experts must

value of the US respond to issues and questions that are never
Superconducting Super merely scientific and technical, and must
Collider research address audiences that never consist only of
programme may have other experts. The limits of competence of
contributed to the the individual expert call for the involvement
collapse of funding for of a wide base of expertise that has to be care-
the project. fully orchestrated if it is to speak in unison.
Since expertise now has to bring together
knowledge that is itself distributed, contex-
tualized and heterogeneous, it cannot arise
at one specific site, or out of the views of one
scientific discipline or group of highly
respected researchers. Rather it must emerge
from bringing together the many different
‘knowledge dimensions’ involved. Its
authority depends on the way in which such
a collective group is linked, often in a
self-organized way. Breakdowns in social
authority arise when links are inadequately
established, as has occurred in European
debates over GMOs.

Rethinking science
These four inter-related processes — co-
evolution, contextualization, the produc-
tion of socially robust knowledge and the
construction of narratives of expertise —
form a framework both for rethinking
science and for understanding any new
social contract between society and science.
Co-evolution denotes an open interaction
between science and society which generates
There was also a degree of contestation in industry and universities into the ‘agora’ – the variety through experimentation, whether
the United States about the value of the public space in which both ‘science meets the in scientific problems, colleagues or institu-
Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), public’, and the public ‘speaks back’ to tional designs, with the selective retention of
plans for which were dropped in 1992. In this science. This is a space in which the media is certain choices, modes or solutions. This is
case, however, unlike the case with GMOs, increasingly active, and in which the new so even while these experimental approach-
there was no spontaneous backlash from communication technologies play a promi- es, in responding to uncertainty and
society generally about the value of the nent role. It is also the domain in which complexity, not only promote permeability
knowledge. Rather, it has been argued that contextualization occurs. Neither state nor but also generate more complexity and
the collapse of funding for the project was a market, neither exclusively private nor exclu- uncertainty, thus encouraging further
result of the unwillingness (or inability) of a sively public, the agora is where today’s soci- experimentation.
narrow disciplinary group to extend its etal and scientific problems are framed and Greater permeability provides the basis
boundaries sufficiently to persuade other defined, and their ‘solutions’ are negotiated. for increased contextualization by increasing
scientists and politicians that the research the routes through which society can ‘speak
would be of wide benefit5. Again we see a Narratives of expertise back’ to science. Denser communication
failure to achieve sufficient social robustness The factor that has come to the fore in the itself brings an imperative to produce social-
in the research process, however reliable it agora is the role of scientific and technical ly robust knowledge that is seen as valid not
may be in its own terms. expertise that is so crucial to decision making only inside but also outside the walls of the
The third observation is that the episte- in highly industrialized societies. This role is laboratory, in terms of being accepted as
mological core of science has, over time, changing as expertise spreads throughout legitimate.
become crowded with norms and practices society, resulting in the fragmentation of As the walls of laboratories have opened
that cannot be reduced easily to a single established links between expertise and up, more and more scientists have taken their
generic methodology, or, more broadly, to institutional structures, whether of govern- places as actors in the agora, broadening the
privileged cultures of scientific inquiry. ment, industry or the professions. Further- range of experts whose view might be sought
There is no one set of practices that describe, more, the questions asked of experts are on a particular problem or issue. To cope
much less lead to, good science. The case neither the same, nor simple extensions of, with this, a further development in the use of
for science can still be made in essentially the ones that arise in their specialist fields of scientific and technical experts is needed. For
functionalist terms; but many more factors study. Experts must now extend their knowl- reliable knowledge can only become socially
now need to be taken into account before a edge to widely disparate areas, and try to robust if society sees the process of knowl-
solution that ‘works’ can be adopted. integrate what they ‘know’ now with what edge production as transparent and partici-
One outcome of all these changes is that others want to ‘do’ in the future. pative. The old image of science working
the sites at which problems are formulated Collective narratives of expertise need to autonomously will no longer suffice. Rather,
and negotiated have moved from their previ- be constructed to deal with the complexity a reciprocity is required in which not only
ous institutional locations in government, and the uncertainty generated by this does the public understand how science
NATURE | VOL 402 | SUPP | 2 DECEMBER 1999 | © 1999 Macmillan Magazines Ltd C83
works but, equally, science understands how A second need is for the process of internalize accountability. Indeed there is an
its publics work. contextualization to be internalized. The analogy between the relationships between
The process of rethinking science, now ‘context of application’ can be managed autonomy and self-organization on the one
that the line that used to separate science and through ‘external’ mechanisms such as hand, and between reliable and socially
society has virtually disappeared, has scarce- ‘forward look’ and ‘technology foresight’ robust knowledge on the other. In the agora,
ly begun5. But several changes in perspective exercises, and through science and technolo- the conditions that promote greater self-
must be initiated before a new social contract gy parks and technology transfer or industrial organization also promote the generation of
can emerge. First, the need for contextualiza- liaison offices within universities. In contrast, socially robust knowledge.
tion means that the (unknowable) implica- the ‘context of implication’ needs to be inter-
tions as well as the (planned or predictable) nalized by researchers if it is to be effective. It is Conclusion
applications of scientific research have to be expressed through routes, often informal, To summarize, I have argued in this paper
embraced. that cannot easily be incorporated into that the prevailing contract between science
Research activities now transcend the administrative procedures. These new lines of and society was set up to sustain the produc-
immediate context of application, and begin communication need to be encouraged and tion of ‘reliable knowledge’; a new one must
to reach out, anticipate and engage reflexive- recognized institutionally. This cannot be ensure the production of ‘socially robust
ly with those further entanglements, conse- done by communications experts — contex- knowledge’. The prevailing contract is gov-
quences and impacts that it generates. This tualization is not a public relations exercise — erned by the rules of bureaucratic rationality,
‘context of implication’ always transcends or by asking journalists to develop popular with society linked to ‘people’ primarily
the immediate ‘context of application’ in accounts of the significance of research. through representative institutions. A new
which it occurs. It may embrace neighbour- A further important point is that the contract will require more open, socially
ing research fields, and as yet obscurely more open and comprehensive the scientific distributed, self-organizing systems of
recognized future uses. Taking the ‘context of community, the more socially robust will be knowledge production that generate their
implication’ seriously opens the door to the knowledge it produces. This is contrary own accountability and audit systems.
those previously excluded from decisions to the traditional assumption that there is a Under the prevailing contract, science was
about research. The individuals now strong relationship between the social and left to make discoveries and then make them
involved may be encountered haphazardly as intellectual coherence (and, therefore, the available to society. A new contract will
individuals, perhaps colleagues or rivals. boundedness) of a scientific community, be based upon the joint production of
They may come from other scientific and the reliability of the knowledge it knowledge by society and science.
disciplines, or from the ‘user’ community. produces. Reliable knowledge may have been A new social contract will therefore
Whatever their origins, scientific knowledge best produced by such cohesive (and there- involve a dynamic process in which the
will increasingly need to be tested not only fore restricted) scientific communities. But authority of science will need to be legitimat-
against nature, but against (and hopefully socially robust knowledge can only be pro- ed again and again. To maintain this, science
also with) other people. duced by much more sprawling socio/scien- must enter the agora and participate fully in
Furthermore, while it is important to tific constituencies with open frontiers. the production of socially robust knowledge.
define problems, and then assemble the At the same time, socially robust knowl- According to some observers, we can already
intellectual, human and financial resources edge is superior to reliable knowledge both see this approach emerging in the manage-
needed to solve them, this is not, in itself, because it has been subject to more intensive ment of large technology projects. Thomas P.
sufficient to guarantee the reflexivity charac- testing and retesting in many more contexts Hughes, the eminent American historian of
teristic of socially distributed knowledge — which is why it is ‘robust’ — and also technology, has identified a new ethos
production. In contrast, a process of contex- because of its malleability and connective among engineers who now recognize that
tualization that attempts to embrace capability. Its context is not predetermined the deeper involvement of communities in
unpredictable and unintended implications or fixed, but open to ceaseless renegotiation. decision making actually produced better
demands reflexivity, as it is intended to Instead of achieving a precarious invariance engineering solutions in a number of
incorporate future potential implications by establishing strict limits within which its projects6. If the boundaries between science,
into the research process from the truthfulness can be tested, as reliable knowl- technology and society are becoming more
very beginning. It thus goes far beyond a edge does, socially robust knowledge is the permeable, why should not a similar
conventional ‘forward look’ or ‘technology product of an intensive (and continuous) approach in science likewise produce more
foresight’ exercise. interaction between data and other results, socially robust solutions?
This has several consequences. One is the between people and environments, between Michael Gibbons, a former director of the Science
need for strategies to ‘fix’ more accurately the applications and implications. Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, is
implications of knowledge production. This It is also clear that science must leave the now secretary-general of the Association of
might be done by identifying areas in which ivory tower and enter the agora. To increase Commonwealth Universities, 36 Gordon Square,
significant implications of particular the effectiveness with which the agora London WC1H 0PF, UK.
research projects are likely to arise without operates, the self-organizing capacity of all 1. van Duinen, R. J. European research councils and the Triple
being pinpointed exactly, making it necessary participants needs to be enhanced. Here, Helix. Sci. Public Policy 25, 381–386 (1998).
2. Daston, L. & Galison, P. The image of objectivity. Representations
to ‘prospect’ for these (presently unknow- there is tension between the desire for 40, 81–128 (1992).
able) implications. Such a process might, for individual or institutional autonomy and 3. Ziman, J. Reliable Knowledge Canto Edn (Cambridge Univ. Press,
example, involve consulting other knowledge the increasing demands for accountability Cambridge, 1991).
4. Nowotny, H., Scott, P. & Gibbons, M. Re-thinking Science:
producers and users, as well as wider social on both individuals and institutions.
Knowledge Production in an Age of Uncertainty (in the press).
constituencies, in order to carry out a form of Increasing the capacity for self-organiz- 5. Gieryn, T. F. in Handbook of Science and Technology Studies (eds
‘triangulation’ survey. Perhaps every research ing means that participants need to act more Jasanoff, S. et al.) 393–443 (Sage Publishers, London, 1995).
proposal and project should include a reflexively. But one cannot enhance respon- 6. Hughes, T. P. Rescuing Prometheus 301–303 (Pantheon Books,
New York, 1998).
deliberate strategy for identifying its ‘context siveness by simply increasing the demand
of implication’. This might best be achieved for public accountability, as this could Acknowledgements. The research described in this essay is taken
from a report entitled ‘Re-thinking science: knowledge production in
by including those likely to be implicated — make participants more, rather than less, a Mode 2 Society’, prepared by H. Nowotny, P. Scott and M.
perhaps unknowingly — as well as the defensive. On the contrary, what is needed is Gibbons for, and funded by, the Tercentenary Fund of the Royal
conscious carriers of social knowledge. to encourage participants voluntarily to Swedish Bank and the Swedish Council for Higher Education.

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