James Wilsdon makes a point during his public lecture at CIGI. (Som Tsoi/CIGI)
James Wilsdon makes a point during his public lecture at CIGI. (Som Tsoi/CIGI)

Despite its imperfect form, democratic engagement and deliberation is “vital and a consistently undervalued asset of European science and innovation,” according to James Wilsdon, professor of science and democracy at the University of Sussex.

He recently spoke at CIGI on “Science, Technology and Experiments in Democracy,” a topic that should garner considerable attention given the continent’s crisis of confidence in democracy, stalled integration efforts and the rise of far-right populism, he explained.

“What’s gone wrong with democracy?” is a question many have been asking recently, Wilsdon said, citing recent events in Ukraine. “We’re confronted with a puzzle.”

Wilsdon explained that the world’s established democracies — many of which are heavily in debt and have spent the past decade fighting long and difficult wars — seem incapable of doing anything meaningful about long term challenges, like climate change, and are watching, with a mixture of resignation and fear, the rise of China.

Citing David Runciman’s The Confidence Trap and Sheila Jasanoff’s Science and Public Reason, Wilsdon discussed and mounted a defence for the link between democracy and science and technology.

“The factors that make democracy work successfully over time (flexibility, variety, responsiveness) are the very same factors that cause democracies to go wrong,” Wilsdon said. “They produce impulsiveness and short-termism and historical myopia.”

However, the virtues of democracy that Runciman describe “are the very ones that make science work: commitment to reason and transparency; openness to critical challenge; willingness to listen to countervailing arguments; readiness to admit uncertainty and ignorance; and a respect for evidence.”

“Sheila Jasanoff...reminds us that, for all practical purposes, the birth of experimental sciences coincided with the rise of democratic accountability in politics,” according to Wilsdon. “And in strengthening democratic values today, we also renew the preconditions for scientific discovery and technological innovations.”

Wilsdon explained that, historically, this link has been complicated and at times contested. “If we look back to the end of the nineteenth century, Western intellectuals saw the world as progressing neatly from superstition and ignorance toward knowledge and reason...But this optimistic alliance between science, technology and democracy proved rather short lived.” Wilsdon cites both of the World Wars, repeated genocidal conflict, entrenched poverty, environmental degradation, and fear of nuclear annihilation as reasons why “knowledge became, in a sense, its own undoing.”

For all its imperfections, however, Wilsdon argued that countries that see democracy as a vital asset of their science and innovation systems are the ones that “are likely to rise like a phoenix and succeed over the long term.”

As such, positions like chief scientific adviser to the European Commission, currently held by Anne Glover, new forms of public participation through social media and initiatives like the Longitude Prize, public policy agendas like Horizon 2020, uninvited public engagement in the form of protest, and the shift we are seeing in open access to scientific publishing are all developments that we need to support and should applaud, Wilsdon said.

Follow James Wilsdon on Twitter: @jameswilsdon.

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