A Science Of The Consequences

Can something that didn't happen be news? The scientific field could be open for this paradox if one considers that science can generate new knowledge, but it is also able to generate new questions. Can something that didn't happen be interesting and important? In order to find an answer, one needs to add a duration to the notion of news. The answer cannot be about facts happening in a particular moment in time, but it can very well be about "news that will stay news." News that has consequences.

"Big news" is news that succeeds in framing the debate, news that is often controversial. It is always interesting, and only sometimes it is important. It’s popularity doesn't mean that it is "news that will stay news," because it needs to be both interesting and important.

"News that will stay news" is different from "big news": it can be under-reported, but it will last for a long time. This means that it is probably more than news about facts; it is a story with a long lasting effect on many facts. It is a story that makes history, at least for a while. It is a narrative that guides human choices in their building the future. It is very rare to find news about the emergence of a new narrative. Newspapers are not made to do that. It is more probable to read that kind of emergence, not in the news, but between the lines of the news. It can be a story about a fact that didn't happen but is interesting and important. It can be on the order of a "black hole of the news."

Some kind of context is needed to go through this matter. While science has changed human life so much, it has also been able to evolve in the news-making field. Notions such as "climate change," "gene-editing," and "nanotechnology" have given a popular brand to a set of important research paths that otherwise would have appeared less interesting, maybe unnoticed or even misunderstood. This new ability has improved science's funding and political relevance.

But the convergence of science and communication is not enough to deal with the "great transformation" that the world is facing, which needs "aware audiences," but even more, it needs "informed citizens." The very notion of a "science based policy" needs an improvement. A quite simple definition of this notion has lead to some better informed decisions in fields such as health and education, but it is still differently understood in different political and cultural context, particularly those in which ideology and religion count a lot in the decision making process. But while many local affairs need to be decided on the basis of the different cultures, some planetary matters need a common understanding of problems and possible solutions.

The United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris was an example of a winning relationship between science and policy, even though it took too long to happen and it achieved too little. Politicians will always be responsible for the decision making, but urgent global problems often need a better quality of "science based policy." And it is not only a question of politicians listening more to science; it is also a question of science that is more effective in self-governing, making the news to develop more "informed citizens" and thus help decision makers in taking the best path.

“Gene-editing” provides an important case study. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the U.K.'s Royal Society recently co-hosted in Washington a summit with international experts to discuss the scientific, ethical, and governance issues associated with human gene-editing research. The idea was to call for a moratorium on using the CRISPR-Cas9 technology to edit the human genome in a permanent and heritable way.

Between the scientists calling for a moratorium there were the very inventors of the CRISPR-Cas9 technology, which has been exponentially successful because it made easy and cheap to "edit" the genome. The moratorium was to be called because unintended consequences were to be expected if using CRISPR-Cas9 for human germline editing. But the summit ended with no big decisions. The national academies opted for a continuing discussion.

The CRISPR-Cas9 summit was not an epic event. One winning argument for not making decisions was brought up by George Church, a researcher at Harvard interested in this debate because he works in the field of human gene editing: he opposed the idea of a ban on human gene editing by arguing that it would strengthen underground research, black markets, and medical tourism, suggesting that science in a globalized economy is pretty much out of control. This is the kind of story that one reads behind the lines in the news.

In fact, the debate about artificial intelligence lead by Stephen Hawking was also about science going out of control. Some discussions about robots that can take over human jobs are about science going out of control, too. Science facts and news are creating a big question mark: is science out of control? Could it be different? Could a sort of science exist that was under control?

The old way to answer was more or less the following: science is about finding out how things are; ethics or policy will serve the purpose of deciding what to do about them. That kind of answer does not help anymore, because science is very much able to change how things are. It is self-governing and, in this regard, science decides about human life, while the growing demand for a science based policy enables science to take part in the decision making process. If a scientific narrative converges with both the laissez-faire ideology and the idea of complexity, the decision making process becomes more and more difficult and the situation seems to go out of control.

Science needs to do something about this. Ethics helps individual decision making but it needs an idea about complexity. Policy takes collective decisions but it needs theories about the way the world is changing. Science is called to take part of the decision making. But how is it going to do it without losing its soul?

There cannot be a science under control. But there can be a science that knows how to empirically deal with choices and gets better at self-government. The piece of "news that will stay news," this year could be the fact that scientists were not able to decide about human gene editing: it is a story that will stay news until when an improved "science of the consequences" story is begun. This means that the scientific method is called to take into account the consequences of the research. If the decision making process is no more the field of only ethics and politics, epistemology is called to get into action.