Category Archives: Hilary’s Publications, Lectures And Talks
If anything belongs to ‘the people’, it is surely the streets where we live and work. Streets are usually owned by the public authorities who exist to serve our interests. But where are the civic procedures to reflect this common ownership in renewing or developing the public realm? And who and where are the ‘communities’ which must be consulted?
I recently contributed to a masterclass on community engagement in development of the public realm.
The scope for discussion was wide. ‘Public realm‘ can be streets, highways, open spaces, parks, brownfield sites and even waterways and ponds. Where does one start? And who is entitled to have a say?
Origins and ideas
Public realm works often start from a plan by the authorities to renew or regenerate an area of deprivation or poor housing, or perhaps because a new system of roads and highways is about to be constructed.
Sometimes, however, the initiative comes from a group of interested or concerned ‘community stakeholders’ – perhaps people who live or work in the area, or people who have a concern for the environment (in whatever guise) or, for instance, conservation and heritage.
Where are the place-makers?
All these are legitimate origins, but they are different. What happens next however tends to be more monochrome, more ‘standard issue’.
The idea of place-making seems over time to have been mislaid.
Legitimacy and control
If a proposal to improve the public realm is integral to a wider regeneration programme, the way ahead is clear: community consultation is the next step.
But who is held to comprise ‘the community’ will often be determined largely by those formally ‘in charge’ of the overall developments, rather than by that community (or communities?) itself.
Physical ownership or social stakehold?
The temptation to take the easy route, to see the public realm as simply physical space, is great. If it’s that, the relevant authorities can just get on with it, consulting along the way about how members of the public would like their pavements, bins or street lamps to look. (See e.g. an example of ‘another’ Liverpool, looking at another way to consider ‘place making’ and ‘liveability’.…)
But this is an dreadful waste of an opportunity for engagement between civic officials and those who pay them. How much better to work towards wide involvement of the people who live and work on those streets, even if this does take more time and effort.
Communities do not comprise just one sort of person – there are many voices which must be heard – but if we want people to come together for the common good, developing a shared sense of place is an excellent starting point.
We need then to begin by recognising whilst physical location is a given, the variety of people and interests which comprise meaningful stakehold is large.
New skills for new challenges
Involving the general public as stakeholders in their localities is still an emerging art.
Those who currently have the knowledge and experience to implement improvements to the public realm are perhaps unlikely, without stepping outside their formal roles, or perhaps further training, to be the best people also to engage communities to the extent which is required.
‘Translating’ knowledge and skills
Here, yet again, is an instance of the need for ‘translation’ in delivery between professional knowledge and the skills required to reach deep into often – though not always – disadvantaged communities.
The public realm is exactly what it says it is – the place where, ideally, we all encounter each other, safely, comfortably and constructively.
Getting everyone involved
Perhaps the move towards Local / Multi Area Agreements (LAAs and MLAs) and regular Your Community Matters-style events will help to encourage meaningful engagement for the future.
Whatever, the challenge is to make the public realm everywhere a place where everyone really can feel they are a part of the action.
Read more about Urban Renewal
Investment in scientific programmes often has added socio-economic value. But there is little evidence that good indices are available to measure what this impact might be for large-scale scientific regionally-based development. Whilst private investors guard their capital with care, only rarely do the criteria for evaluation of Big Science proposals include adequate consideration of the wider impact of public funds invested.
The bovine foot and mouth pyres of a few years ago are testament to unintentional damage inflicted when strictly focused ‘science’ is applied crudely in wider socio-economic contexts.
Everyone wanted to do the right thing; but the upshot of scientific best advice was rural economic devastation.
The same scenario may be enacted again, if the judgement of a panel of leading scientists results in removal of the Alice (Accelerators and Lasers in Combined Experiments) programme at the Daresbury Laboratory in North-West England.
The science will carry on elsewhere, most probably in the USA, but the NW regional economy, which could have benefited hugely, will instead take a hammerblow.
Best value for government investment
Scientists quite rightly concentrate on what they understand – in this case physics, engineering and the like. I cannot comment on their scientific judgements about ALICE; though it is always open to their colleagues have views on this.
Whatever, the investment of significant government monies must also, as numbers of parliamentarians have argued, be about best value in socio-economic terms, as well as indicated by narrower scientific parameters; and the scientists would without doubt agree they are not best placed to adjudicate all this.
Socio-economic impact studies
If the relevant science councils have undertaken regional socio-economic impact studies on their proposed investments, these, like the scientific appraisals, must now be opened to public scrutiny.
If they have not, we must challenge the science councils to undertake these comparative impact studies immediately, before potentially devastating decisions are made.
Added value – or otherwise
‘Added value‘ (perhaps significantly, a term often used to evaluate the impact of educational initiatives) and ‘unintended consequences‘ (c.f. Robert Merton’s work) may be indices beyond the lexicon of physical science; but, as the rural economists acknowledged after foot and mouth disease, they can never be outside the remit of decisions about big investment, in the public interest, of taxpayers’ money.
A version of this article, entitled ‘Alice in economic context’, was published on the Letters page of Guardian Education on 15 April 2008.
Science, Regeneration & Sustainability
Science & Politics
Today (20 February 2008) saw the formal launch of the British Urban Regeneration Association (BURA)’s Equality and Diversity Framework and Network. The event, at the Abbey Community Centre in Westminster, was attended by people from across the regeneration world, and produced much discussion about how BURA and its partners could move forward.
In my role as BURA Champion for Equality and Diversity I was lucky enough to join our President, Sir Jeremy Beecham, and other colleagues, in presenting and discussing initial ideas about this challenging issue.
Your views too are welcome. To begin the debate, this is what I said:
BURA Regeneration Equality and Diversity Framework Launch
Wednesday 20 February 2008, Westminster, London
This event was set up, as Sir Jeremy explained, because of serious concerns which the BURA Board has about inclusivity in regeneration.
The evidence is before our eyes; the top of the profession is overwhelmingly populated by white men.
Regeneration fits the white male stereotype for leadership in Britain only too well; and the stereotype extends even to the BURA Board itself, where Directors are elected from amongst our hundreds of members.
Something has to be done. No-one disputes that, as regeneration practitioners, we must address inclusion; but few of us have articulated how this intention fits in with regeneration. And fewer still I suspect, are sure how to do it.
The BURA Board has therefore decided to invite your help and support as we move forward on this challenging issue.
What is inclusivity and why does it matter?
A look at the work of the Equality and Human Rights Commission gives us a good feel for what an inclusive society might look like.
It would be a society in which people had safe and secure opportunities to enjoy a happy and healthy life.
In this society people of every sort would find themselves in positions of influence and leadership, and able to work towards a situation which in turn releases the potential of others.
This would be a society in which we, as regeneration practitioners, understood the impact of our work on all our fellow citizens, and then applied that knowledge across all our activities.
It would be a society in which, say, Asian women in Bury had as much opportunity to develop their interests and employment potential as white men in Cheltenham. It would be a society in which families in both these communities were equally likely to see their children born healthy and strong, with an equal expectation of a long and happy life.
In a nutshell, it would be a society which is stable and sustainable.
And if regeneration isn’t about achieving socio-economic stability and environmental sustainability, I don’t know what is.
Regeneration is more than the sum of its parts
I believe firmly that the task of today’s regeneration practitioners is to work themselves out of a job. We need to believe at a very deep level that ‘regeneration’ is not the same as ‘construction’, or ‘remediation’, or even as ‘planning’.
Critical though these callings are, real regeneration is much more than that.
After 30 years of regeneration in Britain, we should now be seeking very actively to reinvent ourselves as ‘sustainability practitioners’, as professionals who work to maintain an equitable, healthy and safe environment for everyone.
This reinvention of ourselves would require massive changes in the way we work, in our collaborations across disciplinary boundaries, and in our perceptions of how fellow citizens who are not exactly like ourselves experience their lives.
We can’t do that if we don’t understand how to achieve inclusivity, and why it matters.
But there is a very long way to go.
What is BURA doing about itself?
* Firstly, we have undertaken a thorough audit of our own organisation.
* We have looked at the gender and ethnicity of all members of staff and the Board, going back for three years, and for staff we have correlated this with salary bands. We shall report these findings to the Board when it next meets, and post a summary of this information thereafter on our website.
* We will also decide as a Board, in consultation with, we hope, our new Chief Executive, how much more data it might or might not be appropriate to record about the Board and staff.
* And we shall consult too on whether and, if so, how we need to look at the ‘inclusion’ characteristics of all BURA members.
* We would hope at the same time to start research on these characteristics as they apply to the regeneration sector as a whole, and to see how this compares with the data for the British population overall.
What is BURA doing to support progress in regeneration overall?
* Importantly, we are not seeking to compete with anyone; we are offering a supportive network which encompasses the whole spectrum of interests – inclusive, not competitive, with the sole aim of moving this positive agenda forward.
* Also, we recognise that no-one as yet has all the answers; we are simply trying, with everyone else, to identify both the challenges and the opportunities.
* We are launching today a Regeneration Equality and Diversity Framework, an ‘umbrella’ group welcoming people and organisations from every part of regeneration, ‘professional’ to ‘community’, to address a wide range of issues around equality and diversity.
This group will not seek to undertake work already done by others, but will help to link together the inclusion themes which regeneration good practice must address.
Some examples of what the BURA E&D Framework seeks to achieve
* We will support the exchange of information and views about what are the most immediate challenges for Equality and Diversity in regeneration in the UK.
* We will seek to collaborate with government at local and national level, and with research bodies already examining aspects of Equality and Diversity.
* We will develop the BURA website as a free open-access resource, available to all, hosting weblinks to legal and professional aspects of regeneration practice – including equality and legal audits – and enabling wider discussion between BURA members and partners.
* We will offer practical help and support to people from different communities who wish to become involved in regeneration – perhaps for instance by offering bursaries and work placements – in a collaboration between BURA and our members and corporate partners.
* But most of all, we will seek to work with all of you to make the BURA Regeneration Equality and Diversity Framework not just a talking shop, but a vibrant and positive reality.
In for the duration
* This is however slow-burn. We’re asking the questions but we don’t as yet have many of the answers; everyone here today can help.
* The BURA Board are unanimous that we must work hard to make our Equality and Diversity Framework a reality, not just an ambition.
We very much hope that you will want to be part of this reality.
Contact Hilary at BURA
Next week sees the launch in Westminster, London of the British Urban Regeneration Association (BURA) Regeneration Equality and Diversity Framework.
The BURA Board has unanimously resolved to try honestly to do what regeneration is supposed to do – reduce inequality and discrimination through the creation of environments where people can lead sustainable, happy and fulfilling lives.
From the regeneration perspective, equality and diversity are difficult things to get one’s head around. There are so many variables.
I tend therefore to approach these issues from the ‘other end’, and to ask myself the Big Question: what might a community look like when we’ve finished ‘regenerating’ it?
Put that way, things begin to fall into place.
Two outlooks are possible for a place or community which has received the full attention of the regeneration professionals.
Either it will thrive, moving forward to a happier future, where people feel fulfilled and their needs are met in a much more embedded way than before; or it will in time lose its expensive new patina and sink into a deeper, sadder, less secure state even than before.
These different outcomes depend largely on the extent to which that community has been enabled to achieve sustainability.
Three aspects to sustainability
Sustainability has three major aspectss: physical (‘environmental’), economic and social. None of these can be achieved longer term without the others.
Sustainability is impossible without equality and diversity; so regeneration too is underpinned by them.
A stark truth
The Commission for Racial Equality’s final blast at the regeneration business, when in late 2007 that organisation became a part of the new Equality and Human Rights Commission, was well placed. It demonstrated, starkly, that ‘race’ issues remain desperately under-addressed in regeneration.
And it certainly made the Board of the British Urban Regeneration Association (BURA) sit up. Already painfully aware of a lack of diversity at the top table, now we had undeniable evidence about one critically core aspect of disadvantage.
Many realities, many ways forward
The more we looked at disadvantage – whether resulting from age, religion and belief, disability, gender, race or sexual orientation – the more it seemed to stem from the same issues; issues most often around opportunities and resources which people feel they have been denied.
The multiple realities of ‘ordinary’ people’s lives are what define our communities and how they interface with the wider society. This then, surely, is what regeneration is all about?
Where to begin?
So here is BURA’s starting point.
As leading players in regeneration, BURA’s Board has resolved to try honestly to do what regeneration is supposed to do – which is to reduce inequality and discrimination through the creation of environments where people can lead happy and fulfilling lives.
To do this we will look carefully and immediately at how we can put our own house in order; we will listen to and liaise with as many other interested parties as we can; we will seek out, and where necessary and possible commission, research which informs our ambition; and we will take the message wherever it needs to go.
We introduced the BURA Regeneration Equality and Diversity Framework concept at our 2008 annual conference, in January. We shall launch it formally at our London event on 20 February; and we will monitor our progress thoroughly as we move forward.
We hope you too will want to be part of this journey.
Hilary Burrage is a member of the BURA Board, and BURA Equality and Diversity Champion. (email@example.com)
The BURA Equality and Diversity campaign is supported by New Start and Ecotec.
This article is a version of the piece published in New Start, 15 February 2008.
See also: New Start survey reveals doubts over cohesion and New Start Editorial of 13 February 2008.
The renewal of King’s Cross – St Pancras and all that surrounds it is long overdue, but it looks to be a spectaclar project worth the wait. The final moves to achieve success in terms of the local community will however require those who should, to put their heads above the parapet so that everything comes together to make the best possible result. This project will ‘work’ for everyone as long as people really try to collaborate to get it right.
Having travelled on the bus past King’s Cross – St. Pancras on very many occasions, I can only say my heart lifted when, at last, evidence of its renaissance began to materialise.
Community links and challenges
It’s surely a unique and exciting challenge to put together a project as enormous and impactful as this. The project hits many buttons – strategic place, infrastructure, heritage, economic benefit; we could go on… King’s Cross is in anyone’s books a very spectacular and special piece of real estate.
Of course there’s still a possibility that King’s Cross will somehow miss on that vital community connection; but only if people on all sides of the equation let it. This is where civic and corporate leadership have such a critical part to play, right from day one.
Different from, say, Canary Wharf?
Given the common emphasis on transport hubs, there have been comparisons, but Canary Wharf is different. Just for a start, Canary Wharf is not at the heart of what’s to become the most important international ‘green’ hub connecting the UK and mainland Europe, and for another thing the Wharf is a glass and concrete creation with not too much reference to a long and glorious heritage.
King’s Cross is a genuine opportunity to build on a very high profile USP with enormous promise for all stakeholders.
Doubters and objectors
There are always people who oppose what’s happening. The financial and other costs of the debate with them may well be high, but in the end everyone has to be heard for progress to be made in a well-founded way. The line must be drawn somewhere, but the views of those with reservations are valuable because they help to pinpoint potential hazards further down that line.
But it’s up to everyone to make sure that in the end King’s Cross really works. This is a programme with serious commonality of interest between developers, the wider economic infrastructure and real people on whom the project impacts day by day.
Having seen examples elsewhere of exiting programmes based with various degrees of success in challenging locations, I’d say everyone, but everyone, involved has to ask, what more might I need to be doing to make King’s Cross fulfil its whole potential?
Of all the ‘Rules of Regeneration’, the first rule here must be: listen, seek to understand and where possible accommodate all stakeholders. And the second rule is, always remember someone has to be brave and take the lead, accountably and visibly.
This is not a time for pursuing plans regardless or for heads-in-the-sand-style denial of problems; but nor, most certainly, is it a time for standing back. King’s Cross is an <opportunity which comes only very rarely…. Here we have a genuinely future-facing adventure which everyone in town can share and actually see taking shape.
I watch from my bus as things come together week by week and I wish all involved the very best.
A version of this article was published on the New Start blog of 8 November 2007.
Abrupt curtailment of the 2007 Mathew Street Festival, silly ideas about removing fish so the docks become a concert arena, questions about preparations for the Big Year…. Liverpool 2008 is a drama unto itself. The leading arts venues have devised a good cultural programme for European Capital of Culture Year, but concerns about what else must be done remain.
All regeneration and strategic planning professionals need to have excellent formal qualifications and wide experience; the job is far too important for anything less. But what other characteristics are also required to make a good regeneration official into an outstanding agent of delivery on the ground? Here is a list of such characteristics, from a rather specific observational position.
Here are some suggested stereotypical characteristics of the ideal regeneration or urban / rural planning worker:
- Willing to listen and learn; everyone has something to offer
- Open to the idea that communities change over time
- Realistic about the balance in plans and designs of art and application
- Knowledgeable about the area’s infrastructure and transport arrangements
- Involved in the community and active in establishing good local facilities
- Not afraid to challenge the status quo, but also keen to keep the peace
- Gets quickly to the bottom of the issues; there’s lots to do!
- Manifestly focused on what works and what’s sustainable
- Ultra-aware that time is precious; opportunities need to be seized
- Motivated by making things better for all stakeholders
- Sensitive to the requirements of those less able to articulate their needs
Have you spotted the tongue-in-cheek subtext of this list?
The ‘hidden message’ is of course offered only fun; but the actual listed characteristics are in my view a fundamental requirement of any competent regeneration worker, however formally qualified they may be.
What do you think?
This list was devised as part of a discussion about developments inhigh-rise living, for an Urban Design Week Coffee Shop Debate in Liverpool, September 2007. It was also published as a New Start external blog.
How many people reading this article actually live in a city centre? How many readers in live a high-rise apartment? And how many of these readers are aged 30-50?
My guess is that fewer readers live in high-rise than have views on them; the evidence certainly shows that most people past a certain age choose to live in suburbia or out-of-town. So is the commercial emphasis on city centre ‘executive’ apartments sustainable?
One young woman I know, a lawyer, lives with her husband in an a sixth floor apartment in Manhattan, New York.
Another, a business consultant, until recently lived in a fourth floor apartment near the commercial centre of London, but has just moved to a town house there.
My husband and I live in suburban Liverpool, and have done for many years.
Economics and demography
Economics and demography are everything in housing. People choose where, ideally, they would like to live, by reference to their family requirements.
Many people, as we all know, are happy to live in high-rise city centre accommodation before they have children, but in the UK, and especially outside London, most would prefer to make their family home in suburbia – as indeed I did.
Other countries, other ways
In other countries the suburban option may be both less available and less often preferred.
Some young couples in the UK, like the ones I know in London, can resolve their requirements by choosing a town house near the city. Others elsewhere, like the couple in New York, don’t feel the necessity to abandon high-rise living as quickly.
Why the difference?
There is less of a tradition in the UK of high-rise living except perhaps, and tellingly, in tenements and council housing.
Other cities such as New York have pressures on land which mean that over time they have adjusted to high-rise.
Sim city for real
Have you ever played Sim-City? In New York space issues have resulted in the creation almost of Sim-City tower living.
Everything is there – the shops, the amenities – including clinics, nurseries and gyms, the work places, and then, above them, with different access, living accommodation, roof gardens etc.
And in the same block as the building will be the link to efficient public transport….
These sorts of arrangements make it possible for everyone to live In Town, and many people except those with growing children to prefer to.
It’s time and, importantly, energy efficient to live in, e.g., Manhattan, and the experience is generally holistic. The experience addresses what’s needed in a reasonably sustainable way.
Looked at like this, we can see that London is a half-way house between Manhatton and Liverpool.
The UK overall is a very densely populated island, but still only about 5-10% of it is city-space.
Nonetheless, land is very scarce in London, and London has some of the attributes required to make it a preferred city living option. And that city is working hard to improve its offer.
Liverpool, however, is still losing population, albeit at a reducing rate. And we have enough houses but not always ones people like.
Unless the ‘core offer’ on Liverpool city-centre living improves rapidly, I can see little prospect of sustainability in tower-block living here.
We haven’t, yet, factored in the amenities to make Liverpool city-centre ‘people friendly’, as is only too obvious on any Friday night.
For me therefore high-rise in Liverpool, in the brave new world of ‘executive’ apartments, is not where I would currently put my money as a developer.
Quality of experience
Fashion quickly becomes fad and then old hat when the quality of the experience is lacking.
I’d advise investors to think about how NY or London do things – maybe even live there for a while – before they go any further with high-rise in Liverpool.
High rise and high income?
Even a decade or two ago in the UK high-rise still often (except in, say, parts of Edinburgh and London) went with low-income.
Now, conversely, high-rise and high-income seem to go together; which is fine in London; but not elsewhere.
Real executives for ‘executive’ apartments?
Liverpool should put a hold on more high-rise executive apartments until it has a more high-income, young, executives in genuinely sustainable jobs to live in them.
I’d say, let put some functional flesh, some real amenity, on the skeleton of Liverpool’s developing infrastructure
before we go for fashion in housing.
Moving forward sustainably
* Let’s first make Liverpool city centre safe and people-friendly.
* Let’s use professionals to develop the city who have experience of family life and of city centre living, to help us see what more needs to be done.
* Let’s explore what we can do to integrate services, amenities and enterprise with ‘livable’ space.
* Let’s make Liverpool’s city centre sustainable and let’s reverse our population decline before we go big-time in Liverpool for high-rise…. especially if it has more style than substance.
This is an edited version of a talk given by Hilary Burrage as part of a debate in Liverpool during Urban Design Week, hosted by Taylor Young, on 18 September 2007. The event was entitled ‘High rise living getting you down!?’ Almost all speakers in the debate agreed with the position taken here.
Graduate retention is a serious aspect of any decent policy for regeneration. But the emphasis on new / young graduates alone is strange, when there are always also other highly qualified and more experienced people who might offer at least as much in any developing economy.
A recurring theme in the regeneration of cities and regions is the emphasis on retention of graduates. This is an entirely reasonable focus, given the cost of producing graduates and the potential which they have in terms of economic value. The flight of bright graduates from regional to capital cities is a well-marked issue for most regional economies.
Reducing the loss of graduate talent is generally a task allocated to the regional universities which have educated them. There is a whole sector of most regional knowledge economies which is dedicated simply to training and retaining graduates in the hope that they will enhance the economic performance of that region.
Extending the scope for retention
There are also now schemes which train ‘women returners’, women who have taken time out to raise a family or who have
only later in their working lives decided to develop their formal skills. Generally these schemes give good value for the ‘returners’ and their future employers, at least in terms of providing competent middle-level practitioners and professionals; and certainly they can make a really significant difference to the lives of the women who undertake the training.
Overlooked and under-used
But there is another group of people with high skills who are often simply not geared into their local and regional economy in any meaningful way. These are often older, highly qualified and experienced graduate women who are no longer working (but are usually not registered as unemployed), and who may remain living in an area because they have family or other personal commitments there.
These women generally do not need any further training (except in the same way that other practising professionals might need it) and they often undertake a good deal of voluntary and unpaid work in their communities. Little of this work however is given any formal economic value, and even less of it is focused strategically on the requirements of their economic location.
How could their activities be strategically focused, when these women, often for reasons beyond their individual control, may have almost no continuing professional connection in their communities?
In an economy with a significant proportion of women leaders and decision-makers the ‘invisible’ older female graduate might be identified as a person with serious economic potential,
someone for whom every effort should be made to find or create suitable high-level employment or enterprise opportunities commensurate with her qualifications and experience.
Highly qualified men are likely, we might suppose, to move to a job elsewhere which meets their requirements; the women may have no choice but to relinquish their employment, if their family moves elsewhere or if circumstances mean their job disappears. In many challenged regional and local economies however the scope to realise this female potential remains unperceived by those (mostly men) who decide the strategy for their local economies.
Doing the audit
Has anyone tried to estimate the numbers of ‘non-economically-productive’ highly qualified older women in a given regional or
local economy undergoing regeneration? Does anyone know what these women currently contribute informally to their economies, or what they could contribute formally in the right contexts?
Older women are often seemingly invisible. My guess, from many private encounters, discussions and observations over the past few years, is that here is an almost totally untapped resource.
Nurturing all available resources
Retention of young graduates is of course critical to economic renaissance; but so is the gearing in of the potential of older and more experienced graduates. This is another example of why economic regeneration strategists need to appreciate and nurture more carefully what they already have, as well as what they would like for the future to procure.
This article is also linked from the New Start magazine blog of 14 March 2007.
Avian influenza (‘bird flu’) has again made us aware of the scientific research which underpins government policy. Some have great faith in this science, others have none. Our growing understandings of how scientific research and public policy inter-relate can however help inform both science itself, and how political / policy decisions might be taken in real life.
Avian influenza has provoked quite a debate in The Guardian about how science and politics inter-relate.
Recent contributors to this debate include Erik Millstone and Simon Jenkins, who are right to raise the issue of scientific advice to the Government in respect of avian influenza – just as Ministers are right to take this advice seriously.
But in reality there is no such thing as ‘pure’ scientific research. All research, whether ‘natural’ or ‘social’, is predicated on often taken-for-granted understandings of context.
However inadvertently, therefore, the gap between scientific advice and policy / politic, whether in the case of avian influenza or any other issue, is wide not as Prof Millstone and Mr Jenkins might in different ways seem to suggest.
The questions underpin the research
Scientific advice arises from scientific research questions, and scientific research tends to be structured largely around ‘received’ understandings of the issues involved – including, inevitably, contexts of those issues.
In other words, natural scientists, as non-experts in matters socio-economic, will tend, if unchallenged, towards uncritical acceptance of the status quo or predominant contextual view of the situation in the same way as any other ‘person in the street’.
It is not surprising therefore that science, in selecting which techno-scientific issues to address, has in the past often focused on the interests of the most collectively powerful and visible operators.
Socio-economic impact and policy
This is now changing as questions about socio-economic impact are, rightly, articulated more loudly.
It is encouraging that Government politicians and policy-makers are beginning to recognise the critical importance of framing scientific research, from its inception, around contextual as well as ‘purely’ scientific questions.
Articulating these wider understandings better from the inception of any piece of research is the way to ensure that scientific advice can best inform political decision-making. And doing this certainly does not diminish the robustness of scientific endeavour; rather the converse.
Scientific and poltical responsibility shared
The selection of ways forward in policy is ultimately a political responsibility; but making sure that ‘scientific’
questions acknowledge the whole spectrum of contextual interests is a responsibility which, thankfully, scientists advising decision-makers are themselves increasingly aware that they must share.
A version of this posting was published on The Guardian letters page of 17 February 2007.
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