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Science for the Post-Normal Age

Republished with a new foreword

Published onMay 26, 2020
Science for the Post-Normal Age


May 5, 2020

Although this essay is about a new practice of science, the now familiar Post-Normal Science (PNS), the title of the paper refers to an ‘Age’. This substitution was deliberate, and in the light of the subsequent history of the idea, it was appropriate. The four destabilising features in the mantra “facts uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent”, although originally developed as defining a policy issue requiring a new problem-solving strategy, also relate to a condition of society. Indeed, when PNS was first published, well-intentioned critics suggested that it really applies to politics, and not to science. The implication was that real science involves facts that are certain, and can be expressed by precise numbers, and where values, stakes and decisions are seen as external to the scientific endeavour. Where science impinged on policy, it was assumed that effects were generally beneficial in the long term or through technological innovations by becoming, as in the post-WWII era, the main engine of the economy. All that comfortable background had already begun to change with the threat of nuclear annihilation, environmental degradation, leading finally to a reflexive critique of the practice of science itself.

As we write this during the COVID-19 pandemic, the PNS mantra has become the new obvious common sense by correctly defining the characteristics of both the world, and the relevant science. And the need for a new sort of scientific practice, designed to meet these challenges, becomes equally obvious. The PNS mantra might indeed have been designed around the COVID-19 experience. Working backwards, there have been desperately urgent decisions, as the exponential growth of the disease meant that every day’s delay would cost lives. The stakes have been as high as in a war, with the threat of an overwhelmed medical system balanced against the possibility of a collapsed economy, and against the diminution of hard-won civic freedoms. Navigating through these opposed (and perhaps irreconcilable) outcomes involved a dispute of values, even pitting generations against each other. And, so shocking for those raised on a faith in the certitudes of science, our crippling uncertainty, even ignorance, about the progress of the disease and the means for combatting it, was and still is, an outstanding feature of the crisis. Disagreements among experts, even in mature scientific disciplines, are aired publicly and, unlike other cases, there is no call to enforce consensus. During all this time, we have witnessed members of the scientific establishment discussing candidly and without embarrassment their various known-unknowns and unknown-unknowns.

Although we originally argued for PNS on methodological grounds, shifting the focus from truth to quality, we recognised from the outset that there are essential social and political dimensions of the problem-solving practice. These are managed either implicitly through sponsors and interest groups, or explicitly in the involvement of an ‘extended peer community’. Part of this idea has now become familiar through the growth of different forms of ‘citizen science’, but it has a special meaning. Those non-specialists are not merely semi-skilled data gatherers or supplementary technicians; they are ‘peers’ involved as equal participants, contributing constructively with their own sources of wisdom, knowledge, experience and skills, complementing those of the accredited experts. In this current pandemic, the populace is refusing to be characterised merely as actual or potential ‘patients’; rather they mobilise themselves as active and autonomous participants in the struggle, willingly enduring prolonged discomfort and danger, developing new practices, and creating new forms of solidarity, on behalf of the common good.

This moral element of the crisis can itself become a force for change. In many places we have become keenly aware of the paradox that we depend crucially on the dedication of those vulnerable, disposable and almost invisible workers in the care and crucial service sectors (including food and cleaning), workers who would normally be prohibited or barely-tolerated immigrants because their jobs are of lesser monetary value.

The powerful biomedical techno-science industry, which is using all its economic and political influence to maintained its privileges in the previously dominant chase for ‘blockbuster’ drugs (along with the related ‘killer apps’), has to contend now with a vast collaborative effort, across many public and private sectors, to create cures and vaccines for the common good. At the same time, a plural and inclusive deliberation is taking place on the opportunity and efficacy of gadgets designed more for tracking people than the virus. These extended peer communities, by introducing politics and ethics, are co-creating new facts, and are resisting a war-inspired narrative where a reductionist understanding of ‘disease’ is to be vanquished by techno-scientific silver-bullets. 

So, we are now truly in a Post-Normal age. Science (and Society) will never be the same again and should not aspire to return to the pre-COVID normality. We should not, either, forget the struggles against ecosystem and climate disruptions, and the unfinished conversations about unfulfilled sustainable goals, growing socio-economic inequalities, weakened democratic institutions, and authoritarian temptations. If our 1993 foundational essay helps its readers to understand our present predicaments, and to see how to re-shape science and society for the future, it will have done its job well.


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