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Science And Regeneration

December 9, 2006

Science may sometimes be difficult for people in regeneration to understand; and perhaps this doesn’t always matter. But we do all need to see what science in its operation and applications has to offer. For optimal outcomes at every level dialogue between scientists and regeneration practitioners is critical.

Why is science important in regeneration? And why, if it is important, is it also largely invisible in that field?

There are many answers both these questions, but three of the most straightforward are:

* Science is a huge part of the knowledge economy, which in turn is a critical part modern western life; we have moved on from standard production to an ideas based economy.

* Science in its applications is both a ‘cause’ of and a ‘cure’ for the environmental issues which are by the day becoming more pressing.

* Science is often invisible because many of us find it incomprehensible and, in any case, it tends to be tucked away in universities, industrial laboratories, business parks and at the more daunting end of the quality media. (We won’t even think here about science and the popular press…)

Plus of course science is as incomprehensible to significant numbers of journalists and politicians as it is to many members of the general public.

Science policy
But science is not the same as science policy. The former tends (though probably less so than in the past) towards more theoretical research, even if often externally funded; the latter is about the intentional influence and impact of scientific (and technological) knowledge on our lives.

The incomprehension of many about science is unsurprising. But impressive scientific knowledge in itself is less important for regeneration strategies than is an understanding of where the application of science can take us, and how to get there. I can drive a car, and I know where I would like it to take me, but I would be hard pressed to construct one.

And science can offer not one destination but several if it is ‘driven’ well…. How about large-scale construction and investment opportunities, enhancement of the skills base, graduate retention and synergy with existing enterprise, plus the kudos of internationally significant research, for a start?

Is there a downside?
It would be foolish to suggest that all science is ‘good’. Publicly contentious work is another reason why understanding what science can do is important – the GM food and MMR vaccination debates, however well-informed or not, come to mind and are frequently confused issues for the non-specialist. But even disallowing for these sort of concerns there are still costs to the advancement of science and technology, not least environmental.

What science and technology ‘cause’ they can also however often mitigate. If we know, say, how ‘expensive’ in carbon terms a particular innovation or development is, we also usually know what to do to mitigate or turn around that cost. Planning and design, for instance, are frequently critical. to best practice.

In a regeneration proposal, has economy of energy been a major consideration? Is the infrastructure connected in ways which reduce negative environmental impact? Are the plans sustainable in all the ways, environmental, economic and at the human level, that they should be? Science of many sorts can help us towards the answers.

Moving away from traditional perspectives
Science and technology are not respectful of the public-private boundaries which have traditionally shaped regeneration. Knowledge, once that genie has emerged, cannot be put back in the bottle. Like water, it will flow wherever it meets least resistance or most encouragement.

Given the gargantuan sums of money which some science and technology require in their developmental phases and application, it is surprising that so little public attention is generally given to where Big Science facilities are located. (The Daresbury Laboratory in the North West of England is a good example of enhanced regeneration when world-class science is secured by active regional lobbying.)

It’s time to move away from the idea that all regeneration requires is a science park tucked away in a corner of our strategic plan, and we need also to think big about what it all means. For the best regeneration outcomes scientists and regeneration policy makers must to be in communication with each other all the time – even if they need an active ‘translator’ to achieve this. Neither is likely to procure the very best opportunities from the other, if no-one is talking.

A version of this article was published, as ‘The appliance of science affects us all’, in New Start magazine on 24 November 2006.

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 6, 2007 15:10

    On this issue I think Carl Sagan puts it most succinctly in the Demon Haunted Word (1995)
    “We have arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements – transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting – profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology.”

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