The ‘promise of science’ is about envisioning possible futures from advances in science and technology. It is our expectation that science will provide solutions to intractable, complex social problems and provide socio-economic benefits that lead to prosperity. It is the driving force behind decisions to invest significant public resources in research and innovation.
Science has contributed much to society and humanity and continues to do so. Given the past success of science in contributing to social progress and prosperity, our faith in the promise of science appears to be well founded. Yet, science has also failed to live up to our expectations, contributing to many of the social challenges it is now expected to resolve. This is the paradox of the promise of science. The paradox of the promise of science can be seen in the unexpected and unintended consequences associated with advances in science and technology, such as environmental contamination, climate change and adverse drug reactions. In the Canadian context, the paradox of the promise of science is reflected in a century of recurring science policy reviews that highlight the on-going challenges of managing the outcomes of science to solve social problems, meet national policy goals and realize socio-economic benefits (i.e. House of Commons Special Committee on Scientific Research, 1919; Royal Commission on Government Organization, 1963; Towards a National Science Policy for Canada, 1968; Senate Special Committee on Science Policy, 1977; Reaching for Tomorrow: Science and Technology Policy in Canada, 1992; Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada’s Advantage., 2007; State of the Nation 2010 – Canada’s Science, Technology and Innovation System, 2011; Innovation Canada: A Call to Action-Review of Federal Support to Research and Development-Expert Panel Report, 2011; Advisory Panel on Federal Support for Fundamental Science, 2017).
Science policies represent the aspirations of a nation for a better future envisioned through the ‘promise of science’. Science policy decisions—how to allocate limited resources to whom, for what research and how much—are about choosing among multiple, desirable futures. In the past several decades, science policy has become a strategic tool for achieving public policy objectives (e.g. economic development, job creation, environmental sustainability, food security, climate change and public health). The promise of science plays a key role in shaping and guiding science policy decisions and outcomes. As a powerful social discourse, the promise of science shapes our beliefs, interests, ways of thinking, priorities, identities and decisions. The ‘promise of science’ functions not as accurate, objective predictions of the future, but as persuasive visions of the future. Envisioning the future through the ‘promise of science’ compels policy decisions and actions in the present that have tangible impacts, such as mobilizing resources, coordinating activities, forming networks, transforming policy frameworks and altering the direction of research.
The promise of science has played a defining role in Canada’s social and economic growth and development. As early as 1868 the federal government recognized the importance of science to the country’s future. Efforts to mobilize science to serve public policy goals began in 1916 with the Privy Council Committee on Scientific and Industrial Research and the Honourary Advisory Committee, which eventually became the National Research Council. Over the past 100 years, governments in Canada have taken diverse approaches to science policy, but regardless of political ideology there is an enduring assumption underlying Canadian science policy – belief in the promise science for Canada’s social well-being and economic prosperity. Recent examples of the power of the ‘promise of science’ in shaping Canadian science policy decisions include investments in ‘promising’ science, such as the creation of Genome Canada in 2000 and $1.5 billion for genomics research over the past 20 years, the $1 billion Innovation Superclusters Initiative, the re-design of tri-council research funding programs, the introduction of new funding programs, such as New Frontiers in Research and new approaches for funding research, such as the proposed Strategic Science Fund.
Despite its pervasiveness in social and policy discourse, the science, research and innovation community is relatively unaware of the power of the ‘promise of science’ in shaping policy decisions and outcomes. We know that investments in science are important to our future. We need a better understanding of the role of the promise of science and its implications for science policy in order to develop science policies that can more effectively manage science in service to society. This understanding begins with recognizing the uncertainty of promising science narratives and acknowledging that these narratives of the future are based on promises of ‘knowledge-yet-be’, which may not live up to our expectations or that alternative futures may emerge from promising science. Beyond this, we need to consider how the promise of science is perceived within Canada’s science, research and innovation community and how it should be managed when we make science policy decisions.