If the relaunch of Items was intended to provide a forum for a “clearer understanding of the role of the social sciences on the part of the public,” Kenneth Prewitt has superbly accomplished this task. Currently, the status of science in society is under serious debate, and social sciences are affected in two respects: first, they are part of the system of sciences and, consequentially, within this system it is their responsibility to consistently describe what is happening between science and society.

Prewitt notes that over “the last seven decades, public trust in science has weakened.” The decrease of trust goes along with the increasing importance of accountability. It seems that proofs of performance are expected to substitute for what has been lost in terms of trust. This revaluation causes grave repercussions for the production and even the epistemology of science.

“It seems that proofs of performance are expected to substitute for what has been lost in terms of trust.”

Do these considerations only affect the United States or exclusively the social sciences? The answer is no. In his essay Prewitt himself mentions the “The Metric Tide” as one example in the UK discussion about quantitative measures to assess quality. The UK debate on the “impact” criterion within the Research Excellence Framework (REF) is another example. And in Germany the president of the DFG (German Research Foundation), Peter Strohschneider, published a programmatic essay on universities last year in which he expressed serious concern that “the axes of the relation between science and society that have been relatively stable for almost two centuries are currently shifting.” Strohschneider warns: “The tolerance of society towards the autonomy of science seems to erode.” What is happening and why is it happening?


When science as a modern concept emerged in the early nineteenth century, its success went hand in hand with the rise of some fundamental epistemological principles (e.g., methodological rigor, verifiability, organized skepticism) and also with the development of some basic institutions (e.g., disciplines, academic journals, modern universities). Since then there have been two fundamental strategies to argue for science. The first strategy refers to the principles and institutions of science itself; it highlights scientific results as advancements of knowledge—as cutting-edge research or new insights. This strategy regards science predominantly as an individual enterprise emphasizing creativity, ingenuity, or serendipity. The second strategy refers to society and highlights the societal benefit of science (e.g., the improvement of social life and the benefit for the economy or the improvement of health). This strategy regards science predominantly as a part of the innovation system emphasizing use, benefit, and perhaps returns on investment. These two frames do not necessarily contradict one another. Whether the one frame or the other is evoked may depend on the audience addressed. And the dominance of one or the other also varies over time. We know of periods when the “new knowledge” frame has been emphasized and periods that preferred the “useful knowledge” frame. The history of modern science since 1800 might, in fact, be conceptualized along the changes and the interconnection of the two basic frames. This result of social science research might be appreciated as a soothing message and the current situation might be interpreted as a transient period: currently the pendulum obviously swings out to the “use” side, but it will soon swing back to the “novelty” side. Does this imply “wait and see” is an appropriate strategy? I think not.


I agree with Prewitt that it is valuable to look at the post–World War II period as one that invented “basic research” as a defined term and emphasized new knowledge as the fundamental goal of the scientific endeavor. “Science as endless frontier” was the motto of this stable period. Now the pendulum swings out to where use, societal impact, and accountability are increasingly emphasized. How long this new period will last is completely uncertain. Will it likewise last for about sixty years? A reliable prediction requires determining the driving causes behind this development. I agree with Prewitt’s assumption that this development has multiple causes. I will comment on the two causes he already has mentioned in his essay and I will suggest two more.

“If science is shaping society why then should society not lay claim for shaping science?”

First, science has become a victim of its own success. There has never been a driver for societal change similarly as powerful as modern science. More than any other factor, science has shaped almost all domains of social life. This fact is often labeled as the rise of the knowledge society. But if science is shaping society why then should society not lay claim for shaping science? If one considers the massive impact of science on society, a strategy to insist on the autonomy of science and to plead for distance appears to be rather insufficient.

Second, the nature of societal tasks has changed over the last decades. Some of them have become truly global. They neither affect nor can be solved by single states. Regardless whether these tasks are labeled as “Grand Challenges” or “Global Sustainability Goals,” science has played a vital role in their definition and the public influence they enjoy. Now science is consistently taken at its word and expected to substantially contribute to solutions and options for policy to act.

Third, size matters. Science has become a huge enterprise. The science system during the last two decades has grown to an unprecedented scale in terms of budgets, the number of research institutions, employees, and added value. To install these capacities and to keep them running, a broad societal consensus is needed that can no longer be built mainly on the “endless frontier” narrative. What size would our science system be if its main justification was to provide room for creativity to extend knowledge?

Fourth, there is a serious problem with quality. To assess the quality of research internally is at the heart of the autonomy concept on which science has been based for two centuries. Peer review is a core value of science; it is not only the most adequate grant-distribution mechanism. Consider how unlikely it is and what trust is needed to regard peer review as the authority of quality control and not just as a kind of service to the scholarly community. In fact, this concept of quality management control is deeply shattered. The first reason is simply fraud; in Germany, as in other countries, some serious cases have occurred. In dealing with these cases, institutional interests have often played a more important role than the principles of methodological rigor that were violated. The second and more important reason is a growing number of research results are either not reproducible or are simply redundant. And even more alarming is the fact that much of this research has been peer reviewed as excellent. If scientists are complaining about an overproduction of redundant and narrow research, they should carefully analyze the reasons for this overproduction. One reason could simply be the imperative of production ruling a growing number of research institutions.

If these four driving causes for a rising demand for societal accountability of science are correctly analyzed, it is easy to predict that accountability is here to stay. It is time to develop a new consensus between science and society. What needs to be done?

“It is easy to predict that accountability is here to stay.”

First and foremost, a serious reassessment of scientific quality is needed. Assessments that only apply criteria that are seen as internally and science-related lead into aporia. If only excellent research deserves funding, in a permanently growing system the mainstream has to be upgraded rhetorically. To distinguish real cutting-edge research, new comparatives have to be invented, like outstanding or preeminent. Instead of investing in new hyperbolic gradations, science should perhaps invest more in analyzing what accountability in terms of use for science might look like. It is striking that science has reacted to the demand for accountability by increasing their internal performance indicators in terms of quantity and quality. Scientists seem to hold a deep mistrust in external performance in terms of use and impact. But also the seemingly more science-related internal indicators have their cost.

As the Leiden Manifesto put it, “We risk damaging the system with the very tools designed to improve it.” Regarding the autonomy of science, it would be bad advice to switch from the established predominantly internal parameters to external ones, but it could be good advice to embrace the “use” discourse as a corrective toward an overheated excellence discourse. The risk of being overwhelmed by societal rules and expectations cannot be denied. But a process of self-enlightenment is needed concerning the risk of overemphasizing the dominance of purely internal performance indicators. The REF experiment in the UK to include an impact assessment came up with interesting results and insights. Philip Campbell, editor-in-chief of Nature, stated: “It is notable and inspiring how broad and diverse these societal impacts have turned out to be, how international, and how unpredictable.”

To end with good news, the social sciences are urgently needed in two ways: they have to analyze possible functional relationships between science and society to create a broad picture of what impact is about, and they also have to explore valid methods to assess societal impact.

Posted on July 5, 2016