The British Science Association has a vision of 'a world where science is at the heart of society and culture’. Their mission is ‘to support, grow and diversify the community of people interested and involved in science; and to strengthen their influence over science’s direction and place in society’. Reading this, it may feel innocuous. After all, who could be against a society where more people are engaged in science or one where science is integral to our culture? Over the last six months, I’ve been working with the BSA to evaluate how far their current work matches up to their vision. While doing this, I’ve come to see what they’re attempting as anything but innocuous. Rather, as I explore in this post, it’s a radical vision that speaks to wider questions of culture and democracy.

Science and culture

In 1958 cultural theorist Raymond Williams observed: ‘We use the word culture in these two senses: to mean a whole way of life – the common meaning; to mean the arts and learning – the special processes of discovery and creative effort’. Unlike those who use ‘the word for one or other of these senses; I insist on both, and on the significance of their conjunction. The questions I ask about our culture are questions about deep personal meanings. Culture is ordinary, in every society and in every mind’.

However, alongside Williams’ understandings of culture, we have a highly influential idea of it as, in Matthew Arnold’s words ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world’. This dismisses any sense of culture as dynamic and a way of life. Instead culture is imagined as a largely-static body of knowledge, with objective standards for deciding what counts as culture and what does not. High culture – from Shakespeare to Rembrandt – makes the cut. But, while there may be a few concessions to popular culture such as The Beatles or The Sopranos, most of it is dismissed as mass culture, if it is even allowed to call itself culture at all. These distinctions, at least in the UK, line up with social class distinctions, reinforcing wider patterns of privilege and the devaluing of the working class. Cultural knowledge and taste function as capital, resources for getting on in life.

Replacing culture with science, we can see that these same tensions operate. We are far from a society in which we understand science as ‘ordinary, in every society and in every mind’. The dominant meaning is of science as an objective body of knowledge. This idea of science, like Arnold’s idea of culture, assumes the existence of special individuals who can create ‘the best which has been thought and said’. All that remains for the rest of us is to admire the results of their endeavours. It is not our place to have ‘influence over science’s direction’ as the BSA propose.

Science and democracy

Williams’ understanding of culture, like the BSA’s understanding of science is democratic. This year democracy has shifted from an uncontroversial good, something in whose name we go to war, to a problem. In the UK, many people have called for a second referendum following the Brexit vote and Labour members of parliament staged a coup against their leader in defiance of party members. In the US, Wikileaks have exposed systemic manipulation and voter suppression, ironically enough, in the Democratic Party primaries. In each case we have seen an establishment assert its position that it knows what is for the best, while ordinary voters do not.

This, of course, is how science-as-normal operates. Professional scientists largely have the authority to make decisions about the direction of science. When other people get involved, it is normally another elite group such as politicians or business leaders. In this context it is profoundly difficult to imagine what a democratic science – one that is open, participatory and accountable – would look like. Tony Benn famously said that five questions define democracy: ‘What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? How can we get rid of you’?

I do not think we would want to give the public the power to get rid of professional scientists, but perhaps my resistance to that reflects my position as someone inside science education. Yet, assuming we want scientists and science to be accountable, how can we imagine that operating without Benn’s final question, the one he insisted was the most important? The BSA may be less popular with professional scientists if they realised some of the implications of their vision.

Democracy is difficult. As Thom Hartmann puts it, ‘it is not a spectator sport’. For it to work it needs an actively-engaged population. For politics, this means widespread political education. For science, this means widespread scientific education. This is the BSA’s focus, creating the conditions that would make a democratic science possible.

In such a world, the roles of professional and non-professional scientific actors would not be identical any more than they are in the field of politics. But science could no longer be one of the mechanisms for creating hierarchies and divisions in society. People don’t speak from the same space or the same expertise. But a democratic process requires that we engage across our differences on the basis of mutual recognition and with, as Jacques Ranciere put it, a presupposition of equality of capability and intelligence. This would transform science as it is practised, from the micro-level of interactions between people with mental health conditions and their psychiatrists to the macro-level of decisions about energy research, policy and investment.


Heather Mendick is a freelance researcher who works on mathematics and science education, the impact of gender, social class and ethnicity on education, youth identities and aspirations and celebrity and popular culture. She thanks Dieuwertje Dyi Huijg, Charlie Clarke and John Stewart for various conversations about democracy that informed this post.