Skip to main content

Past Seminar Series

Science and Populism: from evidence to narrative

This series is co-hosted by the Oxford Martin School and the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, to celebrate their 20th Anniversary

“Science is addressing such big global challenges that impact on people’s lives. You’ve got to consider the whole social, ethical, moral and political framing of debates”

Science impacts on people’s lives on a daily basis now. Advances in reproductive medicine are confronting young people with moral choices unimagined by their parents. Fairly simple testing in the early weeks of pregnancy can now identify a range of potential disabilities requiring the parents to take challenging decisions whether to continue the pregnancy. At the other end of life, longevity research is heralding the possibility of unimagined life spans.

Robotics are already widespread in the workplace. We need a forum where people can discuss, for example whether we are happy for the market to drive the replacement of human workers by robots. Or whether we as a society feel that there are some jobs that should be retained, at least for the present, by people. There are no right or wrong answers, they are simply questions that should be openly addressed and debated.

One of the biggest changes has been the digital revolution, and the emergence of social media. We can all now be experts just by going onto the internet.  This is clearly having a significant impact on our political systems, and the way we as individuals obtain knowledge and make decisions. This changing information context has also created a greater need for more open and critical public debate, more transparency on how  scientists and policy makers work, and the evidence they select and use.

There is clear recognition that the interaction between research, policy making and public engagement is now key. There is a recognised need within government and wider policy circles for the use and sharing of evidence in policymaking, and for an increasing recognition of the advantages when the evidence that has been used to justify and shape a policy proposal is transparent. There can be evaluation leading to improvements in outcomes, the public are better able to understand and engage with the reasoning for policy interventions, and further government initiatives and policy evaluation can be built.

There is also a clear social and political dimension – the growing public lack of trust in experts and evidence. As the Director of External Affairs at the London Science Museum recently wrote there is a “concerning trend of active opposition: some have derided experts, others have sought the ‘authenticity’ of anecdote……There is nothing palatable about the post-truth era, when facts are cherry-picked or invented to make up any narrative you like, when there is ‘policy-based evidence making’ and a move to curtail any science that challenges policy and dogma with inconvenient truths.

People increasingly need bodies that can provide trusted and open information, and when an issue isn’t black and white, to explain why there’s a debate and guide them through the evidence. Academics need to lay bare the scientific process: the complexities of data analysis, and the often ambiguous, even opaque nature of scientific findings. But similarly governments need to be more open with their citizens.

Drawing together high level speakers from academic, policy and media, this series will consider how to combine the best in scientific evidence with new forms of creative discourse drawn from the arts and humanities. It will consider the role of our institutions and governments in recognizing and facilitating this. It will engage those from the across the spectrum of science and social science, the arts and humanities with  government, the private sector, and civil society in open debate and discussion around significant scientific advances and their implications. Indeed, it is at the intersection of science and society  where scientific advances have the potential to transform daily life, that the greatest challenges lie. 

Event Details

10 May 2018 17:00 - 28 November 2018 18:00

More Information


Oxford Martin School

34 Broad Street (corner of Holywell and Catte Streets) Oxford OX1 3BD