Western Mail Profiles: Dr Joan Haran

‘The differences between science fiction and science fact change over time, and our opinions continue to change too’

Dr Joan Haran is a research fellow at the ESRC Centre for Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics (Cesagen) at Cardiff University.

SCIENCE fiction often gets a bad press from scientists, but firing our imagination about science and technology is absolutely vital.

Sharing a vision of the good society, in which everybody has what they need to live well, is crucial to working towards it. So how do we imagine the contribution of science and technology to creating just futures?

Because science and technology are so central to contemporary life and future plans we need to have as many ways as possible to make thoughtful decisions about some key questions. What kind of research do we want public funds to support? Do the promised benefits of research outweigh the risks they pose? Are scientists the best people to answer these questions, or should we, as citizens participate in the debate?

Some people argue that it is vital that scientists explain their work, and its purpose, to as wide an audience as possible. I agree that that is a worthy aim.

However, it is not the only way for us to think about science in society. In fact, done in isolation, it might even be unhelpful, if it encourages us to think of science as a thing apart. Science does not just happen in laboratories; it is woven through the way we work, play and consume every day.

For example, in Brave New World, Aldous Huxley imagined reproductive technology being used to create a society in which people were bred to take up particular social roles and there was no freedom of choice in how to live.

However, in Woman On The Edge Of Time, Marge Piercy imagined very similar technology helping to create a future society that is much more democratic and egalitarian than the one we currently inhabit. From our perspective today, both novels clearly fail as prophecy. Today we take In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) for granted as just one of the ways that people who want children get pregnant.

What both novels have in common, however, is that they imagined the social and cultural impacts of science and technology before the scientific and technological facts of the matter were fully established. The birth of the first “test tube baby” was 45 years in the future when Huxley wrote his novel. So they made it possible for their readers – and for viewers of film and TV adaptations of Brave New World – to reflect on what reproductive technology might make possible in different social contexts.

Some scientists express concern that this kind of speculation is scaremongering, but research suggests that readers and viewers do distinguish between the kind of thought experiments that take place in science fiction and communications from recognised scientists. It is important to note, however, that when scientists explain how their research will benefit us in the future, that this is speculation too.

My research examines how claims about what science can and should do are made in different forms of communication. I look at news stories in the press and on television, at policy consultation documents, and the proceedings of parliamentary committees. I also examine science fiction stories and novels, television dramas and popular cinema. In drawing out the different ways in which science and technology are represented in each of these genres, what I aim to do is to demonstrate that the boundaries between “science fact” and “science fiction” can not be taken for granted and are reworked over time.

I hope that this insight can empower people to speak out about the scientific and technological futures that concern them even if they don’t feel that they have all the facts at their fingertips.

To contact Joan please email HaranJ@cardiff.ac.uk

This article first  appeared in the Western Mail‘s Health Wales supplement on 10th September, 2012, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.