Seminar on Medical History and Humanities in Science/Technology and Public Policy

Over the summer this I undertook the first Wellcome Trust Medical History and Humanities fellowship at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST). This fellowship involves spending 3 months at POST in Westminster, researching an issue in public policy that is of interest to Parliamentarians, to produce a 4-page briefing report or ‘POSTnote’. Recently I gave a seminar on my experience there, for members of CHH, POST staff and the Wellcome Trust. This fellowship was unusual in that I was a humanities scholar amongst scientists, and in the seminar I reflected on what this meant in a policy environment and, indeed, what value such an academic background could have in the context of report-writing for Parliamentarians.

My research at POST (available as a pdf: POSTnote 391) addressed issues concerning the ageing workforce in the UK: as we live longer, the age profile of the workforce is increasing and more people will face pressure to work later into life, for various reasons (predominantly financial). With recent debate over the reform of pensions, which has been highly controversial, numerous policy-relevant questions arise across a broad range of domains, from economics to ergonomics. These range from how employers may adapt to the ageing demographic of their workforces, stereotypes about older workers (both positive and negative) to how individuals perceive retirement, what challenges or barriers they face to staying in work or finding new employment, and, perhaps most pertinent to the medical humanities perspective, how health status affects one’s capacity and willingness to work beyond retirement age.

Whilst other policy issues researched at POST belong squarely in the domain of science and technology, the ageing workforce leant itself more to research from a humanities perspective. It is an emotive, personal and politically fraught concern which impacts individuals in very different ways, and it felt important when conducting the research to convey a coherent and ultimately humanistic narrative of the issues being addressed. As a researcher within the philosophy of psychiatry and mental health, I could not bring knowledge expertise as such to this research, but rather a more general set of skills that proved valuable in picking apart the complexity of the issue and pursuing important lines of questioning. For example, training in the humanities equips one for independent and open-ended research, being comfortable with broadening out one’s scope of enquiry rather than being focused on problem-solving within one particular domain of expertise. This broad scope seemed essential for tackling an issue as expansive as ageing and employment

One of the issues raised in the seminar discussion that really struck me was this: few Parliamentarians have scientific training and indeed most university-educated Parliamentarians come from a humanities background, and in fact POST exists partly to provide a sophisticated lay analysis of scientific issues that may otherwise be out of reach. Essentially, the question ran, why did POST need a humanities scholar in its midst? The answer I think, and I have been ruminating on this for a while, concerns communication, and I believe the medical humanities is excellently positioned to provide a framework for this answer. Scientists can often do an excellent job of communicating very complex concepts, causal pathways, phenomena and evidence-bases in simple, concise ways to a lay audience, and this is crucial for informing, for example, Parliamentary debate around certain scientific topics. However, the link to policy can be somewhat blurred by uncertainty over what to do with the information provided: how to connect evidence (and I use this term rather loosely) with potential ideas about what to do, and how different decisions may impact on people, communities, the environment, the economy, and so on, all of which are important for informing debate in Parliament. In the context of my research, one particularly pertinent and potentially explosive issue here was that of proposed increases to the state pension age: economically necessary perhaps, but invoking a huge range of emotive reactions from potentially affected individuals, despite evidence that they are likely to live longer and experience a longer retirement than their parents.

Now, the humanities may be able to provide an insight into the former two at least. Essentially (and rather simplistically) a humanities-trained scholar is likely to pursue the question: ‘but what does that mean?’ which is a question in terms of implications (what are the likely consequences of a policy, for different people and interests), context (how might this affect other connected things, rather than seeing an issue in isolation?) and semantics (literally, what do the terms and concepts used signify and do they perhaps have unintended connotations?) These questions seem to go some way towards bridging the gap between the evidence-base of science and the problem of what to do, in terms of policy decisions. They concern the communication between different lines of enquiry and different forms of evidence, enabling one to develop a more sophisticated understanding of what scientific enquiries, discoveries and developments can tell us and what implications they may have for the decisions government needs to make. This is of course a rather crude distinction, but I suspect it may track the right kind of idea.

It is an open question as to how engagement between science and the humanities can be successfully negotiated: there is always a risk of tokenism in inviting contributions from different perspectives, and the potential for misunderstandings in the interface between discourses approaching the subject matter from widely differing perspectives. However, if they are to interact, and in a way that helps Parliamentarians be better informed about the issues they are discussing, I can think of few better starting points than dropping humanities scholars into scientific policy environments and seeing what kinds of conversations and output fall out – not quite a randomised controlled trial but an interesting experimental methodology nonetheless.

You can read more about the work of POST and the Wellcome Medical History and Humanities fellowship. I will be writing on the Wellcome Trust blog on my experience at POST very soon.

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