The relationship between the social sciences and the natural sciences has historically been fraught. 'Hard' scientists have often treated the social sciences with disdain. For example, some of them fought, successfully at first, to exclude the social sciences from the remit of the US National Science Foundation. And those social scientists who studied science itself, under the remit of science and technology studies, often returned the favour, seeming on occasion to be devoting themselves myopically to demonstrating that the scientific emperor had few, if any, clothes.

There remains something of a dialogue of the deaf between these two wings of the academy, separated as they are by language, custom and methodology. But barriers are coming down. Senior scientists and administrators, especially those in socially contentious areas such as climate change and reproductive technologies, realize that they need to collaborate with scholars of society-at-large. Sociologists and philosophers of science, in turn, are acquiring a more intimate understanding of the scientists that they study.

Coherent, multidisciplinary centres can help social scientists to get a firmer grip on the complex science, cultures and behaviours underlying new technologies.

These promising developments are being driven by a wider political context. In the United States, the events of 11 September 2001 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq led to a reassessment of the role of social-sciences research, particularly in regard to its relevance to national security. This led to firmer, bipartisan support for the social, behavioural and economic sciences directorate at the National Science Foundation. In Europe, meanwhile, strong public suspicion of new technologies — which has had particularly devastating consequences for the deployment of genetically modified crops in Europe and beyond — has encouraged governments to set aside more resources for the early involvement of social scientists in technology development.

In this issue, we report on the strengths and weaknesses of a UK initiative to bring the social sciences to bear more effectively on genomics, and on the life sciences more generally (see page 840). This experiment suggests that coherent, multidisciplinary centres can help social scientists to get a firmer grip on the complex science, cultures and behaviours underlying new technologies. But it also highlights the need for funding agencies, such as the UK Economic and Social Research Council, to retain a close interest in the strategic direction of such centres, and to ensure that their successes and failures are noted and built upon, even after their direct funding has expired.

The increased involvement of social scientists in science and technology issues has been especially pronounced of late in nascent fields such as nanotechnology and synthetic biology, where funding agencies feel that they have to tread carefully lest their work unleashes a backlash from the public.

In these areas, it is too early to assess the value — and beneficiaries — of the social scientists' contribution. The idea of embedding sociology, law and philosophy firmly in the development of a scientific discipline from the outset is only now being tested. There is optimism among many of the engineers and natural and social scientists involved.

However, all the signs are that the various parties are approaching these collaborations very much on their own terms. Natural scientists are under pressure to deliver new insight and applications. As far as they are concerned, if social scientists wish to observe them, that's probably tolerable.

Social scientists, in turn, wish to be respected for their insight into how scientists and their ideas function both within their communities and, above all, in relation to societal ambitions and values. These researchers do not, by and large, see their purpose as being to pre-empt societal reactions or public engagement, or to help natural scientists communicate. Moreover, for them, the tension between collaboration and detachment in these projects is real.

There is a possibility, therefore, that these parties will end up walking and talking past each other. What is more, the management of rigorous programmes involving both groups is hampered by the difficulty that the social scientists (and those who support them) have in reaching agreement on what constitutes outstanding analysis of human practices in these contexts: just how that can best be achieved, and to what extent, should be at the service of government policy goals.

None of this should encourage a dismissive attitude among sceptics. The applications of genetics, nanotechnology, synthetic biology and other technologies are giving rise to substantial new challenges in professional practice and communication, in ethics, in intellectual property and in many other dimensions beyond the science itself. Objective insights into these dimensions have their own value, and the new collaborations should help. The challenge remains to identify how that value can best be fulfilled.