Should there be more scientists in parliament?

Last night, I was part of a panel with Evan Harris, Philip Lee MP and Jenny Rohn, (chaired by labour science spokeswoman Chi Onwurah) on the question of whether we need more scientists in parliament. I was with Evan Harris on the ‘no’ side or rather the ‘let’s focus on the things that matter’ side.

My opening thoughts were along these lines:

I like scientists. Some of my best friends are scientists. And I wouldn’t for a second suggest that we cull those few scientists that we do have in parliament. I just think that this is rather a confused and not hugely important debate. When people demand more scientists in parliament, there is typically a mass of not-very-good motivations. I can think of six:

  1. Representation: Parliament should look like the population it purports to represent. If there were no scientists in parliament, that would be a shame, but there are other areas of diversity that we should worry about more.
  2. Scientists are experts: So are other people. And, as Martin Rees is fond of saying, all experts are depressing lay outside their own discipline.
  3. There is something particularly beneficial about the scientific way of thinking: Scientists may be open-minded, sceptical and evidence-based in some ways, but in other ways they are not. Scientific reductionism may indeed be a hindrance rather than a help in the messy world of politics. (Evan Harris and I agreed later that the tendency for some scientists to assert authority over debates outside their direct expertise is a big problem – Harris accused Lee of doing just this in what we might call Doughnutgate. Lee insisted he was misquoted).
  4. They stick up for science: The assumption here is that scientists understand the public value of science in ways that others do not. No evidence that this is true. Indeed, my experience is that scientists are likely to support funding for particular sorts of science and be relatively unsympathetic when it comes to others sorts, such as strategic, departmental research and development. And there are countless other areas of spending – e.g. investment in the creative industries, that are hugely strategically important and under-appreciated.
  5. They are clever: Yep. Science careers and qualifications are a pretty good signal that you can tie your own shoelaces.
  6. They are nice, progressive and probably left-wing. Sounds trite, but I suspect this reason is behind many people’s arguments.

The major point, however, is that putting pressure on individual scientists in parliament (or even in departments in the case of CSAs) may distract from the big problem, the threadbare policy institutions that are supposed to make sense of science on our behalf. There are big science policy debates to be had. Important quangos such as the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, the Sustainable Development C0mmission and the Food Standards Agency have been bonfired or singed. The Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology just escaped potentially-disastrous cuts. And the case for continued investment in public science has still not been won.

Which brings me to my other story.

In his opening remarks, Philip Lee mentioned his admiration for Charles Darwin. He particularly celebrated how, unlike other great Britons such as Churchill and Brunel, he didn’t “spend other people’s money”. So far so Tory. I picked him up on this, unfairly, given that it was a throwaway line, reminding him that Darwin was lucky to be rich enough to support his own research . I expressed my concern that his disdain for public spending pointed towards a bleak vision of a ‘Big Society science policy’. He took the bait and extended his argument. He described the importance of private funding for science is (indeed it is), before rhetorically asking whether great scientists such as Jenner, Fleming, Watson and Crick were funded from the public purse. If you’re going to ask rhetorical questions, you need to know the answers, which are, respectively: no, because he, like Darwin predated the professionalisation of science; yes, as a university professor and by the Medical Research Council; same again.

If I had been in the audience, I would have been more concerned by this poor understanding of the basis for science policy and its potential implications for the spending review than by the number of scientists we have in parliament.

(Incidentally, before the event, there was an online vote. 96% of people agreed that we needed more scientists in parliament. Evan Harris and I were confident that we could dent this rather Zimbabwean level of support. I think we got it down to about 60%, looking at the show of hands. A victory of sorts, certainly if viewed through lib-dem-tinted spectacles).

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Resolving mobile phone health uncertainties

My Dad got a letter asking him to take part in a big epidemiological study on the risks of mobile phone use. I assume his name was randomly selected, rather than the result of a brainstorm that began, “wouldn’t it be fun to have…” . He passed it onto me, remembering that I used to bang on about such things. The study is being run by Paul Elliott at Imperial, who was one of the people I interviewed for my PhD. It’s a cohort study, which means it’s expensive. Cohort studies recruit people and follow them for a period of time during which they get data about their lifestyles (in this case, how they use a mobile phone) and their health (whether they get cancer or other things). Cheaper case-control studies find groups of people with an illness and compare them against a control sample. This study is costing more than £3 million, paid for by the Government and the mobile phone industry.

The letter recruiting participants states that,

“The current position on mobile phones and health is that in the short term (less than ten years) mobile phone use is not associated with an increase in brain cancers. However, there are still significant uncertainties that can only be resolved by the COSMOS study monitoring the health of a large group of mobile phone users over a long period of time.”

My research on the shaping of mobile phone risks found that it didn’t make sense to talk about uncertainties in purely scientific terms. How uncertain we are depends on what we choose to worry about. Interest in the risks of mobile phones waxes and wanes like many other public issues. I’ve written before about the fallacy of assuming uncertainties can be cleared up by science in politicised issues. The idea that this mobile phone study will resolve these uncertainties once and for all is ridiculous.

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Dialogue on GM – Responding to Tracey Brown

The latest issue of People and Science, the British Science Association magazine, has a piece by Tracey Brown, and a response by me, on the place of ‘dialogue’ within and around the recent field trial of GM wheat.

Tracey Brown reflects on the Rothamsted protests.

Researchers working on genetically modified wheat at Rothamsted decided to respond publicly to a threat to destroy their research earlier this year. They faced a crunch point. Readers will know that activists organised an event to uproot their experimental plot in May.

Rothamsted’s approach
You may not know that Rothamsted’s efforts reached further back. Its head, Maurice Moloney, had written an open letter inviting the activists to talk when they announced their plans. Before that, environmental groups, farmers and local residents had been in discussions about the work. And before that, there had been a consultation as part of the trial’s approval by the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, which led to alterations in the trial design. And before that, Rothamsted had looked at the research proposals in the light of public opinions about commercial control, benefitting the environment and reducing chemicals, and felt it met these well.

Still facing threats, the researchers then pressed for discussion rather than destruction in every way they could – a letter, video appeal, publicity, discussions in the press and on TV. The public and commentators responded with support. Local people wrote to the protest group called Take the Flour Back. Thousands posted comments on a petition, expressing different views about GM but unanimous support for the research.

Lively tumble
Questions fired in all directions, about insects, the food chain, pollination, open source material, conventional breeding and pesticide sprays, and from all quarters: ‘artist’, ‘farm-hand’, ‘carer’, ‘astrophysics lecturer’, ‘air-traffic controller’. The researchers, helped by people from other institutes, got involved in discussing them. I and many others found ourselves relaying email enquiries, twitter debates, podcasts and other interrogations.

Months later, we are still working through correspondence. The researchers, BBSRC and others are too. It was a lively tumble of public discussion, set by what people wanted to talk about, often enthusiastically, sometimes crossly, and frequently at the weekend. The only polarisation was against vandalism and that’s fair enough.

Rigidity bad
But goodness would you look at the sniping from officials! ‘Why are you doing this?’ BIS officials asked. ‘You risk putting back GM discussion by 10 years’, Sciencewise told Rothamsted. (How far is that? everyone wondered.) Publicity risks building the demonstration. It risks building a counter-demonstration. It could backfire. If the threat of vandalism is public, it could put off international investors. Okay the researchers have handled it well, but keep them away from people on the day!
It was as though official support of public engagement is limited to activities fully planned, and approved by civil servants. Some academic consultancies don’t seem to like things that aren’t in the schedule either. You could be forgiven for thinking that science communication is seen as this potent tool that must be overseen by people whom government has accredited. No room for risky unplanned discussion here.

Messiness good
Discussion – the kind that actual people want to have – is unplanned, messy, contradictory, often inconvenient. But if our aim is to strengthen civil society and engage people then all of that comes too and it’s a sign of success. Yes it does mean taking risks and not being in control. But why would we want a petrified discussion, locked in interminable strategy meetings and so afraid of getting it wrong that nothing is learned or gained? It is daunting enough for researchers to go out and debate their research without also having to contemplate a gang of people on the sidelines waiting to write them up in a patronising case study.

Instead we should welcome the messiness and opportunity to learn what goes on when you risk actual public discussion, rather than the splendid isolation of accredited engagement that disappears up its own correctness.

Not so, argues Jack Stilgoe

I’m glad to be able to respond to Tracey Brown’s article in Brownie points, Engagement: actual or accredited?As with earlier discussions about GM crops, we can learn much from the Rothamsted experience. As a member of the Sciencewise steering group, I was recently asked to chair a review of dialogue exercises that have focussed on GM crops. Our conclusion was that, while we had learnt a lot from the various attempts to engage publics on questions of genetic modification, their collective problem was that they started with the technology rather than the problem of sustainably feeding a growing population. I was subsequently asked to advise Rothamsted on the desirability of a new dialogue exercise on GM.

The work that Sense About Science did with Rothamsted took the debate on GM to a different level, which was both good and bad. Rothamsted scientists were able to proactively talk about the research they were doing and, crucially, why they were doing it. They described how their interest in GM techniques differed from the interests of the big corporations who had come to define the first GM controversy in the 1990s and how advances in the science had brought new opportunities and new uncertainties. Tracey Brown is right that these debates are messy. They are messy because they are inextricably political. Science does not have all the answers.

This is why it was so depressing to see the debate turn, with Sense About Science’s encouragement, into a referendum on whether we are pro- or anti-science. The Twittersphere’s muscular rationalists were enlisted to reinforce the barricades. Stephen Fry labelled the anti-GM protest an “assault on what remains of Castle Enlightenment”. This sort of tribalism creates false enemies and interrupts attempts at constructive debate before they are allowed to begin.
Brown’s criticisms of what she calls ‘accredited engagement’ are baffling. Public dialogue exercises do not solve political problems but they can, alongside other forms of uninvited engagement, help shed light on them. I worry when the idea of dialogue is invoked without the open-mindedness that is needed to allay the suspicion that the outcome has already been decided in advance.

Another poorly thought-through dialogue on GM would indeed risk taking us back ten years. It would have been starting from the wrong place, with the wrong intentions. This is why Sciencewise advised against a dialogue exercise on the particular wheat trial and instead pointed Rothamsted to the possibility of engaging in a constructive debate about the future of our food supply.

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New lessons from the new Lorax

I was on a plane. That’s always my excuse for watching drivel. But I thought that, for research purposes, and given how often I talk about it, I should catch the remake of the Lorax. At the risk of turning a bit Žižek, here are my random thoughts on a highly-polished turd of a film that hardly deserves thought.Image

For those of us who loved the book, and the smaller number of us who enjoyed the original cartoon, with its loopy jazz-funk soundtrack, the film is an inevitable disappointment. Dr Seuss has been put into the title but much of him has been stripped from the film. The parable that makes up the book becomes a sub-plot of a boy-meets-girl that seems as though it has been scripted and storyboarded by the same computers that vomited up the graphics. The music is execrable and the animation must be exhausting even for the ADHDers. Nevertheless, some of the tweaks to the story tell us interesting things about where environmentalism and the politics of innovation have gone.

In the new film, the invention – the thneed – is the problem, not the means of production or the slippery slope of innovation. The invention springs fully formed from the air. Demand for it goes goes viral. Innovation and the eco-destruction that follows is near-instant.

Unlike in the book, the Onceler has a face. He starts off human – young, idealistic and full of good intentions. His relationship with the Lorax begins as friendly banter. It begins with just one tree, after all. The assumption is that both of their interests can be aligned. Rather than the Onceler consistently ignoring the Lorax, as in the book, there is a constant but ineffectual dialogue between them. There is an ever-present if feeble critique of Corporate Social Responsibility. One crappy song has the lines: “How bad can I be? I’m just building the economy. How bad can I be? A portion of proceeds goes to charity”. The Barbaloots and Swammy Swans are bribed with marshmallows and acquiesce rather than kicking up a fuss. The tree’s fall takes on a ritual quality, with the film acknowledging the step onto a slippery slope.

The Onceler’s once-responsible intentions get trampled once his family get involved. The innovator becomes an innovation system. Processes overtake ethics and the last tree falls soon after the first. The Onceler retreats to his castle to wallow, but we still see his face. He is no cigar-smoking monster.

The redemptive turn occurs with a seed. But whereas with the book, we are left with the seed and its possibilities, the film gives us a story of remediation. The trees are brought back to life. The Onceler’s desolate dystopia that lies outside the hermetically-sealed utopia in which boy and girl live is made natural again with the new trees and the nasty capitalist who wants to privatise the air are vanquished. We are left with a moral (“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not”) attributed not to the Lorax or the apologetic Onceler, but to Dr Seuss himself.

So the film’s cautionary tale has been buried and its corners chopped off. Some things have been added that speak to responsible innovation – the speed with which innovation can take society and the environment by surprise, the mutation of good intentions into bad outcomes, the failings of a CSR approach to engagement. The story could have been updated in interesting ways. Given the globalisation of environmental concerns over the last 40 years – global climate change has superseded local air and river pollution, but is ignored in the film – I suspect that the new Lorax tells us that US parents aren’t willing to be preached to by a cartoon.


UPDATE: Not really an update. More of an additional thought. Since the Lorax’s publication, there remain people who speak for the trees, but the number of people who claim, in some way, to speak for the environment, has exploded. And they speak in increasingly scientific terms. The new film’s remediation story makes it sound so easy – think local, act local. Maybe somebody needs to rewrite the book for the anthropocene. Julia Donaldson, ahem.

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GRC in Science and Technology Policy group photo

GRC in Science and Technology Policy group photo

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Why is PUS not open access?

Cobi Smith has got in touch to ask why PUS is not open access. I am on the editorial board for PUS, so I have some share of responsibility for decisions about such things. I thought she deserved a response. Indeed, she deserves a proper response, which I can’t give her. But it’s prompted some thoughts which I thought I would jot down at any rate.

Cobi has a really thoughtful blog post here about why PUS should be open access and why she took the decision to withdraw a paper from the journal. For those of us who have observed the open access debate for a while, it is heartening to see bottom-up agitation for open access in various ways. For me, the arguments for open access have always been obvious, and they have got stronger over time. (Here’s an old post). The arguments against open access have mostly been lazy, disingenuous or brazenly self-interested. The publishing industry have been allowed to drag their feet for too long.

When it comes to a particular journal, there are of course limits to what can be done. I can easily envisage an open access future, populated with new journals, journals that have adjusted and the corpses of those that couldn’t. But I’m not close enough to the action to see how the adjustment gets made. In the short term, there are risks of going hybrid – allowing some authors to pay for open access (with the benefits that accrue including wider readership and citation) while others can’t afford to. And the risk of turning completely open access is of losing an existing body of authors overnight. It would be easier, I think, to start a new journal.

If I have any sway (and I need to work out if indeed I do), I would say that the best thing for a regular journal to do is to clarify, emphasise and publicise an approach to green open access. Especially in the social sciences, where the speed of change is not so frenetic, I think it’s idiotic that all articles older than the usual embargo period (be that 6 months, a year or whatever) aren’t available and Googleable in institutional repositories or on personal web pages. The first thing I will do is check what the PUS policy is on this.

Cobi, you’re absolutely right. The social sciences need far more people like you to take a stand and make editors, journals and publishers think.

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Disorganised scepticism

I was on a radio 4 programme last night called ‘Reclaiming the sceptic’. It was pretty wide-ranging, as you would expect from something trying to track a theme such as ‘scepticism’ (we take ours with a c here). But I think the producer,Toby Murcott, held it together nicely and made a thoughtful contribution to a few debates that are often idiotic (I am thinking in particular of an appearance by James Delingpole on Radio 5 earlier in the day in which he subtracted from the sum of human knowledge by discussing sunspots and inclement weather).

My contribution to the piece was about what I called ‘disorganised scepticism’, to contrast with the Organised Scepticism described (or prescribed depending on who you believe) by Robert Merton. The programme shied away from climate issues, which is understandable given the tendency for all discussions involving climate change to become discussions about whether it is happening. But climate, and climategate in particular still provide the best possible example of disorganised scepticism in action and why it is important for scientists not to wish it away. This, by Jerry Ravetz and Mike Hulme, is great. 

Toby also wrote a piece for Research Fortnight on the topic, which is worth a look. 


(picture from

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