Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The rise of scientific activism

A couple of weeks ago I heard Mark Henderson speak about his new book, the Geek Manifesto. He has recently been appointed Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust, but was previously the science editor for the Times. Henderson's central thesis is that science should play a bigger role in politics, and that those of us who are scientifically-minded should become more political to ensure this. We should be writing to our MPs to push the scientific agenda. Scientific process should be used to determine policy. The scientific consensus should be presented as "expert evidence", and ill-informed and incorrect science should not. He proposes the establishment of an Office for Scientific Responsibility, an independent body which would hold MPs to account for their assurances of scientific evidence in the House of Commons.

I've never written a letter to an MP. Even after hearing Mark speak I don't plan to. I think there are better ways to push a scientific agenda, many of which have been growing in the last decade. Henderson complains that  only 1 in 650 MPs has a scientific background. But what he doesn't mention is that the House of Lords is a different story. Of the 825 peers, about 700 are there because of their achievements outside the House. This includes accomplished medics and scientists along with the expected collection of lawyers, politicians and business-people. Many Lords are crossbenchers, and therefore do not expressly support any political party. The Lords, like the House of Commons, has a Science and Technology Committee. Unlike the House of Commons committee the Lords committee contains distinguished lecturers and scientific minds, including John Krebs (a zoologist), Alec Broers (an engineer), Narendra Patel (an obstetrician), and Martin John Rees (president of the Royal Society). I'm against Lords reform for precisely this reason. I want people like this to look at every bill and decide if it passes muster before being passed into law. MPs are often chest-thumping, highly politicized line-toers, but the Lords are not. They are the measured voice of reason. The Lords is full of smart people who have genuine political power. Let's keep it that way.

The government also gets scientific advice from independent science advisers. Last week Radio 4 had an interview with Robert May, the Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government from 1995-2000. He's exactly the kind of person we, as scientists, want to have an influence on politics. I've written about some of his work in a previous post, but his contributions to the fields of ecology, mathematics, and theoretical physics are outstanding. His job as Chief Scientific Adviser was, in his own words, to "speak truth to power". He advised the government through the first death from variant CJD, the human disease caused by the prions found in cows with BSE. He then advised the government through the public uprising against genetically modified foods. Since the GM debate took off shortly after the first CJD death, I don't think GM ever had much of a chance in the UK. People were just too worried that their food was going to kill them. But during his time there he set up a protocol for giving scientific advice to the government. When something important comes along, the government should seek the best scientists in that field to give advice. They should deliberately include dissenting voices. They should do it in the open, and they should emphasize the uncertainties. That protocol was excellent advice from an outstanding scientist. By the way, he's also a Lord.

Perhaps due to issues such as BSE and GM crops, scientific activism and public engagement in science is on the rise. The "lay summary" required by virtually all granting bodies is becoming more and more important. In the last month, scientists protested against the "death of British science" in a rather over-the-top and uncharacteristically childish march to Downing Street. I don't think it was particularly productive and I don't support these types of protests, but I do think it's a sign that scientists are getting more political. More importantly, anti-science protesters who were trying to dig up an important GM research site at Rothamsted were stopped by a bunch of pro-science protectors. The Rothamsted site is purely a research site, not a commercial site. It has been measuring the effects of agriculture since 1843, and is therefore one of the longest running agricultural and environmental experiments in existence. The scientists' appeal to the protesters on youtube has over 30,000 hits. Organizations like Sense about Science, which provides scientific advice to anyone who's looking for it, are one of our best tools in the pro-scientific movement. They are independent and respected, and look for ways to expand public understanding through targeted campaigns as well as by answering individual questions. Scientists should support them. They provide a means for us to promote libel reform, engage with protesters in a productive way, and ensure our voices get heard. Organizations with strong public support such as the Royal Society, the Medical Research Council, and the Wellcome Trust should follow their example.  And we should all get behind them.

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