By Jon E Agar, on 13 October 2010
By Norma Morris, on 12 October 2010
There’s been an unusual opportunity over the last few weeks for scientists (and even some science policy buffs) to get involved in some practical efforts at science policy making. I am talking about the recent eruption of scientific political consciousness over expected cutbacks in government investment in research. Apart from the usual pronouncements from the Royal Society, anguished Vice-Chancellors and the like, there’s been a well aimed campaign from CaSE (Campaign for Science and Engineering) and a grass-roots movement ‘Science is Vital’.
The latter two are currently working together to organise a petition (26 000 signatures so far and still open for signing); held a rally in Whitehall (with STS and ex-STS participants –observers): and on Tuesday 12 October a mass lobby of Parliament. The activity itself is remarkable: veterans say it hasn’t happened since the ‘Save British Science’ movement, provoked by Mrs Thatcher’s cuts (and worse, her disrespect) in the nineteen-eighties. What I find interesting about the current campaign is that there is a glimmer of something more than affronted scientists fighting to preserve science’s authority and argue its benefits. I detect more of a political consciousness: science, especially after the investment of the past decade or more, recognises itself as an industry, that like other industries can be a political force. There is a new meaning to ‘the Science Vote’. Is this the ultimate manifestation of ‘epistemic drift’, following from Relevance, Accountability, Impact and all that? Or is the prospect of cuts and resulting campaign just a boundary object that enables a temporary alliance with science-based industry, and charitable funders reliant on a science budget subsidy, and politicians needing a cause to fight for, but with each component retaining its own unadulterated identity. Can the historians of science tell us if it was like this in the eighties – for example was the support of industrialists (as well as Nobelists) as important then as it is today?
Meanwhile, some links for the curious
Declaration of interest: I am a member of the CaSE Executive Committee
By Jon E Agar, on 7 October 2010
So, as Alice Bell hinted in her comment on the key concepts team’s recent post on the most influential people in UK science policy here on the STS Observatory, The Times produced its own list: the Eureka 100. It’s behind a pay-wall, but here it is:
- Paul Nurse
- Mark Walport
- Stephen Hawking
- Alex Jeffreys
- Jonathan Ive
- John Sulston
- David Attenborough (note!)
- Martin Rees (Astronomer Royal, President of the RS)
- Andre Geim (a very late entry, or just good timing?)
- Nancy Rothwell (VC of Manchester)
- John Rose (Rolls-Royce)
- Iain Lobban (director of GCHQ)
- Philip Campbell (Editor, Nature)
- Andrew Witty (on our list too, CEO of GSK)
- Jocelyn Bell Burnell (pulsars, a long time ago)
- John Beddington (GCSA)
- Richard Friend (plastics)
- David Mackay (CSA, Department of Energy and Climate Change)
- Ross Brawn (Formula 1, boys toys)
- John Bell (Oxford medical science)
- James Dyson (polulist inventor, Conservative advisor)
- Fred Sanger (Cambridge sequencer)
- Sally Davies (CMO)
- Brian Cox (not just a pretty face)
- Richard Dawkins (‘atheist campaigner’ ho ho)
- Wendy Hall (computer science)
- Paul Davies (SETI)
- Peter Mansfield (MRI scanning)
- Kay Davies (Oxford gene therapy)
- Martin Evans (stem cells)
- Simon Campbell (viagra)
- David Bulcombe (Cambridge botany)
- Simon Singh (science writer, accidental libel campaigner)
- Peter Higgs (of possible particle fame)
- Tim Hunt (Nobellist, cancer research)
- Mike Stratton (cancer research)
- Ann Dowling (Cambridge engineer)
- Harry Kroto (Nobellist, carbon)
- Anthony Hollander (stem cells)
- Chris Whitty (chief scientist, DFID)
- Andrew Wiles (top mathmo)
- John Houghton (IPCC)
- Phil Jones (UEA climate scientist)
- Kim Shillinglaw (BBC science head)
- David Brennan (CEO AstraZeneca)
- Greg Winter (Cambridge molecular biology/medicine)
- Leszek Borysiewicz (VC Cambridge)
- John Pendry (Imperial invisibility cloak)
- Steven Ley (Cambridge organic chemist)
- Adrian Owen (neuroscience)
- Hermann Hauser (cambridge IT)
- Tim Berners-Lee (WWW)
- Chris Stringer (very ancient humans)
- David King (ex-GCSA, pro-nuclear)
- Philip Cohen (Dundee biochemist, note recent Willetts speech)
- David Payne (optic fibres)
- John Young (Pfizer UK)
- Steven Cowley (Culham fusion)
- Harpal Kumar (on our list too, CEO Cancer Research UK)
- Peter Ratcliffe (Oxford medical science)
- Ian King (CEO BAE Systems - rather low?)
- Jim Virdee (CERN)
- Fiona Fox (Science Media Centre)
- Colin Blakemore (Oxford neuroscience – rather low too, or maybe had more influence under Labour?)
- Graham Richards (Isis Innovations)
- James Lovelock (Gaia, pro-nuclear)
- Peter Knight (quantum optics)
- John Browne (President of RAE, ex-BP)
- George Efstathiou (Cambridge astronomer)
- Adrian Smith (BIS civil servant)
- John Krebs (one of science’s great and good)
- John McCloskey (earthquakes)
- Heston Blumenthal (super science chef)
- Robin Millar (Association for Science Education)
- Simon Donaldson (mathematician)
- Marcus du Sautoy (popular mathematician)
- Ben Goldacre (bad science, bad hair)
- David Sainsbury (former science minister)
- David Nutt (former drugs advisor)
- Fiona Goldlee (editor, BMJ)
- Robert Winston (fertility)
- Steve O’Rahilly (Cambridge clinical biochem)
- Guang-zhong Yang (robotic surgery)
- Mark Welland (nano, CSA to MoD, should be much higher)
- Mike Richards (cancer research)
- Janet Thornton (genetics)
- Steve Sparks (volcanoes)
- Ottoline Leyser (plant genetics)
- Mark Miodownik(KCL materials)
- Michael Rawlins (chair of NICE)
- Callum Roberts (marine biology)
- John Armitt (Olympics engineer)
- Paul Smith (Millennium Seed Bank)
- Prince Charles (oh yes)
- Shankar Balasubramanian (sequencing)
- Sue Ion (BNFL)
- Paul Westerbury (more big tent engineering)
- Richard Fortey (writer, NHM)
- Steve Bramwell (magnetricity)
- Roy Anderson (remember foot and mouth?)
Plenty to talk about there. UCL does not do well in the Eureka 100 but does spectacularly well in the also-ran ‘just missed out’ column…
The list was chosen by Lord Waldegrave, Alice Bell, Dame Athene Donald and Dr Evan Harris.
By , on 4 October 2010
The key concepts group, meeting 4th July 2010, propose the following individuals:
David Cameron, David Willetts, George Osborne, Nick Clegg
Andrew Witty (CEO, GSK), Moncef Slaoui (ch, R&D, GSK)
Marja Makarow (CEO, European Science Foundation)
Bill and Melinda Gates
Mark Wolpert (Wellcome Trust)
David Lynn (head of strategic planning, Wellcome Trust)
Harpal Kumar (Cancer Research UK)
The editors of Nature, Science, The Economist
Archbishop of Canterbury
Who would you add? Is there anyone you would take away?
By , on 30 September 2010
This piece in The Guardian’s Lay Scientist blog on Monday, does a lot to remind us that there are still many scientists who are quick to bash the media for failing to communicate science ‘properly’.
Certainly useful as a teaching aide, if only to get our students who are studying science in the media to unpick why the way it represents science in the media is unfair, and where maybe it does make points with more merit. If nothing else it serves simply as a contemporary example of scientists’ unscientific characterisations of science in the media.
I wonder what the Science Media Centre would make of this view after all their many efforts over the past years?
By Steven Miller, on 9 March 2010
Modern philosophy of science is “thin, philosophy-lite”, according to a world-renowned academic. Helena Sheehan, who retired last year from Dublin City University, said she despaired of some of the philosophy-of-science papers she is now asked to referee.
Speaking last night in our seminar series, she said: “I am appalled at the lack of knowledge about the intellectual heritage of philosophy of science that I see around me today. It’s so thin.”
Professor Sheehan was particularly scathing about modern fashions that tackle miniscule questions. “At least during the ‘science wars’ of the 1990s, there were some big issues at stake about the reliability of science and the role of social forces in shaping it. I don’t see anything like that today.”
By Jon E Agar, on 3 February 2010
The MSc Science, Governance and the Public option students visited the Houses of Parliament (or rather Portcullis House) to witness the House of Commons Committee on Science and Technology in action.
The topic of the day was ‘The impact of spending cuts on science and scientific research’ and being quizzed were engineer and director of the Diamond Light facility Lord Broers, media star physicist Professor Brian Cox, director of the active lobby group Campaign for Science and Engineering Nick Dusic, ex-Oxford Instruments man and Vice-President of the Royal Society Sir Peter Williams, one of the chiefs of the MRC (Dr Tony Peatfield) and the heads of Technology Strategy Board (Iain Gray), STFC (Professor Michael Sterling), and Research Councils UK (Professor Alan Thorpe).
So what was learned? Here’s a few memorable moments.
- The £600 million cut in the pre-budget report came as a complete surprise to the head of the Research Councils
- Most of the heated discussion was about whether “impact” could or should be used to decide between research projects
- Brian Cox candidly said that impact can’t be measured, and when pushed to rate impact of research proposals the result was arbitrary and ‘damaging’
- Sterling, chair of the research council that funds UK big science, considers that impact is only relevant ‘at the margins’
- Lord Broers thinks that the best science in the past was done by scientists who have had an ‘interest in impact’. He cited Townes and the maser and Shockley, Brattain and Bardeen and the transistor as evidence
- Cox thought this was anecdotal. He offered Tim Berners-Lee and the web as counter-evidence – the inventor of the web had no thought of impact. He clearly had been watching Aleks Krotoski’s BBC4 doc Virtual Revolution earlier in the week
- The head of the Research Councils UK holds that the biggest advantage of encouraging early and ‘upfront’ statements of impact is that it encourages a certain mindset among researchers. In other words, to go Foucauldian on you for a second, impact is about governmentality. (There’s a social research paper in that insight… one with impact… I’m not joking…)
- There’s also a paper to be written about how past science administrations have coped in recessions. No-one asked could quite remember…
- It was interesting to see history of science being mobilised to support contemporary policy arguments. It was also clear, as Dusic said, that proper research could inform further debate
- Cox has done his homework. In particular he cited the findings of social science – specifically the SPRU science policy studies of Ben Martin and Ammon Salter – to defend the support of basic science
- Understandably all the panellists resisted the invitation to name fields or projects that might be at the bottom of the priority lists.
- Peter Williams of the Royal Society remained practically mute when pushed for advice about how to reform the STFC or how to prioritise research. The Royal Society, one suspects, prefers to lobby in private rather than offer its conclusions to a committee of public account
- The Haldane Principle lives (so says the head of RCUK)
- The chair of the Committee, the otherwise excellent Phil Willis, had the cheek to ask Brian Cox (ex-Defence: Research Engineering And Mathematics) whether he thought ‘things could only get better’. groans and embarassment followed.
By Jon E Agar, on 13 January 2010
I contributed to the In Our Time series on the history of the Royal Society, which were broadcast 4-7 January. You can hear them again here. I’m in episode four, on the twentieth century.
Melvyn Bragg’s conversation with Simon Schaffer, Lisa Jardine, Keith Moore and myself was recorded around the very large table in the Royal Society council room. You can hear the echoes.
Unlike the regular In Our Time programmes, the Royal Society programmes were not live. This one was recorded just before christmas. The editing is interesting. We talked for an hour and this raw discussion is cut down and re-edited.
The main topic that did not the make cut – even though we discussed it in some detail – was the first elections of women FRSs, fellows of the Royal Society, starting with Marjory Stephenson, Kathleen Lonsdale and Agnes Arber. I’m surprised at the deletion, given its significance for the Royal Society in the twentieth century. Note, though, that even now only 5% of FRSs are female.
By Jon E Agar, on 29 November 2009
How do we do something about climate change? At international level, progress is as slow as treacle – although we are waiting to see what might happen at Copenhagen. On an individual scale it seems that small steps are not enough. It’s easy to be despondent.
Which is why Franny Armstrong’s 10: 10 campaign is a breath of fresh air. The idea is that you sign up and commit to a 10% cut in carbon emissions in 2010. The clever bit is that the ‘you’ can be an individual, a business, or an organisation of any scale. And if enough ‘yous’ join in then we – the whole country – can achieve a ten percent cut.
As the 10:10 campaigners say: “By signing up to a 10% target we’re not just supporting 10:10 – we’re making it happen. In our homes, in our workplaces, our schools and our hospitals, our galleries and football clubs and universities, we’ll be backing each other up as we take the first steps on the road to becoming a zero-carbon society. It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of a huge problem like climate change, but by uniting everyone behind immediate, effective and achievable action, 10:10 enables all of us to make a meaningful difference.”
So let’s try to get UCL to sign up!
The roll call of people, businesses and organisations that have signed up to 10:10 is impressive. There are lots of good reasons why UCL should join: UCL is a beacon of public engagement, UCL would be the first 10:10 university and therefore be exemplifying its own commitment to global citizenship by taking a lead, and the 10:10 campaign’s HQ is in Camden and therefore on our doorstep.
Comment below if you want to join the ‘Let’s get UCL to sign up to 10:10′ campaign.
Let’s think of next steps too.
By Jon E Agar, on 2 November 2009
Two frontpage headline stories in today’s Guardian catch the eye. The bigger headline is ‘Drug experts in mass revolt over sacking’. The smaller one is ‘World leaders accused of myopia over climate deal’
Both report controversies over the proper relationship of scientific evidence to political action. In the first story, two experts have resigned from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs following the sacking from the same body of Professor David Nutt by the home secretary, Alan Johnson. Nutt was angered by the fact that decisions on the classification of drugs did not follow the evidence of harm presented by the Advisory Council. When Nutt publicly quarrelled with the decisions he was asked to go. ”You cannot have a chief adviser at the same time stepping into the public field and campaigning against government decisions”, said Johnson, “You can do one or the other, but not both”.
In the second story, Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which collates and channels scientific advise on global warming, accused politicians of “political myopia”: “I gave all the world’s leaders a very grim view of what the science tells us and that is what should be motivating us all, but I’m afraid I don’t see to much evidence of that at the current stage”.
Why do I feel Nutt is wrong and Pachauri is right, when both complain that politicians are not following a clearly expressed scientific consensus?
In the drugs case, there is a clear distinction between science and politics. I think it is absolutely right that the advisers present their scientific findings and then the home secretary can take a decision on classification that is contrary. The decision is a political one. It would help if the definitions of what the classifications (class A, class B etc) are were clearly political rather than partly physiological, but that is another matter. I don’t believe that the scientific consensus has not been fairly considered, it’s just that the political factors (for example not upsetting the editor of the Daily Mail by appearing to be soft on drugs) are more important. However, Johnson is in the wrong to complain that independent academic scientists, especially those who are privileged to be able to offer direct advice, should not also speak publicly. His reaction was a hot-headed misfire - a worrying one from a politician I had previously identified as future prime minister material. I wouldn’t like to see such decisions made in the heat of anger if the question was whether to declare war or not…
In the global warming case, I don’t think that many of the world’s politicians are fairly considering the scientific consensus. Therefore, in this critical period in the run up to Copenhagen, Pachauri is entirely justified in speaking out.