Science, politics and sport…..
By Katherine Aitchison, on 9 June 2011
Science Question Time is a brilliant feature of the festival where three or four speakers take time out from participating in their own session or chilling out in the green room to answer the public’s questions. I’ve been to two of these sessions now and they’ve both covered vastly different topics. The topics covered depend partly on the specialties of the panel but are also largely dictated by the interests of the audience as this really is your chance to ask the scientists anything. Tuesday’s session covered the robotics of warfare and the ethics of using drones to attack human soldiers, the cyclical nature of science reporting (apparently even the journalists are aware that they write the same stories year on year) and the factors involved in life expectancy.
Today, Question Time was chaired by Mark Lythgoe, director of both UCL’s Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging and the Cheltenham Festival. The discussion focussed more on the ethics around enhancing human biology and also the politics of science. The guests on the panel were Andy Miah, Professor of Ethics at the University of the West of Scotland, Mark Henderson, science editor for the Times newspaper, and Steve Haake, Professor of Sports Engineering at Sheffield Hallam University.
Mark Henderson kicks off proceedings by telling us about the book he’s currently writing which is concerned with the way science is often let down by politics. This clearly hits a nerve with the audience as there are murmurs of agreement around the room and when it comes time for the public debate, it is an issue which is brought up immediately. The burning question is how we as scientists can penetrate the Government in order to influence the way policy is made. The most important issue to address is the way in which evidence is used, said Mark Henderson; he said that it often appears that politicians want policy-based evidence as opposed to evidence-based policy, which raised more than a slight chuckle. He also said that it is important to establish a body whose job it is to audit the evidence used in policy making so that claims made by politicians can’t be faked. It seems to me that a regulatory body of this nature would be welcomed not only by scientists but also by the wider, public community, especially in this age of ‘transparency’.
The other big debate of the evening was the use of technology to improve life and especially technology in sport. Mark Lythgoe asked how many of the audience were in favour of bioengineering and the result was a fairly even split, with a few people like me who remain undecided. Although I admit to being divided my own worry is where to draw the line between improving life and augmenting humans “to better than normal”, which is a phrase used a lot throughout the session. Andy Miah made the point that many people fear that the use of bioengineering could make us all into cyborgs who no longer feel emotion but think only about how to remain alive. He reassured us that this will never happen and that we will use engineering to enable people to live richer, fuller and, yes, longer lives.
Another issue the audience has is to what extent it is fair to allow technology in sport and how the presence of this technology will alter the sports we know and love today. This is a question Steve Haake is well placed to answer and he begins by pointing out that some sports are already becoming reliant on technology and cites BMXing and snowboarding as two examples. He also makes a distinction between playing for pleasure and competitive sports where it is more important to keep things fair and tightly regulated. He describes the changes in sport since the Olympics first started and how technology has always been a driving force behind the games we play.
The only question that completely stumped the panel is one that I find particularly interesting. An audience member asks “What is the impact of this technology going to be on evolution?” The answer is complete silence from the audience and it is one which is hard to address. Technology will of course only affect evolution if it affects people’s ability to reproduce but what if people have children much later because fertility can be extended and lifespan is longer so there is more opportunity to have children? We could certainly see an effect on future generations but this effect (if there is one) is, as Mark Lythgoe points out, very hard to predict. It’s a sobering thought for a session (and indeed a festival) which has fuelled a lot of excitement around synthetic biology and bioengineering.
In closing the session Mark Lythgoe asks the panel to tell us their view of the future. They are unanimously positive and all point to technology as playing a major part in our future health and well-being. Andy Miah has the last word and he makes a very romantic point in saying that he feels we will all have the capability of pursuing our own notion of perfection whatever that may be.
It’s certainly a session that has, in true Cheltenham style, provided a lot of food for thought.