Politics. Perception. Philosophy. And Physics.

Today is the start of the new academic year at the University of Nottingham (UoN) and, as ever, it crept up on me and then leapt out with a fulsome “Gotcha”. Summer flies by so very quickly. I’ll be meeting my new 1st year tutees this afternoon to sort out when we’re going to have tutorials and, of course, to get to know them. One of the great things about the academic life is watching tutees progress over the course of their degree from that first “getting to know each other” meeting to when they graduate.

The UoN has introduced a considerable number of changes to the “student experience” of late via its Project Transform process. I’ve vented my spleen about this previously but it’s a subject to which I’ll be returning in the coming weeks because Transform says an awful lot about the state of modern universities.

For now, I’m preparing for a module entitled “The Politics, Perception and Philosophy of Physics” (F34PPP) that I run in the autumn semester. This is a somewhat untraditional physics module because, for one thing, it’s almost entirely devoid of mathematics. I thoroughly enjoy  F34PPP each year (despite this amathematical heresy) because of the engagement and enthusiasm of the students. The module is very much based on their contributions — I am more of a mediator than a lecturer.

STEM students are sometimes criticised (usually by Simon Jenkins) for having poorly developed communication skills. This is an especially irritating stereotype in the context of the PPP module, where I have been deeply impressed by the quality of the writing the students submit. As I discuss in the video below (an  overview of the module), I’m not alone in recognising this: articles submitted as F34PPP coursework have been published in Physics World, the flagship magazine of the Institute of Physics.

 

In the video I note that my intention is to upload a weekly video for each session of the module. I’m going to do my utmost to keep this promise and, moreover, to accompany each of those videos with a short(ish) blog post. (But, to cover my back, I’ll just note in advance that the best laid schemes gang aft agley…)

Left in the lurch? On Corbyn, comedy and credibility

This arrived in the post at the beginning of July:

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Yep, I signed up to vote for Jeremy Corbyn in the upcoming Labour leadership elections. (Here’s how to join, if you’re interested. It’s a quick and entirely painless process.) If you’re a UK resident, and unless you’ve been living in an alternate reality for the past month — in, for example, a parallel universe whose inhabitants still give a toss about Tony Blair’s proclamations — you’ll know that Corbyn has had a meteoric rise to the top of the Labour leaders’ board. Yesterday he was named as the bookies’ favourite, at 5-4 odds; six weeks ago he was a 100-1 outsider. This is the “biggest price fall in political betting history” according to William Hill.

This eloquent and compelling piece lays out many of the reasons why I’m voting for Corbyn. (It doesn’t, however, mention that he’s a staunch republican, having petitioned Blair to remove the Royal family from Buckingham Palace and place them in “more modest” accomodation. For that alone he’d get my vote. (And, yes, before you ask, I know about the homeopathy thing. Bear with me, I’ll get to it in a future post.)).

But according to a slew of articles in The Guardian and The Observer over the last few weeks, I’m a narcissistic, deluded, reactionary, dogmatic, immature, head-in-sand (and foot-in-sandal), tribal, ideologically-driven, confused lefty dinosaur for even beginning to entertain the slightest inkling of an idea that Corbyn’s leadership challenge might possibly be a good thing for not only the Labour party but for the entire country.

I’ve got used to reading those articles over my bowl of muesli in the mornings but Wednesday’s Guardian upped the ante just that little bit too far. In a piece claiming that Corbyn was humourless for having the temerity to say that, should he win, he’d like Lennon’s Imagine played at his victory rally, Jason Sinclair — yeah, me neither — made the truly remarkable claim that “We demand our politicians can display their common sense by telling good jokes“.

Errmm, what?

No, really. What?

It turns out that Sinclair, a copywriter, is responsible for the @corbynjokes Twitter feed, the focus of the article he wrote for The Guardian. To be fair to Sinclair, his feed generated one OK joke. This one:

Sinclair must have been spending quite some time in his own peculiar parallel universe, however, if he thinks that politicians tell good jokes. Either that or his threshold for what he considers good comedy is startlingly low. (Perhaps he moonlights as a Radio 4 sitcom writer?)

I’m going with the latter explanation. Here’s why. Another line from Sinclair’s article…

“Boris Johnson is a major political force in part because he has passable comic delivery.”

Hmmm. No politician, including Johnson, has ever made me laugh as a result of their comic delivery. And I’m not talking about gut-busting, tears rolling down cheeks, rolling on the floor laughter. Nor a hearty chuckle. Or even a knowing, spontaneous giggle. Indeed, I’d be more than happy if a politician’s joke could coerce even a weak smile from me every now and again. Instead, politicians’ attempts at humour are invariably so arse-clenchingly, toe-curlingly, cringe-makingly, gob-smackingly embarrassing that my natural reaction is to die a little inside on their behalf.

Now, the explanation for my lack of appreciation of, as Sinclair would have it, the natural comedic flair of our political class could be, of course, that I’m a dour, humourless, bearded lefty gobshite who is genetically incapable of cracking a smile occasionally. While I’d freely admit that grumpiness is not exactly a stranger to me, there are quite a few exceptionally talented writers out there whose well-observed, intelligent, witty, and original insights regularly crack me up. One of these is Charlie Brooker, who has written a wonderfully acerbic weekly column for the Guardian for many years. Here’s what Brooker had to say about a certain tousle-haired toss..  politician back in 2008:

On May 1 London chooses its mayor, and I’ve got a horrible feeling it might pick Boris Johnson for similar reasons. Johnson – or to give him his full name, Boris LOL!!!! what a legernd!! Johnson!!! – is a TV character loved by millions for his cheeky, bumbling persona. Unlike the cartoon MP, he’s magnetically prone to scandal, but this somehow only makes him more adorable each time. Tee hee! Boris has had an affair! Arf! Now he’s offended the whole of Liverpool! Crumbs! He used the word “picaninnies”! Yuk yuk! He’s been caught on tape agreeing to give the address of a reporter to a friend who wants him beaten up! Ho ho! Look at his funny blond hair! HA HA BORIS LOL!!!! WHAT A LEGERND!!!!!!

Copywriters are not exactly renowned for their originality. Like many of their colleagues in marketing and advertising, they have a reputation for churning out retreads of bland boilerplate with little or no creative copy. (See Private Eye, passim). This might help explain why Sinclair’s expectations when it comes to insightful and intelligent comedy are so low – he’s working in a field where wit is the exception rather than the norm.

Marketing, advertising, and copywriting are too often the living dead embodiment of style over substance, responsible for the type of banal bollocks designed to appeal to those who are entirely at ease with cliched, vacuous tripe, i.e. New Labour’s (and the Blairites’) stock-in-trade.

I prefer some substance to my politics. And to my comedy.

Here’s Bill Hicks on the subject of marketing.

Should I stay or should I go now? The postdoc mobility myth

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First published at physicsfocus.

Far back in the mists of time, in the great and glorious days of Britpop, Forrest Gump, and John Major’s “Back to Basics”, I was a postdoc[1]. It was my first postdoctoral position after completing my PhD at Dublin City University in late 1993 and I loved the research I was doing, the working environment, and the camaraderie and teamwork of the Nottingham group.

But I hated the underlying volatility of the post.

After completing a two-year postdoc, I was funded by consecutive short-term contracts. At any time the funding stream could have dried up, and I would have had to move on. I got lucky: I secured a permanent lectureship post after three years at Nottingham and I’ve stayed there ever since – the School of Physics and Astronomy is a fantastic place to work.

I know for a fact, however, that the research ‘outputs’ I had in 1997 – enough for a lectureship at the time – wouldn’t get me within sniffing distance of a shortlist today. The bar has been raised dramatically for postdocs over the intervening years. Increasingly, the route to a permanent academic position involves first winning a fellowship through a highly competitive process.

One of the factors which is very often taken into consideration when selecting for both fellowship and lectureship positions is the “mobility” of the candidate. Indeed, the Leverhulme Trust now explicitly states in its advice to applicants that mobility is a key criterion: “Priority will be given to applicants who show evidence of mobility during their academic careers to date.”

The blunt statement that mobility will be used as a criterion in selecting fellows – with no attempt to qualify this in terms of the personal circumstances of the applicant – reveals some worryingly simplistic and out-dated thinking from the Trust. They are not alone, of course, in assuming that mobility must necessarily be an advantage for a researcher, as this recent article points out in the context of EU funding programmes. The arguments about mobility in that piece resonated with me because I coordinate a Marie Curie Initial Training Network (ITN) project which funds 14 early-career researchers across six countries. Researcher mobility for ITN projects is not only advantageous from the point of view of the European Commission, it’s essential – I can’t employ a UK national on a Marie Curie ITN contract in Nottingham. (Can someone please make sure that this nugget of EU funding policy wings its way to Nigel Farage? I want to watch him spontaneously self-combust…)

The argument that is often made – and which was voiced during a lengthy twitter debate with my Head of School[2] and others on this topic yesterday – is that a postdoc, let’s say Dr. Globetrotter, who has moved from group to group is likely to have greater drive, motivation, and scientific independence than her colleague, Dr. Stayen-Putt, who has remained at the same institution throughout her undergrad, postgrad, and postdoctoral career.

I really don’t buy this argument at all.

Skewing the selection process towards candidates who are willing to ‘up sticks’ and move to a new group every few years immediately disadvantages – and, at worst, discriminates against – those whose personal circumstances and family commitments mean that they do not have the freedom to move. I, for one, would not have been willing to disrupt my children’s lives on a regular basis simply so I could demonstrate a commitment to mobility to a fellowship panel. And I find it rather insulting that this could have been interpreted as a lack of scientific drive, motivation, and independence.

The assumption that scientific independence correlates positively with mobility also needs to be challenged. There is no evidence at all that a postdoc who has been in the same institution for their entire career is any less scientifically independent, or any less scientifically motivated, than a researcher who clocks up the air miles. Indeed, I can think of reasons why there could be a negative correlation between mobility and scientific independence – it takes considerable time to establish oneself at a new institution, to learn to interact with a new group of colleagues, and to work out how you can carve out a niche to “make a mark”.

Moreover, there’s a rather straightforward, pragmatic reason why mobility may not be conducive to establishing scientific independence. Experimental physics is not easy – the ‘kit’ is often complicated and frustratingly temperamental (particularly for non-commercial systems which the researcher has built themselves). If the experimental infrastructure in an institution is very well-matched to a researcher’s scientific goals it would be perverse for them to move simply so that they can tick the mobility box.

And finally, the wonders of the interwebs mean that researchers are connected like never before. In this context, the Leverhulme Trust’s focus on mobility as a criterion in awarding fellowships is particularly quaint, given the extent to which research groups now network and interact virtually.

Image: Britpop, an automatic association with the early 90s – but the bar has been raised for postdocs since then. Credit: Danny PiG/Flickr. Reproduced under a Creative Commons licence.

[1] …and a Douglas Adams fan.

[2] My P45 is in the post.

The laws of physics are undemocratic

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Yesterday saw the start of the Circling the Square conference at the University of Nottingham. This is a rather unusual meeting which has the lofty aim of bringing together social scientists, those in the arts and humanities, policy ‘wonks’ (for want of a better term), science communicators, and natural scientists (including physicists, of course) to discuss the various interconnected aspects of research, politics, media, and impact.

As one of the conference organisers, I was delighted that the first day featured fascinating keynote lectures, lively discussion, and a rather heated exchange amongst panellists (more on this below). In the afternoon, two of the UK’s most successful science bloggers, David Colquhoun and physicsfocus’s own Athene Donald, gave their thoughts and opinions on the role of new and old media in science communication, debating and discussing the issues with the other panel members – Felicity Mellor and Jon Turney – and a number of contributors from the floor. Andrew Williams’ media keynote lecture preceded the “Researchers facing the media” panel session and was full of important and troublesome insights into just how science can be distorted (for good or bad) through the lens of the media.

But it was the first panel session of the conference, on the science-policy interface, that got me somewhat hot under the collar. (Well, OK, I was wearing a t-shirt so perhaps this isn’t the best metaphor…). That’s because that particular panel provided a telling insight into the gulf that still exists between natural and social scientists when it comes to the interpretation and contextual underpinnings of scientific data. Until we find a way to reconcile views spanning this gulf then we’re going to continue to exist in our silos, as two distinct cultures, arguably even more divided within the sciences than CP Snow could ever have envisaged for our separation from the arts and humanities.

The panel featured a ‘robust’ exchange of views – if you’ll excuse my borrowing of a hoary old euphemism – on the interpretation of scientific data and just how it is used to inform political debate and decisions. Chris Tyler, of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, forcefully put forward his view that we can never consider scientific results in isolation from the political process. Sheila Jasanoff, Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Harvard, had earlier made very similar comments in the light of engaging presentations made by Daniele Fanelli and Beth Taylor on the interface between scientific research and policymaking. The overall tone of the debate is perhaps best summed up in this tweet from Roger Pielke (who is also speaking at the conference today in the “Challenging Established Science” panel):

Fanelli made an impassioned argument countering the idea that scientific evidence must always be considered in the context of its political framing. His comments certainly resonated with me, and I’d be rather surprised if what he said didn’t also strike a chord with the other physical/life scientists in the audience. We spend our lives aiming to do experiments in as disinterested a fashion as possible. It therefore rankles to be told that objective – and I use that word unashamedly – scientific evidence is nothing more than opinion.

For my colleagues in sociology and science and technology studies, I should stress that I am not for one second suggesting that scientists are immune to social biases. John Ziman, physicist-turned-sociologist, rightly disparaged the idea that scientists are always disinterested seekers of the truth, describing it as “the Legend”. Nor am I suggesting that data interpretation is not part and parcel of the scientific method (as Neuroskeptic argues convincingly).

The discussion yesterday, however, dangerously strayed very close at times to the ‘cultural relativism’ that was so successfully lampooned by Alan Sokal back in the nineties. Yes, scientific evidence must be considered as just one element – and, unfortunately, it’s often a very small element – of the political process. It would be naïve, at best, to argue otherwise. But the entire rationale for scientific research is underpinned by the understanding that we, as scientists, should always aim to put aside those socio-political and cultural biases. Otherwise, objective scientific evidence is reduced to pure opinion. Newton’s laws of motion, E=mc2, the Schrödinger equation, the speed of light, and the first and second laws of thermodynamics are not culturally or politically determined. Those same laws are just as valid for a race of small blue furry creatures from Alpha Centauri as they are for us.

Or, as Sokal famously put it,

“…anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)”

Image: The Shard in London, currently the European Union’s tallest building and a prime location to test the idea that the laws of gravity are merely an opinion. Credit: https://www.maxpixel.net/Skyscraper-Shard-Architecture-London-Landmark-949752 

The spirit-crushing impact of impact

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A couple of years ago I contributed a chapter entitled “Science as a Public Good” to a book called A Manifesto for the Public University, edited by John Holmwood, a colleague in the School of Sociology and Social Policy here in Nottingham. As a prelude to the following diatribe   cri de coeur reasoned dissection of the impact agenda, here’s the opening paragraph from that chapter (you can read both the chapter and, indeed, the entire book, for free via the preceding links):

“I have a confession to make. It’s a difficult admission in the current funding climate for academics in the UK, but here it is: I am a scientist. Not an engineer. Not a technologist. And certainly not an entrepreneur. I pursue basic research into fundamental questions about the properties of matter on a variety of different length scales (ranging, in my case, from sub-atomic to sub-millimetre dimensions), in common with a very large number of my colleagues working in the physical and life sciences in British universities. Whether or not this research can be translated into a marketable product, exploited as profitable intellectual property (IP), or applied in technology is not what motivates me. My motivation, again in common with the majority of academic scientists in the UK,1 lies in improving our understanding of nature, generating (not protecting) new knowledge, and disseminating my findings to other scientists, students and society at large.”

Clare Burrage, a Royal Society University Fellow in the Particle Theory Group at Nottingham – and, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, a fellow participant in the Royal Society MP-Scientist pairing scheme – managed to distil the essence of the paragraph above into a pithy one-sentence question following a presentation by Alexandra Saxon, Head of Research Council UK’s Strategy Unit, in Westminster on Tuesday afternoon this week.

Before I reveal Clare’s question, here’s a slide which is wholly representative of the content of Alexandra’s talk:

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The entire focus of the RCUK presentation was on engagement with business and industry. (It’s worth noting that this was given to a room-full of scientists). Fundamental science that didn’t link to some aspect of commercialisation or direct socioeconomic impact didn’t get a look-in.

Clare’s question following the presentation neatly summed up the feelings of quite a few in the room. I had to struggle to maintain my usual dignified silence (*cough*) and not cheer out loud when Clare asked this:

“I’m a researcher working on theoretical particle physics – where do I fit in?”

To be fair to Alexandra, she, along with a number of other RCUK representatives, regularly faces the music in front of crowds of academics and it is to her, and her colleagues’, immense credit that there is a strong willingness to engage with disgruntled academics. It’s a shame, however, that the willingness to interact with rank-and-file academics sometimes isn’t quite as evident further up the chain of the RCUK hierarchy. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, for example, has recently had its wrist slapped about failures to consult sufficiently with academics about its policies (but, again to its credit, has implemented policy changes to deal with this criticism).

Alexandra’s talk was certainly not the first time the spectre of impact reared its head during the days we spent in Westminster. The previous day’s panel featuring Robert Winston, Alan Malcolm, and Chris Tyler amongst others, also touched on the subject of the impact agenda.

I’ve heard the justifications as to why academics should embrace the impact agenda, including those offered by Robert Winston and Alexandra Saxon, countless times before. Let’s take a look at the five most common reasons used to incentivise scientists about impact:

1. Without the impact agenda, the science budget would have been cut dramatically – the flat-cash settlement we have ‘enjoyed’ over the last few years would not have been possible. Anti-impact sentiment threatens the science budget.

First, there is a very troublesome aspect of this argument which suggests that academics should keep their heads well below the parapet and just be happy that they have been protected from the vicious spending cuts imposed across the rest of the public sector. I’ve previously described this as a supine position to adopt, and, without wanting to open old wounds, I remain of that opinion. If academics see problems with just how the research councils distribute funding then it is highly questionable to suggest that they should put those concerns to one side so as not to affect the funding flow. Whatever happened to the traditional university role of speaking truth to power?

The broader point, however, is that expecting academics, regardless of their discipline, to describe the socioeconomic impact of their work in advance of the research project being carried out is antithetical to the exploratory nature of fundamental research. As the University of Nottingham put it in a response to a consultation on the introduction of economic impact criteria into the peer review process back in 2007:

“[This] appears to fly in the face of the purpose of “research” within universities … could stifle highly imaginative, original and creative work, or lead to dubious, often irrefutable, claims in many areas of science – especially fundamental/“blue skies” research.

(Sorry to be so parochial – you can find very similar statements from Cambridge and Glasgow, for example, in the chapter from A Manifesto for the Public University linked to above).

Moreover, why is asking academics to fill in a Pathways to Impact statement (and, for EPSRC, an account of National Importance) at the proposal stage, i.e. prior to starting a research project, the best way to demonstrate the socioeconomic impact of research to government?

2. You’re a publicly funded academic. You can’t just stay in your ivory tower – you have to think about the societal impact of your work.

If there’s one justification for the impact agenda that really gets my goat and grinds my gears, it’s this one. The impact agenda, for the reasons detailed in that chapter from AMPU, was not introduced because the research councils/HEFCE/government suddenly became extremely concerned that not enough academics were engaging with the public. It was introduced as a direct response to a series of government reports on the need to change the culture in university departments so as to make academia more responsive to business and industry needs.

I, along with a significant majority of my colleagues, am intensely aware of my obligations as a publicly funded academic, and spend a significant amount of time on public engagement and outreach. For example, when I finish writing this I’m boarding a train to Loughborough to give a talk to a school there on the relationship between rock music and quantum physics. (I’ll also not pass up this opportunity to plug Brady Haran’s channels, and Sixty Symbols in particular).

One can also very easily make the counter-argument that, by incentivising academics to interact closely with business and industry, the disinterested and independent qualities of academic research are being progressively eroded. That is, the impact agenda, like many aspects of the coalition government’s policies is not about improving the public good character of university science at all: it’s about making the public sector responsive to private business.

I am, of course, not for one minute suggesting that all academic-industry collaborations are compromised by the need to improve the company’s bottom line. Nonetheless, there are some shocking examples of where academic research has been distorted badly due to commercial pressures. I referred yesterday to the tagline of George Monbiot’s recent article: “Government policy in Britain, Canada and Australia is crushing academic integrity on behalf of corporate power”. The impact agenda certainly doesn’t help to bolster the integrity of academic research in the face of commercial pressures.

3. The government expects a return on its investment in university research.

Richard Jones, PVC for Research and Innovation at the University of Sheffield, has pointed out that the key reason why there is intense pressure on UK academics to demonstrate the impact of their work is that private sector investment in R&D in the UK (as a percentage of GDP) heavily lags behind that of other OECD nations. Thus, academia is expected to pick up the slack for this lack of investment from the private sector.

The key thing here is that fundamental scientific research is but one component of a highly complex innovation ecosystem. Although the motivation for academics to carry out basic, so-called curiosity-driven science is very often not the economic impact of the work – we instead are focussed on understanding fundamental aspects of nature – it is clear that the most disruptive innovations are exceptionally unlikely to stem from work which is focused on near-market impact. In this sense, by progressively skewing the research base towards commercial, near-market R&D, the total return on government investment may well be damaged, not enhanced.

Expecting academics to handle all aspects of the innovation system – from fundamental research to manufacturing and “product to market” – is in any case an exceptionally naïve strategy. Andre Geim pointed out in the Guardian earlier this week that perhaps the government should look somewhere other than the universities when apportioning blame for the so-called “valley of death” between fundamental research and commercial exploration. Jones has made this argument convincingly for quite some time.

Moreover, an exceptionally important – arguably, the most important – contribution to the return on investment for government spending on university science is the “human capital” we produce. David Willetts clearly recognised this when he spoke of the “absorptive capacity” of our society and innovation systems shortly after the Coalition government came to power.

4. “But it’s not all about economic impact – public engagement is impact as well.”

It is laudable that the research councils recognise that public engagement and outreach are essential components of the impact agenda. Why then do RCUK representatives focus so heavily on links with business and industry? In the talk on Tuesday – and this is true of very many other talks from research council representatives I’ve seen – lip service, at best, is paid to the remarkably inspiring fundamental science stemming from UK academia. Geim and Novoselov’s Nobel prize-winning discovery of graphene – and the government’s investment in commercialisation of the carbon wunderkind – are regularly highlighted without mention that graphene stemmed not from the impact agenda or directed programmes of the type to which EPSRC is now fully committed, but from exploratory, curiosity-driven fundamental science with no commercial application in mind.

One could also ask why, if EPSRC, for example, is so committed to public engagement, it no longer has a dedicated budget to fund public engagement projects.

5. “We’re just as committed to fundamental science as we ever were”

Lilian Greenwood, the MP with whom Clare Burrage and myself are paired in the Royal Society scheme, asked an excellent question of David Willetts yesterday morning during the Business, Innovation, and Skills questions session:

“Does the Minister agree that investing in fundamental research is vital to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers and to create conditions for the serendipitous discoveries of the future?”

David Willetts responded:

I completely agree with the Honourable Lady, which is why the Government support fundamental research. Only last week I went to the launch of £250 million of public money for centres of doctoral training run by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council”

Similarly, research council and HEFCE representatives repeatedly claim that there has been no change in their support of fundamental research.

The key question here is just what is meant by fundamental research. It is interesting that each and every one of the new Centres for Doctoral Training to which Willetts refers has industrial partners (as compared to 50% of CDTs involving industrial collaboration in the previous round). Moreover, there was a very strong steer from EPSRC that those CDTs should have training programmes “co-created” with industry. One might reasonably ask just what Mr. Willetts, BIS, RCUK, and HEFCE understand by the term “fundamental research”.

As I’ve also harped on about previously, it is rather difficult to understand RCUK’s commitment to fundamental research when the #1 tip in its Top Ten list of tips on how to complete a grant application is “Draft the impact summary very early in your preparation, so that it informs the design of your research”. That’s a great piece of advice if you’re writing a proposal to do applied, near-market research, or R&D for a company. It’s certainly not how fundamental science proceeds. Indeed, one could credibly argue that it’s a distortion of the scientific method.

This has been a long (but cathartic!) post, for which my apologies. I would like to close by stating that I’m aware that a lot of what I’ve written above could prompt strong responses. I would welcome the opportunity to debate these issues in the comments section below. Given RCUK’s and HEFCE’s commitment to public accountability in all areas of research, comments from research/funding council representatives would be particularly welcome.

Image: The molecular structure of graphene. The “wonder material” was discovered from curiosity-driven fundamental science without a commercial application in mind. Credit: Dr Thomas Szkopek

 

Maybe, Minister: Can politics and science ever speak the same language?

 

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Along with 35 other scientists (including my colleague Clare Burrage here at Nottingham), I have been at Westminster for the past few days as part of this year’s Royal Society MP-Scientist pairing scheme. Clare and I are paired with our local MP, Lilian Greenwood, and spent some time yesterday shadowing Lilian during a number of her meetings at Westminster. In the not-too-distant future we’ll also accompany Lilian while she meets with some of her South Nottingham constituents.

I’m going to save a description of the Westminster shadowing process – and the frankly unedifying experiencing of witnessing Prime Minster’s Questions “in the raw” for the first time – for a later post. I will say for now, however, that notwithstanding the bear pit that is PMQs, I thoroughly enjoyed the Westminster experience and, for reasons I’ll come back to in the future, found it rather humbling at times.

The tour of the Houses of Parliament on the first day was particularly fascinating and educational for me, given that quite a bit of my knowledge of the English monarchy has been gleaned from episodes of Blackadder. (I’m Irish and our curriculum at primary and secondary school didn’t focus too heavily on the minutiae of the succession of English monarchs. Oliver Cromwell, on the other hand, tended to pop up quite regularly during history lessons…).

What I want to discuss in this first post on the Pairing Scheme, however, are a couple of questions which were raised repeatedly in talks and panel discussions on Monday and Tuesday: what role does scientific advice play in politics, and is evidence-based policy always a realistic aspiration? These are uncomfortable questions for scientists because they cut to the core of our ‘value system’ and force us to consider the plethora of uncontrolled, and fundamentally uncontrollable, ‘non-scientific’ variables which underpin the political system. Simply presenting the evidence is not enough.  (It was also a bit of an eye-opener to find that the term “evidence” need not necessarily mean evidence as a scientist would understand it; often it can mean opinion.)

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We heard from a variety of speakers and panellists who are at the heart of the process of translating scientific evidence and scientific opinion/consensus to policy. The introduction to science in parliament by Chris Tyler on Monday afternoon and the subsequent panel discussion were both particularly enlightening. To get a good insight into the general flavour of Tyler’s comments, it’s worth reading this article in the Guardian which, coincidentally, was also published on Monday. Although I suspect that Chris and I would disagree rather strongly on the matter of the RCUK and HEFCE impact ‘agenda’ (lots more on this in my post tomorrow), there’s an awful lot in that article in the Guardian with which I would concur: “Science for policy” and “policy for science” are certainly very different things (today’s post deals with the former, tomorrow’s post with the latter); policy makers aren’t intrinsically driven by, or even particularly interested in, science because there is (a lot) more to policy than scientific evidence; let’s not condescendingly dismiss politicians’ ability to understand scientific uncertainty; and economics and law are much, much higher up the ‘pecking order’ than science.

This latter point was raised on quite a number of occasions. On Tuesday morning, Jill Rutter, Programme Director of the Institute for Government, presented some illuminating statistics on the distribution of the degree backgrounds of the permanent secretaries. As you might expect, economics, law, history, the humanities and the social sciences featured heavily. The life and physical sciences languish at the bottom of the list, occupying a tiny sliver of the pie chart. To hammer this point home, Rutter pointed out that only one person in the current cabinet did some science at degree level: Dr. Vince Cable. Even then, Cable apparently only did two years before swapping to economics.

In common with the vast majority of the talks and panels we attended on the first two days of the week in Westminster, Rutter’s presentation was refreshingly open and honest. She made very convincing arguments regarding the interplay of “technocracy” and politics, pointing out that the big difference between government and academia is that government needs to make decisions. Rutter also stressed that there are very few issues where science or evidence dictate government action, listing such concerns and criteria as cost-benefit analysis/spending prioritisation, political/ethical acceptability, legality, and implementability.

If anything, the presentation which followed – from David MacKay, Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) to the Department of Energy and Climate Change – was even more “transparent” (if you’ll excuse the lift from the political lexicon). MacKay gave an engaging and fascinating insight into his work as a CSA pointing out, amongst many other things, the exceptionally important role of lobbyists and the at times difficult relationship of CSAs with the media. I must admit to being left with some nagging questions after MacKay’s talk about just how the type of rigorous science and comprehensive evidence base which he discussed with regard to sustainable energy was then translated into a form which could, for want of a better description, “play to the Daily Mail”.

MacKay, in common with Rutter before him and a number of panellists on the previous day (including Robert Winston and Alan Malcom, Executive Secretary of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee  – more on their presentations tomorrow), pointed out that individual scientists can be influential “if you talk to the right people in the right way” and that lobbyists are massively influential. I think that the majority of scientists would instead hope that the scientific evidence could speak for itself. This is almost always a pipe-dream.

Yet, although I appreciate entirely that scientific evidence can never be the be-all-and-end-all of policy making and politics, and have a lot of sympathy for the policy-maker’s need to see evidence as only one component of a complex landscape of criteria and considerations, I nonetheless share the concerns voiced by George Monbiot a couple of month ago in an article entitled “For scientists in a democracy, to dissent is to be reasonable”:

“A world in which scientists speak only through minders and in which dissent is considered the antithesis of reason is a world shorn of meaningful democratic choices. You can judge a government by its treatment of inconvenient facts and the people who expose them.”

The tagline for Monbiot’s article is “Government policy in Britain, Canada and Australia is crushing academic integrity on behalf of corporate power”. Tomorrow, I’m going to focus on the question of the extent to which the research councils’ and the funding councils’ ‘impact agenda’ undermines the independence, integrity, and ethos of academia in its headlong rush to make academic scientists more responsive to the needs of business and industry.

Images:

  1. The UK Houses of Parliament. Credit: ktanaka
  2. The group of scientists who took part in a scheme pairing them with MPs