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Science Book Club – Episode 16



One of the reasons why politics tends to do science badly is that science and those of us who care about it tend to do politics badly.

So, the Geek Manifesto really emerged from a lot of things I was writing about for the Times over the past seven years or so. I found increasingly that an awful lot of both what was interesting me and interesting my readers and editors were stories where science was encountering politics and where that encounter was not always happy, whether that’s climate change or issues such as embryology.  There was in 2007/2008 a major piece of legislation that went through in the UK revising the embryology laws and. to be frank, a lot of the parliamentary debate about that was terrible: ill informed, speculative, exaggerating benefits on one side and scare stories on the other, and then there was allied to that a sense in which people who cared about science: the “geeks” in my book, as it were – by which I mean nothing more than people who are curious about the world  – were stopping their perhaps historic supine attitude toward politics as something that happened to them and starting to get involved, such as the Simon Singh libel case, where he was sued – unsuccessfully in the end – by chiropractors for questioning their techniques; the campaign to preserve science funding in the 2010 UK spending review; the backlash after the sacking of Professor David Nutt as the government’s chief drugs adviser.  What all of this kind of added up to was a sense that there was opportunity here, that we were getting to a large extent the politicians we deserved.  One of the reasons why politics tends to do science badly is that science and those of us who care about it tend to do politics badly and there’s a huge opportunity for us to change that by behaving as better citizens, as more engaged citizens. 

On the campaign surrounding the book

 It’s difficult to say, because I don’t think this is a problem we’re going to solve in one go.  My book, I hope, is a contribution to solving it but it’s far from the only thing that’s going to turn a tide there, as it were, but I think there are a few things that I can definitely point to.  So, first of all, I do know that quite a lot of MPs have engaged quite actively with the book.  There was, as you say, this campaign to send it…successful campaign to send the book to all 650 MPs, which happened, there was another campaign to send it to all the Welsh assembly members and the Northern Ireland assembly members, which has worked well.  And I’ve had really quite a lot of…a couple of dozen letters, communications from MPs who have responded and who have found this really interesting, some sent direct to me, some sent to the constituents who sent the book.  I could give you a couple of examples: Jenny Willott, who is the Lib Dem MP in Cardiff has, I think, become very interested in science off the back of it.  Iain Wright, who is the Labour innovation spokesman, worked out half way through a dinner we were both at who I was and that I was the author of the book, was saying how much he had loved it and how useful he had found it while getting to grips with a new portfolio in innovation, which is of course so important to science. There have been a number of MPs as well…two MPs have mentioned it in the context of the parliamentary debate on the badger cull, there’s definitely been some impact but I think just as important as the individual impact on some MPs has been a more fertile environment of engagement and debate about the proper role of science in public policy and politics and I wouldn’t claim to be solely responsibility for that by any means, by any means at all, people like Ben Goldacre have done just as much if not more, but you’ve seen politicians engaging in the potential role of randomised controlled trials in education,  for example; I give Michael Gove quite a hard time in the book but he’s done some very positive things in that area in the past year.   You’ve seen the Guardian has launched a multi-author blog that’s devoted to science and politics, and that’s a really significant step forward.  I think there is greater discussion of science in the national conversation and if I’ve done a small amount to stimulate that, that’s wonderful.

I think there’s quite a lot you can do, and I think I’ll say two things; the first thing is you can join organisations that can campaign on your behalf and just as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have built environmentalism into a movement that really can’t be ignored, and to have got environmentalism onto the mainstream political agenda; I’m not saying one has to agree with everything that they’ve done but it’s hard not to respect what they’ve done as campaigning organisations.  So, join groups like the  which has a couple of thousand individual members: what could they do with 20,000, 200,000, 2 million members, I think that’s a really interesting proposition.  We haven’t been good at lobbying and making our presence felt, and making politicians recognise that there are actually quite a lot of us out there who care about science and how it’s used.

So that’s one thing, but the other thing is there really is no substitute for engaging on an individual basis with your MP, and I really do want to encourage this, and if I could just tell a little anecdote about Nicola Blackwood who’s a Tory MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, you may know her as the person who defeated the great Evan Harris at the last election.  Now, she came into the job with really no background or interest in science but she took part in a Royal Society pairing scheme with a physicist, Dave Walk, and has learnt quite a lot about about it and has become quite an interesting champion of science, but something she said to me was really instructive which was how when she gets a big email postbag on an issue from a lot of her constituents saying the same thing, she doesn’t feel duty bound to agree with them but she does feel duty bound to make herself informed, and that’s actually the big hurdle: most of the time when politicians do science badly it’s not because they’re anti-science, not in the UK at any rate.  What’s usually the problem is they’re indifferent, they just don’t know anything about science, they’ve had no real impetus to engage with science etc. and that’s where we can come into the equation by making sure that we give politicians an impetus, a push.  I think very often when they explore science in a bit more depth they will often be more pleasantly surprised by what it may have to offer to their work, to help them to do what they went into politics ultimately to do, which is to make better laws.  And so I think it is in large part up to us.

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