Archive for the ‘Science Policy’ Category

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 9 December 2009 at 7:18 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Science Policy

Earlier today Alistair Darling announced Labour’s pre-Budget report. While most outlets have focused on increases in National Insurance and a tax on bankers bonuses, New Scientist point out that £600 million will be cut from higher education and science and research budgets.

I’m absolutely amazed that Labour are reducing science funding, while at the same time refusing to budge on wasteful schemes like ID cards or Trident nuclear missiles.

In the past year alone the Government has spent £81.5 million on developing biometric ID cards, and the final cost is expected to be £4.5 billion over a ten year period. This is despite the science behind biometrics not being fit for purpose.

Meanwhile, the cost of replacing our Trident nuclear missiles has been placed at £130bn over 30 years (though the Government says it will only be £20bn). This is counter to the spirit of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, if not the actual law, and a fantastic waste of money. Given the choice between expanding human knowledge, or maintaining the potential to blow people up, I know which I’d go for…

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1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 28 October 2009 at 8:40 pm by Colin Stuart
In Getting It Wrong, Science Policy, Space & Astronomy

Today I was getting ready to leave my flat for my afternoon shift when, hurrying to finish my lunch, I managed to catch the very end of Prime Minister’s Question Time (PMQs) on the TV.

The twelfth and final question was asked by the Conservative member for Wells, David Heathcoat-Amory, and this is what he had to say:

“As the Prime Minister knows, this is the International Year of Astronomy. Does he therefore support the Campaign for Dark Skies, which is good for astronomy and also saves energy? If he does, will he play his part by turning off—or at least dimming—the lights in public buildings, including Downing Street, where all the lights are on very late into the night?”

As someone who is passionate about astronomy my ears immediately pricked up and I was momentarily diverted from my Marmite sandwiches. Did I really just hear a question on astronomy asked in the House of Commons? Really? Well this was our learned Prime Minster’s response:

“I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was going to complain about European regulations, because that is normally what he does. All of us have a responsibility to save electricity and all Government Departments and all parts of government should be involved in doing so.”

What a bullshit answer. Now I’m the first to admit that this question wasn’t the most pressing matter of the day. There had already been questions on the Afghan election, the Lockerbie disaster and climate change, far more important than whether you can adequately star spot.

However, Gordy barely even answered the question instead using it to score cheap points against the Opposition. The token answer of “all of us have a responsibility blah blah blah blah” was about as satisfying as my Marmite sandwiches. He might as well have said piss off lets all go for some lunch.

And this is the great problem; there are too few advocates of science in Government. Regular Just a Theory readers will recall my ongoing debate with Labour peer and Science Minister Lord Drayson (which I am happy to say is going to happen with the next month or so). Despite my well documented grievances, Lord Drayson is really on science’s side and we should continue to hope for more of his ilk.

So, having seemingly ranted for eight paragraphs thus far I feel I should tell you the premise behind Campaign for Dark Skies. The essence is that there is so much wasteful light thrown up into the night sky that the skylines of most major UK cities are horribly hued a kind of murky orange. This limits the glory of the night sky to around 50-100 stars rather than the normal 1500 that should visible from these shores.

Jacob blogged earlier in the week about the Trillionth Tonne, a website counting the cost of our inability to tackle climate change. In his post he called the ever increasing figure “sobering to watch”. Equally the Campaign for Dark Skies have a counter clocking up the amount of money wasted due to street lamps showering some of their light up into the sky rather than down where we need it.

In fact, the counter ticks along at £4 a second, which means since the 1st January 2009 the UK has wasted over £100 million on electric lights that serve no purpose whatsoever. And that is just street lights. The full estimate, including business and industrial based lighting, is likely to be over £1 BILLION. I’m not even going to argue the astronomical perspective on this one. Yes you would be able to see more stars but £100 million pounds, or more likely £1 BILLION, is just a pointless waste our OUR money.

This comes on a day when after PMQ’s, Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth stood before Parliament and detailed a report suggesting MOD cost cutting led to the deaths of 14 service personnel in a Nimrod crash in 2006. Ainsworth said that,

“in our pursuit of financial savings the MoD and the RAF allowed their focus on safety to suffer. We accept this with regard to the Nimrod XV230”

Don’t get me wrong I am not blaming the deaths of those 14 servicemen on wasteful street lighting. However what really gets my goat is that when a valid science question that could save our economy upwards of £1 billion is actually asked in Parliament, and on a day when the Government is held to account for its penny pinching, that our dearest PM shits all over it.

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 5 August 2009 at 2:21 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong, Science Policy

[Whoops, I'm off schedule already. Apologies to those who were expecting a post on Monday, but another bout of illness over the weekend meant I had to take a few days off. And now, the news.]

On the path to a greener future, governments must lead the way. Without legislation that suitably incentives green behaviour, the necessary changes to our economy will not be possible. Carbon trading, if appropriately priced, seems like a good way to do this. Unfortunately, the UK Government seems to have missed the point of the scheme: reducing emissions.

A report published today by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) warns that the Government may not meet its own targets for emission cuts, and could have to use taxpayers money to purchase more carbon credits.

In 2006, then Prime Minister Tony Blair promised a 12.5% reduction in carbon emissions by 2010-11, relative to 1990/2000 levels. The EAC have criticised the Government for not doing enough to reduce energy use in its buildings, the largest source of emissions. So far, only a 6.3% reduction has been achieved.

Failure could come at a hefty price. Starting in April next year, around 5,000 organisations including Government departments, retailers and banks will have to buy carbon credits. Under the Carbon Reduction Commitment, these organisations will have to pay £12 for every tonne of carbon dioxide they produce.

All of this money is contributed to a central pot, and emissions are assessed on a yearly basis. Organisations that do well are given their money back, plus a bonus, whilst those that do poorly get back less than they put in. Effectively, inefficient organisations pay money to those which can reduce emissions the most.

This means that unless targets are met, the Government will be handing taxpayers money to private businesses to make up for its carbon excess. You could say this is how the scheme is meant to work – reward those who are greenest, and allow the stragglers to pay for their sins. A fair point – but shouldn’t we expect better?

If the Government are forced to purchase more carbon credits in this way, it sends out the completely wrong message to the country. We must learn that simply paying your way is not enough; at some point we must all make emission reductions.

What’s worse, this is a double cost to the taxpayer. In not reducing energy usage, the Government will have already paid more in utility bills than is necessary. Instead of investing in insulation or solar panels, it has thrown money away on a short-term “solution”. It’s not good enough. The short-term is running out.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 31 July 2009 at 8:33 am by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Science Policy

Earlier this month around 1,500 young people descended on Sydney for Power Shift Australia, an event organised by the Australian Youth Climate Coalition to empower youth action on climate change. It featured talks by climate campaigners like Dr Tim Flannery, a video message by Al Gore, and culminated in a 500-strong flashmob dancing outside the Sydney Opera House.

Former US Vice-President Gore encouraged the young Australians to put pressure on their leaders in the run-up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. “Together we must encourage leaders throughout the globe to speak on our behalf at the Copenhagen negotiations this December,” he said. “Each of you here has a crucial role to play in order to get this done.”

The conference was modelled after a similar event that took place in the United States earlier this February. Organised by and for young people, it saw 12,000 teens and 20-somethings visit Washington to attend the biggest youth climate event ever. The delegates met members of the Obama cabinet in addition to civil rights activist Marshall Ganz.

The Power Shift ideals are now spreading further, and the next conference is to be held in the UK this October. Kate Shayler of the UK Youth Climate Coalition is coordinating the event, which she says is not just about getting the “usual suspects” of environmental campaigning involved. Instead, Shayler expects to have 1000 young people of diverse backgrounds in attendance. “We see climate change as a youth issue, not a minority middle-class issue, because it is going to affect all our futures,” she says.

Delegates will receive communications training adapted from the Obama campaign team and attend workshops designed to foster a sense of unity around climate change. The UKYCC hope that Power Shift UK can be the start of a larger climate movement, as called for by the British Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Milliband.

“We want to show young people in the UK that it’s happening all over the world, they’re not on their own, and young people around the world are being active and stepping up to fight climate change,” says Shayler.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 27 July 2009 at 11:41 am by Colin Stuart
In Science Policy

As regular Just a Theory readers will know I have been more than a little critical of our new Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. However it seems that, although somewhat overdue, the growing voice of concern amongst us is starting to make a difference. The right words are starting to flow from the lips of our First Minister of State. About time too.

In a speech given this morning at Birkbeck College in London, Lord Mandleson had reassuring words to say to those of us who are scared that pure science would be bullied and beaten by its bigger and uglier brother of applied science. It seems BIS are now publicly reacting to our growing voice of concern. An obvious change of tone to a speech Lord Mandleson gave in June, claiming that universities were ‘delighted’ by the merger than spawned BIS, this is what Mandy had to say this morning:

“I recognise that bringing university policy into a department with ‘business’ in its title has not thrilled everyone in the university world. But it really puts universities at the heart of policy on our future growth and prosperity.

“I need to be clear that I do not believe that the function of a university is limited to – or even primarily about – economic outcomes. They are not factories for producing workers. Defining the skills that directly underwrite many skilled jobs in the UK is not the same as defining useful and necessary knowledge. The case for a higher education system that invests in everything from Classics to quantum physics is a compelling one.

“I say this not just because the utility in knowledge is often impossible to predict. It is because knowledge is an end in itself; because historical awareness and critical thinking are part of the inventory of a rounded human being.”

I for one am glad to hear these words, as it is the message I have been arguing since BIS was introduced back in early June. However, as always actions speak louder than words, and I wait to see whether Mandy is just paying us grumblers lip service or whether he really means it.

To see more of what Lord Mandelson had to say read Phil Baty’s article over at Times Higher Education.

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2 Comments » Posted on Tuesday 21 July 2009 at 2:35 pm by Colin Stuart
In Science Policy

Regular Just a Theory readers will remember our coverage of the furore surrounding Lord Drayson’s new jobs following the cabinet reshuffle last month. In her (very good!) article on the subject Jess Bland alluded to a debate between me and Lord Drayson on Twitter.

Jacob has asked me to bring you up to date with the story since then.

To recap, back in June 2009, the current UK government had a cabinet re-shuffle. One of the consequences of this re-shuffle was that Lord Drayson became simultaneously Minister of State for Science and Minister of State for Defence.

It struck me that this was perhaps an appointment that needed to be questioned, not on the grounds of Drayson’s abilities, but firstly on the matter of science being so closely politically twinned with defence, but moreover, science having only a part-time minister.

To this end I asked the question on social networking site Twitter:

“Anyone else worried that science and defence are now inextricably politically linked? with @lorddrayson doing both jobs!?”

From there several of my colleagues joined a discussion which eventually drew in Lord Drayson himself. Dr Stuart Lowe, an astronomer at The University of Manchester, has kindly aggregated the debate so you can see a tweet by tweet account of what went on.

During this debate UK magazine Times Higher Education (THE) asked Lord Drayson, via Twitter, whether he would be interested in penning an opinion piece in their pages justifying his position and countering our concerns. He duly obliged and you can read his article here.

Having sparked the debate in the first place I was anxious that my objections to Lord Drayson’s appointment, and subsequent policy announcements regarding pure science research, were also put to the readers of THE. I sent a speculative tweet to the magazine and they gave me 700 words to argue my corner the following week.

Following the publication of that piece on 9th July Lord Drayson got in touch with me, again via Twitter, and this is what he had to say:

@skyponderer Fair & good points u make. How do we continue the conversation now? Want to invite me to a live debate? Or stay tweeting?

How could I refuse!? The chance to grapple with one of the cabinet is surely a chance not to be missed.

So that is the current state of the Drayson debate. THE have offered to host our debate and are currently in contact with Lord Drayson’s people to make it happen.

I am busy collecting people’s views on the subject as I am very keen to use this chance to be a mouthpiece for the views of a wider community. It is not everyday we get a chance to debate the science minister in person, so I have setup a way you can let me know what you think.

Read the background articles above and whether you agree with Lord Drayson, or you agree with me, or you disagree with both of us, please visit my website and you’ll find a form where you can tell me what you think. I will be picking the best comments and putting them to the Lord himself when the time comes!

In addition, I hope to syndicate the debate right here on Just a Theory so watch this space!

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 21 July 2009 at 9:52 am by Jacob Aron
In Science Policy, Space & Astronomy

I really must stop with that headline, but I just can’t help myself. Last weekend, science minister Lord Drayson announced that Britain is to officially support human space-flight. In the reversal of a decades-old government policy, British citizens will now receive funding to become astronauts. Speaking to The Sunday Times, Drayson said:

“Britain should be playing a full role in space exploration. There was a special fund for training astronauts and we did not contribute, but that is now changed. There are important benefits that come from manned space-flight and we have dropped our opposition. We have an astronaut entering training soon and I hope he will be the first of many.”

Army test pilot Tim Peake became the first European Space Agency astronaut earlier this year, and it is thought that Drayson used Peake’s appointment as leverage for the policy change.

Drayson has always been in favour of human space-flight, and is also considering the expansion of the British National Space Centre from just 30 civil servants into a full-blown space agency. However, The Observer reports that there will be no extra money for this “British NASA”, making me wonder how this expansion might actually happen. He said:

“We spend around £250m a year of public money on space projects, and that generates more than £6bn for the economy in terms of contracts for the manufacture of satellites, robotics and other industrial work. We get a tremendous bang for the buck when it comes to space, but we have to ask if there is a better way to do it.”

If the current return on investment is 2400%, surely a small increase of cash would be worth it? Either way, it seems we can expect more Brits heading to space in the coming years.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 12 July 2009 at 9:24 am by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Inventions & Technology, Science Policy, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Drayson vs Stuart, round two

Our very own Colin Stuart had an article in the Times Higher Education supplement this week, in a continuation of his Twitter debate with science minister Lord Drayson. In it, he criticises the decision to merge science with business, fearing it will result in pure science losing out as applied science is brought to the fore.

The internet…in space!

A headline I never get tired of, because it always sums up a story beautifully. The internet now has a permanent connection to space, aboard the International Space Station.

The space internet differers slightly from our Earth-bound version. The regular internet uses TCP/IP connections, which repeatedly sends information until the computer knows they have got through. This wouldn’t work in space due to bandwidth issues, so the computer aboard the ISS uses delay-tolerant networking, which holds on to information at each step in the communication chain until it has been received.

Citizen science exposes false vegan restaurants

This is pretty neat. Vegan food blog were worried about imported vegan foods being served in a number of restaurants in Los Angeles, so decided to run some tests.

Using industrial food testing tools, they examined meals from 17 establishments for traces of egg, cheese and shellfish – all foods which are not compatible with a vegan diet. The found evidence of these foods in all of the meals, suggesting that the common source of production, Taiwan, has not been enforcing strict vegan regulations.

What I like about this is the way their investigation is presented in a very scientific manner. Hypothesis, methods, results and discussion are all laid out in such a way that anyone wishing to dispute or replicate their results can do so. In fact, that’s exactly what happened, with many of the restaurants contacting the blog to say they would conduct tests of their own. It just goes to show, you don’t have to be a scientist to follow the scientific method.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 11 July 2009 at 4:26 pm by Jacob Aron
In Science Policy

A study on public attitudes to science has found that the majority of Americans think that science has a mostly positive effect on society, and scientist’s contribution to society is second only to that of the military and teachers.

The survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, also asked about the nation’s greatest achievement those surveyed were less enthusiastic. Only 27% respondents chose developments in science, medicine and technology, down from 27% in 1999. Instead, the most popular answer with 33% was “nothing/don’t know”.

Perhaps it is unsurprising then that 49% of scientists think the public have unrealistic expectations for the speed of scientific progress, and a massive 85% view the public’s lack of scientific knowledge as a major problem.

Many scientists blame the media for doing a poor job informing the public about science, with 76% saying the media doesn’t properly distinguish between well-founded findings and those that are not. Scientists were split on the media simplification of science; roughly half believe it be a major problem but the rest view it as minor or not a problem at all. Scientists also complained about the lack of funding for basic research, with 87% viewing it as serious or very serious.

It’s not all moaning however. Just over half of both the public and scientists named advances in medicine as the most important achievement in science during the last 20 years. The two groups also agreed on the importance of government funding science; 60% of the public believe that it is essential for progress, and 84% of scientists list a government body as a funding source.

I’d be interested to see a similar survey in the UK. As far as I know (and I admit to not looking very hard) the last big science and society report was the House of Lords one nearly a decade ago. Anyone know of an update?

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 8 July 2009 at 1:32 pm by Thom Hoffman
In Climate Change & Environment, Psychology, Science Policy

Last night I attended a fascinating debate entitled ‘Whose landscape is it anyway?’. The panel was chaired unobtrusively by the BBC’s environment correspondent Sarah Mukherjee and featured distinguished guests: economist Nicholas Stern, writer Tahmima Anam, historian Ramachandra Guha, and environmental scientist Debal Deb.

The format was unusual and its brevity was both its strength and its weakness but I think it was an extremely useful discussion. Each panellist initially spoke for around 5 minutes concerning the topic of land ownership and its consequences for the environment.

The hugely diverse panel led to a wide range of subjects being highlighted and after this a between-panel discussion ensued. The most optimistic panellist seemed a surprising candidate in Nicholas Stern, the economist and writer of the Stern Review into climate change.

Whenever I think deeply about climate change I struggle to be optimistic but when asked about why he holds such a perspective, Professor Stern replied ‘because I am sick of being pessimistic’. He stated that if you are hopelessly pessimistic you should ‘get a hat and write a letter of apology to your grandchildren’.

I am always cautious about these approaches to engaging people with climate change. There is a notion that doom-mongering and pessimism does result in ambivalence and plans for future apologies rather than direct action. If you do not believe that advocates of optimism are genuine, that instead they are trying to patronize, then this approach is just as unsatisfactory.

Stern does seem to be genuine with his hope, and alluded to the role of undeveloped technology as a genuine source of optimism. After the panel discussion, questions were invited from the audience. A Doctor who works for the Millennium Seedbank at Kew Gardens highlighted how many citrus trees are being planted in places where the efficiency of their water use is wildly inappropriate. There are indigenous sources of vitamin C which have much lower-impact irrigation. Rather than magical technofix solutions, these are the kind of practical actionable things that must be rectified now, and I believe this is what Professor Stern was angling toward.

Debal Deb articulated his frustration with the consumerist ethic and, aside from Professor Stern’s book plug toward the end of the debate, everyone seemed to agree. At one point an audience member questioned Stern’s reluctance to call for the end of capitalism. Earlier Stern had argued that growth will have to continue for 60 to 70 years. ‘To tell all nations with growth aspirations, which is virtually all of us, to stop growth now is the most impractical politics of all.’ Discussion of poverty, which had been so high on the agenda, highlighted the massive need for growth in huge parts of the world.

A gentleman at the back of the audience seemed frustrated that the panel where not making enough suggestions for what we should do. Tahmima Anam suggested that it is not for the panel to make these decisions and that the front line workers are the future solution-providers. She suggested that decentralised governance is extremely important, and the role of the state recurred frequently through the debate.

I was fascinated to hear Stern’s thoughts but Ramachandra Guha was probably my favourite contributor. He argued that the idea of capitalism vs communism or conservatism vs socialism are anachronistic dichotomies that will not navigate us through these major challenges. He invoked Kolakowski’s call for us to be conservative liberal socialists, borrowing appropriate ideas from each strand. Post duck-housegate we look at the public desire for ‘new politics’ and this gives me hope that partnership through shared ideals is the way forward.

Former American Defence Secretary and later President of World Bank Robert McNamara died this week and a quote of his reminds me of the importance of collaboration: ‘I don’t believe we should ever apply our power unilaterally. If we can’t persuade nations with similar values, we’d better re-examine our reasoning.’

Tahmima Anam argued that the solutions must be as big as the problems and here her argument for decentralisation becomes slightly weaker. I think that everyone can agree that centralised governments are responsible for much of what has happened but these governments are made up of individuals and they chased the growth aspirations of individuals too. If you think that governments are a big part of the problem then I fail to see how they cannot be a big part of the solution.

Whether they will arrive at that solution remains to be seen. Professor Stern highlighted how water is being drilled like oil which is massively disturbing the surrounding water table and no-one has ownership of this water, if you can get it, it is yours. Tahmima Anam described how Bangladeshis are creating floating gardens to cope with the influx of saltwater onto their land, and that they must spend all day searching for freshwater.

Water shortage is the next big global crisis and who owns this water was a question that was never going to be addressed in 90 minutes but these types of debates are important. A 5 hour long debate achieving equally few solutions would only serve to turn people off more.

Succinct and frequent debates with such high calibre guests will hopefully put these issues on the map, and stop people from giving up and buying hats when their voices, interest, support and dissent are badly needed.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 28 June 2009 at 3:13 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Right, Health & Medicine, Science Policy, Weekly Roundup

Sun in common-sense shocker

Sometimes I worry about being too negative on Just A Theory. With all the examples of media failings I write about, it’s easy to let the good ones slip past unnoticed. As such, I thought I’d congratulate The Sun’s Dr Keith for his recent article on misused medical terms. He informs us that we probably don’t have the flu (it’s a cold), there is no such thing as a nervous breakdown, and most of us are rarely “shocked”, in a medical sense.

New hope for Copenhagen

Later this year thousands of people will descend on Copenhagen to try and come up with a new global agreement on climate change. The United Nations, in conjunction with the International Advertising Association, have launched a campaign to re-brand the conference as Hopenhagen. The idea is to move from “coping” with climate change to a “hope” that action can be taken. A silly bit of marketing? Perhaps. But if it gets people talking, it’s probably a good idea.

Check this out. It’s awesome

“But what is it?” I hear you cry. Created by Japanese artist Sachiko Kodama, the strange substance in this art work is a ferrofluid. These odd liquids combine tiny magnetic particles with water or oil, and a surfactant, which prevents the particles sticking together. Ferrofluids react in the presence of a magnetic field, creating the wonderful structures in the video above.

Whilst they do have their practical uses, like forming a liquid seal in computer hard drives or marking areas of the body in an MRI scan, I think you’ll agree that just looking cool is good enough.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 12 June 2009 at 8:38 am by Jessica Bland
In Getting It Right, Psychology, Science Policy

I wrote the following for Felix newspaper at Imperial College. I was interested in the US definition of torture. The story has become more relevant this week with the revelations about possible Waterboarding used by the Met: an interesting case of copycat tactics which shows that the US attitudes can have repercussions well outside their national borders. The news on Wednesday adds force to Shue’s comment that by not changing the US definition of torture, Obama has not done enough to prevent another Guantanamo…


We have a right not to be tortured. It is a basic human right – one that stretches across borders and cultures to societies that share few other values. The condemnation of torture is a constant where many other things are not.

But what do we mean by torture: forcing prisoners to stand for hours at a time? Playing them the same song over and over for three days? Recreating the feeling of drowning? Under international law, none of these are. They are mentally, but not physically abusive.   And torture is defined as physical abuse.

The public debate following Obama’s release of the details of CIA interrogations in Guantanamo has centred round whether or not these mentally abusive techniques are torturous enough to make them illegal. And new research published last week in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry adds to the mounting evidence that they are, or at least that they should be.

Torture victims from former Yugoslavia countries and Turkey rated the stressfulness of their overall torture experience. Those that experienced high levels of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment (CIDT), such as forced stress positions or waterboarding, rated their overall torture experience as more stressful than those who suffered physical torture. CIDT victims also showed higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“There is a widely held misconception of torture,” said Dr. Metin Basoglu, author of the study. “It is not just something that happens in the course of the interrogation process. It incorporates all of the other circumstances in which these events occur.”

Basoglu identifies 46 different contextual factors and it was the stress these caused that participants were asked to rate. “Think of it from the perspective of the person. They perceive a wide range of stressors, even when these stressors are not intentionally inflicted upon the person for torture purposes.”

It is not just that context is important. It is more important than the amount of physical pain. There is no clear correlation between increased physical pain and overall stress. But the correlation between CIDT and overall stress implies that psychological context is influential.

Therefore, Basoglu argues, the definition of torture used in International law should be modified. “It would be based on four parameters” Intent, purpose and removal of control are all widely-accepted criteria for torture. But Basoglu adds a fourth criterion: “multiple stressors must be present.” So, both combinations of physical events and psychologically stressful situations would constitute torture under this definition.

Others argue this kind of international redefinition is impractical and unnecessary. “Changing international law is not a relevant solution requires a lot of energy and negotiations. And it would take a long time to go through,” said Professor Henry Shue, Professor of International Relations at Oxford University and author of an influential writer on torture. Instead, he believes that what needs to be changed is the US legal definition of torture.

“Under the UN Convention law both torture and what Basoglu calls CIDT are illegal. So the distinction between them does not much matter. But when the US ratified the convention in 1988, Reagan interpreted the convention as only applying to physical abuse and psychological conditions arising from physical abuse.” This meaning is the one that was incorporated into US law in 2006 in the Military Commissions Act.

Shue emphasised that “this is not something that started with Richard Cheney and George Bush”. But under the recent Bush administration it became law. And despite publishing torture memos detailing interrogation techniques used in Guantanamo, Obama has done nothing to reverse the distinction between the UN convention and US law.

“I am disappointed with Obama’s response on this issue. He has said he wishes to abolish torture, but has not addressed the definition of torture,” Shue said. He explained that it still leaves open the possibility of future Guantanamo like interrogations.

In the face of research like Basolgu’s, it is difficult to see how America can keep using the narrow Reagan definition. Redefining torture might seem like a pedantic effort in the case of international law. But in the US, we have already witnessed the horrifying consequences of leaving a gap between what is torturous and what is law. Let’s hope the Obama administration doesn’t let this linger – that they don’t let it become their first mistake.

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3 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 10 June 2009 at 12:56 pm by Jessica Bland
In Musings, Science Policy

On Friday, the UK government department that represented science for the last couple of years, the Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills (DIUS), was disbanded. In addition, Lord Drayson changed his title from Minister of Science & Innovation to Minister of Science & Defence.

The obvious response from those with a stake in science’s political profile is to complain. And perhaps rightly so; a press release from the Chairman of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee (IUSS), Phil Willis, showed that even he felt that science had been let down:

“The real casualty of this ill-thought out re-organisation is the nation’s strategic science base.”

But I disagree. Although we are right to complain about expensive reshuffles (according to the FT, £7 million was spent on setting up DIUS for it to last only 20 months), I don’t think that science has much to worry about.

Control of science-related policy is now with Lord Mandelson in his new Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (DBIS). This initially felt like the next in quick succession of steps by government to commercialise science. First, politicians asked scientists to outline the commercial potential of their work in all new grant proposals. Then, they skimmed off research council money to be used only for projects with clear economic potential. As I mentioned in a blog entry in May, this has already caused a public fight between George Monbiot at the Guardian and Lord Drayson. Other science community publications have picked up on it as well: “The Economic Impact Fallacy” by Philip Moriarty in Physicsworld this month provides a forceful argument against these new economic shackles for science.

But Lord Drayson has promised to keep the science budget separate from the rest of DBIS. So, despite the other, recent disappointing changes to the structure of science funding, not much has changed this time.

Moreover, as was set out in an email dialogue-cum-blog from The Times’s science correspondents, there are some palpable advantages to the move:

1) Having two Lords and Cabinet Ministers, Mandelson and Drayson, behind science is not a bad thing. Particularly given Mandelson’s healthy relationship with No. 10.

2) Phil Willis has used the disbandment of IUSS as an opportunity to ask for a new Committee on Science & Engineering. Given that the previous committee was shared with innovation and universities, this move would be upping rather than diluting government’s science dosage.

There is one niggling doubt though. Lord Drayson has swapped Innovation for Defence in his shared role with Science. And as much as scientists are worried about becoming economic pawns, there is a much greater threat in getting too close to the military.

To be fair, Drayson did well defending his move yesterday on twitter (a useful rundown of which is here). He stated clearly that the two roles are completely seperate. And as my colleague Colin Stuart (@skyponderer) tweeted,

“Hats off for the chance for dialogue. Very impressed we can all chat to the Minister for Science about such key issues.”

At least Drayson is willingto engage openly on the subject. More hope came this morning when Lord Mandelson said:

“Lord Drayson will give the overwhelming bulk of his time, to science, innovation, and technology.”

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 7 June 2009 at 5:02 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Science Policy, Weekly Roundup

New department for science

With all the political turmoil of the past week it may have slipped you by that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) is no more. As part of Gordon Brown’s reshuffle, it will merge with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) to become the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (DBIS).

What this means for science is unclear, though the government pledge that DBIS will “continue to invest in the UK’s world class science base and develop strategies for commercialising more of that science.” Lord Drayson, Minister for Science and Innovation in DIUS and now DBIS, stated that “The science ring-fence is safe and sound and the innovation agenda will further benefit from this move.”

Tetley: not everyone’s cup of tea

Tea makers Tetley have been banned from broadcasting an advert for green tea after the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled against misleading health claims.

The advert shows a woman about to go for a run before discovering it is raining. Instead, she makes a cup of tea, with a voice-over stating “For an easy way to help look after yourself pick up Tetley Green Tea. It’s full of antioxidants.”

Whilst the ASA dismissed four viewer complaints that Tetley were trying to equate green tea with exercise, they did decide the company were trying to claim health benefits beyond mere hydration, and banned the advert.

Whilst it’s nice to see advertisers being taken to task, I do wish the ASA would show some consistency. Why is this not allowed, when Miracle Gro can advertise their organic compost as “100% chemical free”?

Tomorrow’s World, today

The classic BBC science magazine programme Tomorrow’s World is being reinvented as Bang Goes The Theory, “a new series that looks at how science shapes the world around us.”

Terrible, terrible name aside, I’m cautiously optimistic about this new programme. The presenters all seem to have backgrounds in science and science communication, and there is even on PhD, Dr Yan Wong. The editing of the trailer (linked above) makes it look like they are trying a little too hard to be stylish, but I will reserve judgement until the first episode is broadcast. Unfortunately I can’t tell you when that is, as the BBC continue their aversion to actually telling you when their programmes start – “late July” is the best we’ve got.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 3 June 2009 at 10:44 am by Jessica Bland
In Happenings, Science Policy

Over the last two days, London’s Royal Society hosted a discussion meeting on new frontiers in science diplomacy.  Participants represented everything from Big science in the Middle East through to the Japanese diplomatic core. And they each brought different ideas and suggestions for the interaction between international politics and science.

My original post was a run-down of the meeting’s uncomfortable moments – the points where even an outsider could sense the tension between different points of view. But worries about confidentiality moved me towards a more thematic discussion. SciDev.Net’s editor was blogging from the conference, with full permission from the speakers. And so, for a more detailed account of what went on, check out it out here.

The final SciDev post outlines three messages that came over across both days. I want to pick up on the second of them: that ‘science diplomacy’ is an unhelpful umbrella term for several activities that need to be separated.

The most helpful codification of these activities came early on Monday from the director of the International Science Cooperation Division of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Jun Yangi divided science diplomacy into four dimensions. First, there is science used for diplomatic purposes; second, there is diplomacy for science and technology; there can also be diplomacy based on science; and finally, science and technology is a source of soft, attractive power.

Other speakers would have done well to pick up on these distinctions more explicitly. In many cases  the content of a talk was not contentious, but the implied definition of science diplomacy was not one that even the next person on the platform would have agreed with.

The introductory speeches provided a marked example of this. The UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor, John Beddington pointed to the danger of science used for political ends – the first of the four Japanese dimensions.

Immediately following him was Nina Fedoroff, Science and Technology Advisor to the US Secretary of State. She started her address by distinguishing science diplomacy from the use of science in diplomacy. It seemed like she was drawing a similar line to Beddington between the first and the latter three dimension. Except, that her examples of science diplomacy were not really in the same vein. Building an Iraqi virtual science library to replace the books destroyed during the war has as much political as scientific colour.

Fedoroff advocated the incorporation of more scientists  into the heart of government. Whilst Beddington favoured a depoliticization of scientists and scientific discussion. A tighter definition of scientific diplomacy from the start might have forced them into a head to head discussion of this tension.

This definitional problem appeared on the second day as well. One particularly obvious instance was when the British Council representative distinguished science diplomacy and international science relations. Fifteen minutes later, his colleague, Professor Mohamed Hassan from the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World defined science diplomacy as exactly those collaborative relations the Council member distinguished it from.

Perhaps the definitional difference here was not a problem. Both contributors wanted to discuss relations; one distinguished them from diplomacy, the other did not.

It was, however, symptomatic of the same issue that divided Beddington and Fedoroff: the depth to which scientists should penetrate the political sphere. If Professor Hassan believes collaboration is diplomacy, then that is their implied diplomatic limit. He is more cautious – more like Beddington.  However, if the British Council want a separate category for science diplomacy, one that is closer to traditional diplomacy, then they are allowing scientists right into the centre of politics and offering a position closer to Fedoroff’s.

Defining science diplomacy is not just an academic debate. Different definitions map onto different national attitudes to scientists’ position in government and in politically sensitive international research. It might have been more diplomatic to sidestep the issue of an explicit definition in this conference. But a definition might be necessary in order to avoid creating rather than helping diplomatic issues in the future.

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7 Comments » Posted on Thursday 21 May 2009 at 7:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Science Policy

Doing the rounds this week is a story about a £300,000 government-funded research project that took three years to establish that ducks like water. Sounds like a tremendous waste of taxpayers’ money, but is it? The newspapers certainly seem to think so:

Ducks like water study ‘waste of £300,000 taxpayers’ money’ – The Guardian
Boffins’ £300k study finds ducks like rain – The Sun
Farmers condemn £300,000 Defra ducks survey – The Telegraph
Just quackers! Government spends £300,000 on three-year study to show ducks like rain – The Daily Mail

The study in question, Water off a duck’s back: Showers and troughs match ponds for improving duck welfare, was published nearly a year ago in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science. The researchers, from Oxford University, aimed to investigate the welfare of ducks reared for meat, as there is currently no legal requirement for farmers to provide the waterfowl access to bathing or swimming water. Many ducks only contact with water is in the form of drinking water from so-called “nipples” – basically a small tube.

Depriving ducks of water is a bit like the much vilified battery-farming method of rearing chickens. By placing the animals in an environment very far from one they would find in the wild, farmers sacrifice animal welfare in order to make a profit.

This is not the most glamorous of scientific studies, but it could have wide-reaching implications. Approximately 18 million ducks were reared for their meat in 2006, so the welfare of a large number of animals could be affected.

With this in mind, researchers tested the effects of four different water sources on ducks. The birds had access to either a bath for swimming, a trough for dipping their heads in and splashing water on their bodies, or an overhead shower. The fourth group’s only access to water was through the nipple drinkers, which were also given to the other three groups. Over the course of a month or so, the ducks were inspected to monitor the conditions of their eyes, nostrils and feathers, as well as their behaviour and ability to walk.

The results showed that the ducks deprived of bathing water were not as healthy as the others. The condition of both their bodies and plumage were affected – surely quite important if you’re trying to rear healthy ducks for the dinner table. It didn’t seem to matter what form the ducks’ access to water came in – baths, troughs or showers all did the trick. The researchers recommend that farmers stick to showers, as they are easier and cheaper to maintain.

So yes, you could say that with help of £294,027 from Defra, (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) scientists were able to conclude that ducks like water. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but if you actually bother to research the details then you no longer have a news story. Journalists could have gone and read the paper, which is easily understandable even to the layperson, or perhaps looked up the Defra report. But they didn’t. With the media calling for MPs’ heads to roll over the current expenses scandal, another opportunity to attack wasteful government spending is always welcome. This story isn’t really about science – it’s politics.

Piecing together the background of this story, I suspect that it has been engineered by the TaxPayers’s Alliance. This organisation campaigns for lower taxes, and criticises wasteful spending of public money.

The TPA have their own take on the story, written as if it were a response to a report in the Daily Star. Curiously though, the Star piece has a quote from Susie Squires, the TPA campaign manager. Squires appears in many of the other newspapers’ reports as well.

Despite claiming to be an “independent grassroots campaign” against “politicians of all parties”, the TPA have a distinctly Conservative streak. Two of its founders, Andrew Allum and Florence Heath were both leaders of the Imperial College Conservative association, and Allum was previously a Conservative member of Westminster City Council. The other, Matthew Elliot, has received numerous Conservative awards.

It appears to me that this “story” has been manufactured by the TaxPayer’s Alliance in order to attack the Labour government whilst it is still reeling from the expenses row. The scientists who carried out the original research have unfortunately been caught in the cross-fire of a political battle, that has little to do with the actual subject of the study.

In the grand scheme of things, £300,000 to improve animal welfare is a small amount of money. In 2004, when this research began, Defra had a budget of £3.153 billion – meaning this research accounted for less than 0.01% of the total cash available. It’s easy to mock scientific research like this, but perhaps journalists should do some research of their own before writing up their stories.

JONES, T., WAITT, C., & DAWKINS, M. (2009). Water off a duck’s back: Showers and troughs match ponds for improving duck welfare Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 116 (1), 52-57 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2008.07.008

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 19 May 2009 at 7:00 pm by Jessica Bland
In Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology, Science Policy

On the Guardian website last week, George Monbiot launched an all out attack on UK science funding entitled ‘These men would’ve stopped Darwin’. The men he is attacking are current research council bosses, as well as Lord Drayson, minister for science and innovation. Monbiot accuses them of damaging economic interference in science funding.

Last month’s budget ringfenced £106 million for science that showed “economic potential”. This was accompanied by a new mandate from research councils, asking that all new grant applications include a rundown of the research’s economic implications.

UK science is certainly becoming more business savvy. And this is changing how science is done. But it is not necessarily damaging it. Monbiot jumps from arguing that economic aims should not control scientific funding to the conclusion that scientists’ imaginations alone should have that job. For him, proper science is when scientists are free to pursue their passions; “it is about wonder and insight and beauty”.  He puts an absolute divide between scientist-led science and business-led science. If economic interests encroach on science funding, then, according to Monbiot,  scientist-led science will disappear.

But this is going too far. There is no great chasm between what scientists aim at and commercial aims. There is certainly tension between the two, but they are not distinct. Harold Varmus, president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York uses one particular example to illustrate this. Research into the biological processes behind cancer has been productive in recent years. So much so that work at the level of cell-processes is almost complete. In order to increase our understanding in this area, and perhaps develop new treatment, we do not need more medicalresearch but better computer-modelling. We need more mathematical research. If mathematicians working in abstract areas had not been publically funded over the last few decades, then we would be much further away from the relevant models.  The economic potential of new cancer treatments is huge. Whichever mathematicians get there first will open up the road to large-scale commercial possibilities. But this could not have been foreseen. IT was serendipitous.

Lord  Drayson’s response on Sunday made this point. Unfortunately, it was lost alongside both his defense of his own commercial record and forceful, pro-Labour concluding remarks. 

Drayson agreed that scientific serendipity is a necessary part of how science works, and that this scientist-led science should be protected. But this does exclude asking scientists to consider the economic implications of their work. Nor does it make it any easier to ask for more science funding from Alastair Darling’s already tight budget without promising the money to projects with economic potential.

Public spending on science is justified in one of two ways:

(1) Science is an academic discipline that finds out wonderful things.

(2) Science is part of the foundation of a knowledge economy and it’s output will help improve the economic climate.

Neither fully captures the real need for continued spending on science – that is a mixture of the two. But what Monbiot fails to acknowledge is the importance of the second. If you are in the business of convincing politicians to give more money to science, then talking in terms of economic outcomes looks like the more profitable route. And so that is the rhetoric that Drayson et al needs to use, even if they know in reality science doesn’t quite work like that.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 30 March 2009 at 4:34 pm by Sam Wong
In Climate Change & Environment, Science Policy

The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change was published, amid great fanfare, in 2006. The message of the 700 page document, commissioned by Gordon Brown when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, was simple: the cost of failing to act on climate change would be far greater than the cost of taking measures to mitigate it. The report concluded that countries would have to spend at least one per cent of GDP on measures to curb greenhouse gas emissions, or else the consequences of inaction could lead to a 20 per cent reduction in global GDP. Last year the author, economist Sir Nicholas Stern, revised his recommendation for expenditure on mitigation to two per cent.

Naturally the Stern Review was seized upon by the Climate Change lobby as a definitive demonstration that cutting carbon emissions not only made environmental sense but also economic sense. In truth, many academics have criticised the report, saying that its conclusions are based on questionable assumptions.

This is, of course, an inevitable part of trying to predict future economic trends, just as it is in predicting the course of climate change. Both are phenomenally complex systems, and it is therefore impossible to have any great confidence in the precise figures that Stern produced. However, the report undoubtedly had a huge impact in forcing policymakers to consider the economic consequences of ignoring climate change. As Mike Hulme, then director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, said when the report came out, ‘in a sense it’s neither here nor there whether you believe the numbers. This will take the discourse away from the costs of taking action and put attention onto the costs of inaction.’

Of course, since the Stern Review was published, the financial climate has changed dramatically. But Stern says in an interview with the Guardian published today that the recession could even spur on moves towards a low-carbon economy.

‘This recession is seen as something that would prevent action on climate change only if we confuse ourselves. If we think clearly, this is an opportunity to bring forward some of those investments, because resources are a bit cheaper at the moment. I’ve been struck that this climate change story has stayed very much on the agenda, the way that the green stimulus has been seen as part of the expansion package. In the next two or three decades, I think low-carbon technologies are going to be like the railways or IT – big drivers of growth.’

One of the stated aims of the G20 summit in London this week is to ‘put the global economy on track for sustainable growth’. Let us hope that those attending recognise that keeping environmental considerations in mind will be integral to achieving this goal.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 23 March 2009 at 5:05 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings, Science Policy

Nobel Prize winner Dr. Steven Chu is the US’s new energy secretary, appointed by President Obama earlier this year. This NYT article on his transition from physicist to policy maker makes for interesting reading.

Dr. Chu is finding his move from Stanford’s physics department to Washington like being “dumped in the deep end of the pool”. He says “I didn’t appreciate how much of a public figure you become,” as he struggles with no longer being able to speak his mind:

“I’m constantly being told that I have to be careful what I say to the press and in public. I can’t speculate out loud anymore. Everything I say is taken with total seriousness.”

His difficulty in adjusting highlights the difference between scientists and politicians. The scientist will do a lot of thinking, explore different possibilities and generally take their time. In contrast, the politician is expected to have all the answers at their fingertips and never put a foot wrong.

Dan Leistikow, the Energy Department’s director of public affairs, thinks we should allow Dr. Chu time to make the change. “A Nobel scientist is more likely to figure out Washington than a career politician is to figure out how to deal with carbon sequestration,” he said.

It seems though that politics really is a different world for Dr. Chu, as he finds that even Newton’s first law of motion doesn’t apply. Newton said that any object in motion will remain in motion, without the need for an external force. Not so in Washington. “In a bureaucracy, if you start something in motion, it either stops or gets derailed,” said Dr. Chu. “You have to keep applying force.”

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 17 March 2009 at 5:56 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings, Science Policy

The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Dius) is pressing the Treasury to follow in President Obama’s footsteps and promise more money for science. Dius wants an extra £1 billion to be pumped into scientific research, compared to the $21 billion (£15 billion) spent in the US economic stimulus package.

It may be small change compared to the banker’s bailouts, but ministers say without the money Britain will be left behind when it comes to scientific advances as scientists move abroad to countries with better funding. The money would be spent on new research centres, funding more young scientists, and developing new technologies for use in industry.

Various scientific funding bodies have supported the move. Speaking to BBC News, Nick Dusic of the Campaign for Science and Engineering said:

“President Obama has led the way by making investment in science and engineering central to US’s economic recovery and future prosperity.

“If there is going to be an economic stimulus package in the spring budget, science and engineering needs to be a central part of it.”

More money for science is always going to be a good thing in my book, but can we afford it? Well, we’ve spent almost £150 billion bailing out the banks – a fifth of Britain’s GDP. In this new financial landscape £1 billion seems like nothing, and the potential benefits to the economy mean it could pay for itself. New laboratories mean new buildings, new jobs and new opportunities for lucrative technologies.

“Investing in science and engineering would help address the government’s ambition to rebalance the economy,” Mr Dusic said.

“The government could complement boosting the supply of scientists with priming demand for it by facilitating investment in infrastructure projects and venture capital.”

So, will the Chancellor cough up the cash? We’ll have to wait see, as negotiations are ongoing.

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2 Comments » Posted on Sunday 15 February 2009 at 1:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Mathematics, Science Policy, Weekly Roundup

Wayne Rooney solves quadratic equations

The Independent have a lengthy interview with Marcus du Sautoy (the recently appointed Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science) about his thoughts on mathematics. He makes the argument that everyone has a “maths brain”, including Wayne Rooney:

“As a footballer, you’re trying to get in line with an incoming free kick. Wayne Rooney is subconsciously solving a quadratic equation every time he works out where to stand in the box. That doesn’t mean he can do it on paper and I’m sure he’s probably forgotten how to do it. But the point is that our brains are evolutionarily programmed to be able to do it.”

I’m never entirely convinced by this type of argument, as I don’t think your brain is really solving equations for you go about your life, but it’s always nice to see a bit of maths promotion. Have a read.

What should the government discuss?

The House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee is inviting members of the public to suggest topics for discussion at an oral evidence hearing to be held in a few months time. If you’ve got some scientific grievances that need airing in public, now is your chance.

Any topic under the remit of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills will be considered, as long as it is not already covered by an existing enquiry. Your idea must also be examinable in under two hours, and appropriately timed for either April or May.

After reading du Sautoy’s interview above, an idea might be to look into what can be done to stop bankers poaching all the top science graduates. Perhaps I’ll get around to writing it up…

Apocalypse meh

The Met Office Hadley Centre, an government organisation involved in climate change research, suggests that “apocalyptic predictions” about global warming are just as bad as claims that the phenomenon does not exist. Dr Vicky Pope is head of climate change advice at the Met Office, and says that scientists and journalists must stop misleading the public.

“Having to rein in extraordinary claims that the latest extreme [event] is all due to climate change is at best hugely frustrating and at worse enormously distracting. Overplaying natural variations in the weather as climate change is just as much a distortion of science as underplaying them to claim that climate change has stopped or is not happening.”

A common misrepresentation is to extrapolate off only a few years data, which could lead to puclic confusion when scientists’ predictions don’t actually occur, says Dr Peter Stott, a climate researcher at the Met Office.

“The reality is that extreme events arise when natural variations in the weather and climate combine with long-term climate change.”

“This message is more difficult to get heard. Scientists and journalists need to find ways to help to make this clear without the wider audience switching off.”

4 Comments » Posted on Friday 30 January 2009 at 3:19 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings, Science Policy

This week saw the launch of a new government campaign designed to reduce the perception that science is “elitist” by promoting the ways scientific advances enrich our everyday lives.

Run by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), Science [So What? So Everything] has a swanky looking website complete with Web2.0 curved corners, and you can even follow the campaign on Twitter.

An advert from the campaign
An advert from the campaign.

The adverts all follow a similar theme, illustrating various things that science offers people such as healthier diets for babies, laser eye surgery, and of course Facebook. The government hopes that campaign will help build a more science-literate society, after a government survey last year found that more than half of respondents felt science was too difficult for most people to understand.

Science Minister Lord Drayson met with celebrities including Terry Pratchett (the sci-fi author who is now searching for a cure for his Alzheimer’s) and Heston Blumenthal (celebrity chef with a taste for molecular gastronomy) in Downing Street to launch the campaign on Wednesday.

He praised Britain for being a world-leader in science, second only to the US, and stressed that as maintaining this standard will be vital for our future, the public perception of a scientific elite needs to change:

“We must challenge myths like these if we are to build a prosperous, science-literate society, able to tackle the difficult issues that modern science presents and work them through to create the jobs and growth of the future.

“Science is going to be an important tool for getting us out of this downturn. We all need to be aware of the impact of science on our lives. We also need more trained scientists and engineers to help build the Britain of the future in key areas such as earth and life sciences.

“My job is to make sure these messages are understood.”

The trouble is, I’m not sure these adverts actually do challenge the perception of science as “elitist”. In essence, they boil down to the government saying “Look you, sit down and listen. Science has done all these things for you, so you’d better be bloody grateful for once.”

Ironically, given my thoughts on the service earlier this week, I think it’s actually the Twitter account that is the most interesting part of this campaign. Following the discussion there, it seems like some actual two-way conversation on science between the people and the government is taking place. The rest – the website, the adverts – is just the usual stuff dressed up in a bunch of [square brackets] to make it look hip and modern.

Perhaps our government should take a look across the pond at how President Obama’s administration is using new technology to talk to it’s citizens. Maybe the campaign slogan should be revised: Science: [So What? So Twitter]…

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 20 December 2008 at 6:22 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Science Policy

President-elect Barack Obama has chosen the scientists who will help shape his administation’s science policy. In his latest weekly address, he lays out the importance of science for the future of America, and introduces the new team:

(You can read the full text of the address here.)

It includes Dr. John Holdren who will serve as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, a physicist known for his work on climate and energy – two of the most important scientific areas for America today.

Joining him on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technologywill be Dr. Harold Varmus, who won a Nobel Prize for research into the causes of cancer, and Dr. Eric Lander, who worked towards sequencing the human genome.

Finally, Dr. Jane Lubchenco will be Administrator the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is in charge of conserving marine and coastal resources as well as monitoring the weather.

It’s a refreshing change to see Obama surrounding himself with knowledgeable men and women in order to properly inform himself about the scientific issues at hand. Hopefully the new team will hit the ground running – unlike under Bush’s watch, who’s science advisor wasn’t even appointed until 10 months in to his administration.

A slight tangent, but an interesting point nonetheless, is how I learnt of this news. It wasn’t from the mainstream media – indeed, a glance at major news outlets seems to show that they aren’t even running the story. Rather, I picked it up from The Intersection blog (I’m currently reading Chris Mooney’s book The Republican War on Science, so look for a review soonish), and then watched the video on Youtube to hear the news straight from the man himself. Obama truly is the internet President, and I’m extremely interested to see how his use of technology will shape his administration.

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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 20 November 2008 at 7:22 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Musings, Science Policy

So, I had been planning to write about Paul Drayson, the new UK science minister, and his recent comments about having a “sixth sense”, but it appears that my course mate Tim has beaten me to the punch in saying most of what I was going to. I guess I could use a sixth sense of my own…

Nevertheless, I still have a few comments to make about the propogation of Drayson’s comments through the media. If you haven’t seen the story, here’s the Daily Mail’s offering: “Science Minister has sixth sense“.

What did he actually say? Well, the quote arose from an interview in the Sunday Times, under the headline “Paul Drayson: He’s Buzz Lightyear of the cabinet“. Its a long interview, that ranges on topics from his policies to his private life.

Near, the end, talk turns to his personal belief in God, which leads on to a discussion about intuition. Drayson relays his thoughts on a book on the subject – Blink by Malcom Gladwell – and says “This struck a chord with me because in my life there have been some things that I’ve known and I don’t know why.”

Now, here’s the important bit. It is the interviewer Isabel Oakeshott that uses the phrase “sixth sense”, and she does so “half in jest”. Drayson replies: “Yes, like a sixth sense,” and that he believes “there’s a lot we don’t understand about human capability.”

Arguably, Drayson should choose his words more carefully. If he had spoken directly of “intuition” for example, rather than picking up on Oakeshott’s “sixth sense” phrase, the story probably would never have arisen. If you’re the government’s representative on science, referring to supernatural idea is going to be too hard for your typical journo to resist, and that was the case here. On the same day, the section of the interview was spun out into another article by Oakeshott: “I saw it coming, says minister of sixth sense Lord Drayson“, which is where all these other stories presumably arise from.

These stories include the Telegraph’s “‘I have a sixth sense’ claims science minister Lord Drayson“. The quote in the headline is, of course, incorrect.

Now it has to be said, I don’t think science or scientists are being directly harmed by this reporting. It’s Drayson (and by extension the Labour government) who are made to appear foolish, but on the other hand foreign scientists who read the story might be left with a bad impression of the UK. After all, if we’ve got a guy who can predict the future as UK science minister, what must UK scientists be like? Hopefully Drayson will learn from the incident, and think a bit more about just who he represents!

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 19 November 2008 at 12:03 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Getting It Right, Science Policy, Yes, But When?

[This post was meant to go up yesterday, but due to technical difficulties with Virgin Media my internet access is currently limited. Blog updates may be unfortunately sporadic this week.]

Conservative MPs are to be made scientifically literate from the next election, The Times is reporting. Newly elected members will be taught about scientific method and other concepts, in a move to address concerns about the lack of scientific knowledge in Parliament. Existing MPs and peers from the House of Lords will also be offered the chance to attend the induction sessions.

The plan is being spearheaded by Adam Afriyie, the party’s spokesman for science and innovation. He does not have a scientific background himself, but, sees the importance of a basic scientific understanding for politicians. Speaking to The Times, he said:

“The evidence-based scientific approach extends well beyond subjects like embryology or GM crops. It is also critical to social policy and criminal sentencing, and it cuts across all areas of government.”

Be it climate change, GM food or stem cell research, science is increasingly entering in to the political sphere. Despite this, the over whelming majority of politicians and civil servants come from a humanities background. According to the Times, both the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet have just one member each with a science related degree; John Denham, Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, who studied chemistry; and Liam Fox, Shadow Defence Secretary and a medical doctor.

I have to congratulate the Conservatives on this new initiative, and can only hope that Labour and the Lib Dems will follow suit. The Tories are acknowledging that science plays an important role in our society, and that basic understanding of the facts is a necessity in navigating the issues arising from that role. Hopefully their MPs will now avoid phrases such as “humanzee” and “minotaur” when discussing hybrid embryos, for example, and debates can be carried out in a more reasoned manner. One can only hope.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 16 September 2008 at 2:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Education, Science Policy, Yes, But When?

In our increasingly technological world, scientific understanding is a vital skill for any modern day politician. Our leaders need to know how to tackle problems like climate change and manage controversial research such as stem cell research. Science is becoming politicised more and more, and for the past eight years the President of the United States has been extremely anti-science. George Bush has vetoed bills on stem cell research – a technology that could be used to save millions of lives – and also refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which required signatory countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

In less than two months time, on November 4th, America will elect a new “leader of the free world” in the form of either Barack Obama or John McCain. A self-styled “small group of citizens” decided in November 2007 that a presidential debate on science was required. They formed Science Debate 2008.

Thousands of scientists, engineers and others agreed with the need for debate, and submitted over 3,400 questions for the candidates. These were whittled down to 14 key topics, and submitted to the presidential hopefuls. Obama submitted his answers a few weeks ago, and now that McCain has provided his as well, we can compare the politicians views on science. You can read the full answers, or stick with me for a summary. Quotes are attributed to [O]bama or [Mc]Cain where appropriate.

Head to head on science.

Innovation: Both candidates were concerned with America’s slide from being a leading scientific nation. Obama pointed out that the US is 17th among developed nations for science and engineering degrees – down from third place 30 years ago. He promised increased funding for both research and teachers. McCain also promised more money for researchers and education reform, as well as the defence of American intellectual property around the world. He sees the nurturing of technology, particularly in communication, as key to solving “critical problems” [Mc] like climate change.

Climate change: Speaking of which, both candidates saw climate change as an important issues. McCain said it demanded “urgent attention” [Mc], and Obama believed “there can no longer be any doubt” [O] of human influence on the climate. They were also in agreement on policy: a carbon trading system would be put in place to reduce emissions by 60% below 1990 levels for McCain and 80% for Obama.

Energy: The candidates agree on the need for a sustainable energy policy. Both favour an increased reliance on nuclear power, in addition to renewables such as wind energy. Obama also highlighted the importance of a “more efficient use of energy” [O], utilising new technology to reduce waste.

Education: Obama and McCain both want to increase learning in science and maths by recruiting more teachers in the subjects and paying them more. McCain also spoke of encouraging private corporations to help “identify and maximize” [Mc] potential in students, whilst Obama promised tax credits for higher education in science.

National Security: McCain credited the military for driving forward technology that we all use today: the internet, GPS and Teflon, to name a few. He promised increased research funding for American forces, as did Obama.

Pandemics and Biosecurity: Both candidates emphasised that the US was not fully prepared to respond to attacks by bioweaponry, and pledged money for research into vaccination and detection technology.

Genetics research: In line with the general American attitude to GM food, both candidates favoured research into crops that could lead to higher yields, though Obama stressed the need for “stringent tests” [O] and “stronger regulatory oversight” [O]. They also agreed on genetic modification in humans, stating that whilst gene therapy had the potential to change lives, care had to be taken to avoid “genetic discrimination” [Mc].

Stem cells: An extremely controversial issue in the US, the candidates were divided on stem cell research. Obama “strongly support[s] expanding research on stem cells”, [O] and would lift the ban laid down by President Bush in 2001. He suggested that the “hundreds of thousands of embryos” [O] stored (unused) in fertilization clinics could ethically be used for research, because they would eventually be destroyed anyway. In comparison, McCain refused to “sacrifice moral values and ethical principles for the sake of scientific progress” [Mc], hoping that adult stem cell research would one day rendered the debate “academic” [Mc]. Obama views adult stem cells as falling short of the “gold standard” of embryonic stem cells.

Ocean Health: Both candidates waxed lyrical on their love of the ocean (McCain was a former officer in the US Navy) but had little to say on actual policy. Obama is in favour of ratifying the UN Law of the Sea Convention, which in part refers to ocean conservation.

Space: McCain questioned “whether we can afford not to” [Mc] continue exploration of space, and pointed out that “space activities have contributed greatly to US scientific discovery, national security, economic development and national innovation” [Mc]. He pledged to make space exploration a “top priority” [Mc] and to minimise the gap between the decommissioning of the Space Shuttle and the launch of its replacement. Obama promised NASA “will inspire the world with both human and robotic space exploration” [O] and would help confront challenges such as climate change and energy independence.

Scientific integrity: The candidates took a swipe at George Bush as they agreed that “government decisions should be based on…scientifically-valid evidence” [O] and that “denial of the facts” [Mc] will not help solve “critical problems” [Mc] for the country. They both promised to appoint science advisers as key parts of their administration.

Research: Both candidates promised increased funding in basic research which they view as “the foundation for many new discoveries” [Mc], with Obama pledging cash “at a rate that would double basic research budgets over the next decade” [O].

Health: Understandably, the candidates focused mostly on the cost of the provision of healthcare, rather than the science, but both praised the “scientific and technological developments” [Mc] of US medical research.

Honestly, when it comes to scientific policy, it doesn’t seem there is a huge difference between the two candidates. The only clear difference of opinion I can see is on stem cells, with the candidates following the party policy that you would expect. Does this render Science Debate 2008 pointless? I think not. Their answers to the questions raised in the debate total over 10,000 words – words which have no doubt been put through the wringer of PR and policy making. Even if the debate doesn’t help choose a President, it has certainly got the candidates (and hopefully the nation) thinking about science again.

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