Tag Archives: science policy

Science and growth

Last week I co-organised a debate on science and growth, one of a regular* “Science Question Time” seminars.

The idea that science might equal growth is something which has dominated UK science policy discourse for several years (e.g. David Willetts’ first speech as Science Minister). But can the government pick winners, and how can we ensure public coffers benefit from such public investment? Perhaps we need to think in different terms entirely – should we be looking to technology for sustainability, rather than growth? Is an unrelenting focus on growth a bit irresponsible? (see, for example, the Royal Society’s recent People and the Planet report).

We brought together a panel consisting of Penny Attridge (SPARK Ventures), Rebekah Higgitt** (National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory), Mariana Mazzucato*** (SPRU, University of Sussex) and James Meadway (new economics foundation), chaired by Jack Stilgoe (University of Exeter) and involving a diverse audience largely drawn from science, policy and journalism for what turned out to be an exciting and lively debate.

Yes, exiting and lively, about innovation policy, really and truly, I promise. It was even funny at times. You can listen to a podcast of the event for yourself:



* The last event was in March, on nuclear policy. You can also listen to a podcast of this event. That was played over 120,000 times, so it must be good (nothing to do with it having been Boing-ed, not at all…).

** Becky’s written up her notes for the evening with some good links on her blog.

*** Professor Mazzucato’s contribution was dominated by questions of rebalancing the economy (and what we might mean by this) with a particular focus on the capturing of structures and rewards of innovative labour by the financial sector. You can read her report on this for the Policy Network, published yesterday (see also her piece for the Guardian).

Opening up science funding

Keep Science Public – from Science is Vital Rally, Autumn 2010

Adam Smith (no, not that one, or that one, or that one, the science writer one) has a new series of posts for the Guardian on science policy starting today. His first post raises several questions, including who should set the goals for science? Scientists themselves? Or politicians? How might the public be involved in this?

I think we should open up these sorts of questions more to the public. There’s a long history of science communication in the UK, but we tend to focus on the stuff science tells us about the world, not the politics of science itself. Popularisation of scientific ideas is all well and good – sometimes important, sometimes fun, sometimes both – I’m glad we do it. But I want more public debate about the politics and structures of science too. I’d like to live in a society where we have more public debate about the science we could have, not just the science we’ve been given.

Obviously we don’t know what science we’ll have until we try some. The public can’t just present science with a shopping list “vaccine for cancer, anti-baldness pill, spray on cleverness and ever-lasting pollution free fuel, thanks”. Setting the goals of science isn’t about controlling what scientists find, only what they choose to look at and how. This happens already, so I think it should, as much as possible, happen in the open with the public involved. We can’t say what science should find, but we can discuss what challenges science might try to address, what questions it might ask and what we might do with the multiple choices which new technologies provide us (for more on the last of these, see this old post on the history of fridges). You can’t have a referendum on whether the Earth is Flat, but we can have a discussion about whether checking the Earth is flat or not is something we want to be doing.

I suggested more public engagement with science funding at Lord Taverne’s Sense About Science lecture last week (audio). Taverne had joked that the public trust scientists as long as their not funded by industry or the government, and I suggested that maybe then, we needed more public engagment with science funding. Taverne’s response wasn’t especially satisfactory – I wondered if he’d heard me properly – as he seemed to say we might have to give up on public funding of science entirely and rely on the Wellcome Trust. I find that quite depressing. I’m not sure I’m ready to give up of the public funding of science yet, and I stand by the idea that we could try to involve the public in this process (indeed, never know, the latter might help us support the former).

Science policy is very dry. It’s full of a lot of dull discussion about the geekier everyday ends of science and an awful lot of bureaucracy. If I was feeling cynical, I might argue that it suits a fair few policy makers and scientists to keep this debate so dry as a way to keep public scrutiny out. That might be unfair. Still, science funding could actually be one of the most exciting areas of science storytelling, if we let it. A few people have started looking into public engagement projects (The IFR at Norwich, Cobi Smith in Canberra) and research councils increasingly include a range of ‘lay’ members of peer review panels. As I’ve argued before, in terms of upstream science journalism, I think it’d make good stories for science media too.

I’ve always thought that CP Snow line about scientists having the future in their bones was a tad overblown, but there is a truth in there somewhere, and it’s an exciting truth I’d like to share with more people. Deciding our future, as best as we can, shouldn’t be left to the privileged few.

In praise of POST

If you are even the slightest bit interested in science and technology policy, you really should know about the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (or POST as it’s more commonly known).

POST is the UK Parliament’s in-house office for analysis of science policy issues. Obviously it could do a lot more than it does and there are oodles of problems with it, yadda, yadda, yadda, but it’s Friday and I think they’re worthy of a little celebration.

About 20-30 times a year they publish briefing notes on specific issues. These vary, but can be brilliantly clear introductions to the often highly complex, multi-disciplinary and uncertain issues of science and technology policy. They’ve just published their 400th POSTnote, on climate variability and weather. These are often produced by young scientists on a placement and according to the POST twitter account, this one was produced with the assistance of Matt Ashfold, a NERC funded PhD student from Cambridge.

The whole archive of POSTnotes is worth a look though. A great resource and, for science policy geeks, a great way to loose a few hours on a cold afternoon.

For fracks sake

“Who even invented that word fracking anyway? I bet it was an environmentalist.”

Anthony Giddens, 17th January 2012

Anthony Giddens doesn’t seem to like the word fracking. At a debate on shale gas at the Policy Network earlier this week he wrapped his mouth around it as if the very sound produced a bad smell right there under his nose. It sounds ever so slightly like a rude word you see (I know. Naughty) which leads to punning headlines which sensationalises debate.

I disagree with this as necessarily a problem though. In fact, I’m all for punning headlines when it comes to very esoteric debates like shale gas. Yeah, you could see it as a distraction from real* issues. Or you could see it as an invitation. This thing that sometimes gets called “sensationalism” is not necessarily a bad thing.

The crucial issue for me was that Giddens expressed this distaste for the word fracking while sitting in a small, not especially full room in the centre of Westminster; a small room in the shadow of Big Ben, above an ecclesiastical outfitters and nestled behind one of the UK’s most exclusive private schools. There were at least two members of the House of Lords there. Possibly more (I’m not very good at peer-spotting). There were certainly a lot of suits. Apparently it was an open event, although an academic from the LSE also told me it was invite only and although it may not have been intensionally closed, it did feel a tad elitist. I felt scared emailing to ask if I could go, and slightly out of place when I arrived. And I work for two of top universities in the country. I even used to work in those offices, above J Whipple and Sons ecclesiastical outfitters, back when it was rented by NESTA. I should feel reasonably at home there.

I should make it clear that I don’t want energy policy dictated by punning headline. I do want people who make the decisions on these issues to take the time to be expert, probably for them to understand it better than I do and talk about things I don’t have time to learn how to understand. I like that people sit in small rooms in Westminster being a bit geeky. But I do not want them to be disdainful of popular debate while they do so. In fact, I’d want them to spend time thinking about how to open the debate up as much as possible. Punning headlines being part of that.

Let’s take, for example the Fracking Song which includes this little beauty of a lyric: “What the frack is going on with all this fracking going on, I think we need some facts to come to light…” (complete a slight emphasis on facts to assonate with frack). The song accompanies a short animated video which is offered as an introduction to the issue, something it’s makers describe as an “explainer”. They stress that an explainer is not meant to take the place of the detailed investigation, it’s just a starting point. It’s a lovely bit of video; really makes you feel like you understand an issue and are able and want to know more. It is also, I should underline still a framing of the issue, a starting point from a particular position. For all that the word explainer may sound comfortingly straightforward, logical and educational, it is still a version of the more complex events going on. It is still a take on the topic, a story, form of spin even. That lovely feeling where you think you understand an issue is produced because it’s such a great piece of rhetoric. That’s not to say it’s necessarily a bad thing, just that it’s rhetoric. Lots of things are rhetoric. Including all the debate from Giddens et al I heard on shale gas (not fracking) at the Policy Network. One person’s “sensationalism” is another’s “hit the nail on the head”.

So, let’s talk about fracking. And if Giddens thinks this is the wrong way into a debate about shale gas he should join in and help enrich public debate, not turn his nose up at it.

* Whatever the “real” issues are. Personally, I think the focus of these issues is up for debate, which is part of the point. Incidentally, I don’t think it was an environmental campaigner who coined the term fracking, it’s been an industrial process for several decades. But even if it was I’m not entirely sure what the problem is.

EDITED TO ADD: years ago, when I was an undergrad studying science in the mass media I wrote an essay on the politics of sensationalism and remember reading this paper (paywall, sorry). Not sure I agreed with it then, or now, but people reading this might find it interesting.