Science Online New York (SoNYC) encourages audience participation in the discussion of how science is carried out and communicated online. To tie in with June’s event which looks at how scientists reach out of the ivory tower, communicating science to the public, we’re hosting a series of guest posts on the nature.com blogs. We will hear from a range of contributors: scientists, writers, enthusiasts, communicators, events organizers, policy makers and teachers, each sharing details about how they engage and reach out to the public.
Mark Henderson is the author of The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters, published by Bantam Press, which explores the relationship between science and politics. He is also Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust. He joined the Trust in January 2011 after 15 years at The Times, where he was Science Editor.
At The Times, Mark was instrumental in founding Eureka, the newspaper’s monthly science magazine, and developed a reputation as one of the UK’s leading science journalists. He won several awards for his journalism: three prizes from the Medical Journalists’ Association, the Royal Statistical Society’s prize for statistical excellence in journalism, and the European Best Cancer Reporter prize from the European School of Oncology.
His first book, 50 Genetics Ideas You Really Need to Know, was published in 2009.
On 15 April 2010, Simon Singh walked out of the High Court in London to cheers from waiting supporters. The Court of Appeal had made a critical ruling in his favour in a libel action brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association, which forced the claimant to drop the suit. It was a pivotal moment in the campaign to reform England’s defamation laws, which place a heavy burden of proof on defendants and allow no public interest defence: a libel reform bill was presented in the Queen’s Speech on May 9 this year. And it wouldn’t have happened without geeks.
Two years previously, Singh, a science writer, had published a piece in the Guardian commenting on “chiropractic awareness week.” “You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems,” he had declared, “but in fact they still possess some quite wacky ideas. The British Chiropractic Association [BCA] claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.”
The chiropractors sued, and given the difficulty and expense of defending libel claims in England, and a legal ruling holding that his use of the word “bogus” implied a charge of deliberate dishonesty, there was every possibility that Singh would simply give up and apologise. That he did not owed much to a groundswell of support he received from scientists, skeptics and other critical thinkers, who blogged and attended public meetings in his support. Together, these disparate voices began a “quacklash” against the BCA, reporting unsubstantiated claims such as those highlighted by Singh to the authorities. They gave him the confidence he needed to fight on, and win.
This remarkable campaign didn’t stop there. Organisations such as Sense About Science, a UK charity, successfully channeled this mood of geek outrage into a petition, ultimately signed by more than 60,000 people, and into clever lobbying of key politicians. All the main parties promised reform to libel law in their 2010 election manifestoes, and a bill is now edging its way through Parliament.
The Singh case is the best example of an emerging trend in UK science that I highlight in my book The Geek Manifesto: the growing willingness of people who care about science – geeks, if you like – to find a political voice. There are others: the surprising weight of the backlash against the sacking of Professor David Nutt as the government’s chief drugs adviser, and a well-judged campaign to protect science funding in the 2010 spending review (which began here on Nature Network).
The argument of the book is that this new force needs to develop still further, because politics, on both sides of the Atlantic, could use a little more input from science. Of the 650 MPs in the UK’s House of Commons, 138 have a background in business, 90 are professional politicians, 86 are lawyers, and just one is a scientist. In the US, the Senate boasts no scientists or engineers at all and 55 lawyers. And these figures are symptomatic of a disconnect between science and politics that serves neither well.
When politicians come to manage science, their lack of experience of what it is like to work in a laboratory or to do research leads them into error time and again. Think of George Bush’s absurd stem cell compromise, which led labs to buy two sets of equipment – one to spend on sanctioned embryonic stem cell lines with federal money, and the other with which to pursue work funded from other sources.
Political use of science also leaves much to be desired. Scientific evidence is cherry-picked by politicians to justify decisions taken for other reasons (which may or may not be appropriate): successive British Home Secretaries did this over drugs policy in the years that culminated in Professor Nutt’s decision.
With few among their number who appreciate the scientific approach to problem-solving, politicians seldom realize how those methods could contribute to better policy-making. Randomised controlled trials, for example, are not deployed to test ideas about educational practice or sentencing policy nearly as often as they could be.
Sometimes, and more often in the US than in the UK, this comes about because of the actions of politicians who are actively hostile to science. But more frequently, it is the result of simple indifference. MPs and Congressmen simply haven’t thought much about what science might contribute, because it isn’t an issue on which they get lobbied, and it certainly isn’t one that plays a big part in how people vote. There’s no political cost to doing it badly.
That’s why I think that scientists, and those who care about science, need to engage with politics much more significantly than has hitherto been the case. We need to support candidates whose approach to science we value – even, perhaps especially, when they do not come from the party we would normally support – and refuse to support those who consistently get it wrong. We need to lobby assiduously, as happened in the Singh case, and to join organisations that can lobby effectively on our behalf, such as the Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK and Research! America in the US.
Mary Woolley, President of Research! America, a US advocacy group, described the challenge recently as “the Starbucks test”. “When she speaks to groups of researchers, she asks them if they would recognize their member of Congress if they were waiting in the same line for coffee,’ New Scientist magazine reported. ‘Most say yes. Then she asks: would they recognize you? Most hands go down. Woolley’s point is that members of Congress know the top lawyers in their districts, the leading small business owners, and so on. And they see them as key players in the constituency they’ve been elected to serve. In this Congress, more than ever, scientists will need to ensure that they are part of this picture, too.’
If we can achieve this sort of recognition, we’ll deserve a better class of politicians with a better appreciation of science. I think we’ll start to get them, too, as they begin to realise they have to engage properly with science to keep their geek constituents happy and that doing so might even win them a few votes. We’ll help politicians to help science, to give it the support it needs. And in time, we might even persuade more of them to use science more constructively to design policies that are fit for purpose.