Continuing in my seemingly never-ending quest to round up news related to the #SciVote campaign of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) to promote and improve science policy, here’s a few bits and bobs.
The Guardian’s running a series whereby questions provided by a panel of people with interests in the sciences are sent off to the main political parties. Their answers are published and examined. Yesterday it was the Lib Dems and from one extreme to the other, the UK Independence Party replies were in today. All I can say about them from my own perspective is Viscount Monckton, their science spokesman, must be in some way savvy with science in order to so well position himself against the views of scientists. His answers, which seem based on a crusade to cancel all climate science, are analysed here, from where the quote “On the plus side, Ukip has presented a drugs policy more progressive than some” might well be part of the explanation of where UKIP’s other scientific positions come from. Or maybe they might just pick it all up from the news, which can, as in the case of the (non)rise in earthquake activity, form an exaggerated view of science. The papers trade in the currency of sensationalism and impact, they’ll pump and idea for all its worth, occasionally allowing one or another to form currency with public opinion in a bubble of credibility that can either collapse when an event removes the semi-scientific foundations or it can drag out a long demise, raging against the dying of the light, when confronted over a long period of time with significant but not as sensational evidence that it is wrong.
So why can’t MPs and others in public office, who also trade in opinion and impact see through the hype? Well, it may be to do with their backgrounds. Everyone knows the law is overrepresented in the houses of parliament as a professional background to MPs entering the commons, but by how large a factor? The answer is the proportion of MPs with law backgrounds is 133 times the proportion of the population with the same. The runner up professions in terms of representation in parliament compared to the general population are Politician, Journalist and Solicitor.
With their minds on the polls and not quite anywhere else, it is unsurprising that there are such things as a memo to Conservative candidates banning them during the election from supporting cancer charities in order not to give the false impression that money would be available to accede to their aspirations. This even though, as pointed out in that article, the actual science is producing things like this that make the aspirations of cancer charities that little bit more affordable. Plus there’s no charge for offering a bit of morale support or having the desire to do something even if the cash isn’t presently around.
Of course the mention of cash brings us back to science funding. Politicians see the process of science as that of travelling down a ancient Roman road, long, arduous with a destination and a long way to reach it. Project proposers in science see it as more of a maze being explored by a robot capable of learning from its mistakes. Dead ends need to be encountered to rule them out and every null result is a result. Researchers coming in to projects that have been managed to get past the politicians see something more akin to spaghetti junction with just a few of the possible directions of the maze linked together in a series of roads that have definite destinations and start points in the mind of the architects, with as much flexibility in the journey as possible, but just look like a mess to anyone trying to negotiate their way.
Such a reasoning was behind Sir Paul Nurse’s call for ‘more elitist’ funding, which would encourage more researchers to take the hard slog through the maze and direct the money from more obvious Roman road projects designed more for their ‘impact’ than their quality of science. An expanded version of his interview with the Times is given here.
For some constituencies, there is some hope of deciding whether they have a Roman or a Maze minded politician. Loughborough, for example, is hosting a science question time for its candidates from all main parties and UKIP (…) on Thursday at 7:30pm, with possible opening remarks in the half hour before that. Registration is free for all, but advanced booking is required.
For those who plan on doing something that will encompass all parliamentary candidates on Thursday, there is another debate going on that night from 7-9pm at the Attenborough Studio of the Natural History Museum called Is Anybody Out There, (part of the Nature Live Nights series of events), which brings together the public, astrobiologists and meteorite researchers to discuss how we’re presently looking for life and what we should do if life finds us first.