Category Archives: Science Politics And Policy
The new economics foundation (nef) tells us that, as of today, the UK has used the levels of resources it should consume during an entire year, if it were environmentally self-sufficient. In 1961, nef calculates, the UK’s annual eco-debt began on 9 July; by 1981 it was 14 May, but in 2009 it falls on 12 April, Easter Sunday. But how can we help people in their daily lives to address and cope with these frightening calculations constructively, rather than such information just causing further alarm? Science and ‘facts’ alone won’t get us where we all need to be.
Sustainability As If People Mattered.
I’m not sure that those of us already concerned with sustainability approach these matters in the best way to engage others yet to be converted – nef* says Easter Sunday (eco-debt day 2009) is ‘a day which for many has become synonymous with over-indulgence’. That’s a pretty unempathetic perspective on one of the UK’s few annual family holidays.
Sometimes perhaps the force of our convictions and fears about sustainability can make us sound a bit crass.
Offering hope, not inferring guilt
Inducing guilt and/or alarm is not often the most effective mode by which to gain mass support, in an open democracy, for complex and uncomfortable change. Personally, I’d rather see Easter as an occasion with a message, whether sacred or secular, of new beginnings and hope – an opportunity for positive reflection on the future.
Eco-protagonists and scientists are vitally important to our understanding of what’s happening to the environment. But they’re not always good at helping people in the wider community to face up to the enormous environmentally-related challenges which, we must urgently acknowledge, are already upon us.
Research findings and predictions based on rational calculation do not always translate as clearly as the scientists imagine into policy acceptable to the wider citizenry. To the person in the street it can all seem just too difficult and scary, well beyond the scope of ‘ordinary folk’.
Engaging people for positive change
Nonetheless, the UK’s increasing eco-debt is desperately alarming, and something we need to get everyone to think about, right now.
The question is, how?
[* Andrew Simms (2009) Ecological Debt: Global Warming and the Wealth of Nations, cited in Transition Network News, March 2009. Andrew Simms is nef Policy Director and Head of the Climate Change Programme.]
Read more articles on Sustainability As If People Mattered.
Are the Natural and Physical Sciences squaring up for inter-disciplinary combat? Each requires huge sums of money to maintain research momentum, but who decides what research offers best value? How can we measure Particle Physics ‘against’ say, environmental technologies? With their vast ‘pure research’ budgets to secure, perhaps the Physicists will now also discover that evaluating research investment regenerational impacts supports their case.
The rumblings of dissent between the physical and natural scientists are getting louder. There is a view abroad that investment in areas like Particle and Theoretical Physics is too expensive, when we need urgently to develop sustainable, ‘One Planet Living‘ technologies.
Applied or fundamental research?
Today’s Guardian newspaper (6 September ’08) has an article about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – a facility (apparatus or laboratory) in Geneva which will cost £5bn over the next 20 years – which adds substance to these rumblings. Prof. Sir David King, previously the UK Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, argues that ‘big’ money for scientific research is best spent encouraging top scientists to address climate change and related environmental issues; Britain has so far contributed about £500m to the LHC.
The Physicists however argue that thus far we know about only 5% of what constitutes the universe; we cannot stop exploration of the fundamental nature of matter.
Both perspectives are valid. But which will hold sway?
The environmental research argument is compelling to people who know little about science, as well as many (often including natural scientists who feel short of funding) who do. The fundamental, ‘science for the sake of knowledge’ position is also persuasive, but perhaps only really to those who already perceive the deep intellectual challenges of exploring the nature of matter.
It was probably alright to leave science decisions to the scientists a century ago, when the Haldane Principle decreed that political involvement in research decisions was unacceptable. But things have changed, and science is now infinitely more expensive than it was then.
How, on behalf of UK plc, should the Government allocate its cash? Decisions on specific scientific programmes are still made by the Research Councils; but overall allocations are decided by the politicians.
The socio-economic case
Some while ago, practitioners in the Arts and Culture began to espouse the ‘socially useful’ position: what they do should be supported because it helps community development and regeneration generically, and makes jobs.
My expectation is that, finally, the physical scientists may catch on to the same notion.
Currently, there is little of any discussion about how investment in Big Science – the large research facility programmes – impacts on the locations in which it is placed. In the future this may change.
Jobs and infrastructure
Some 10,000 scientists are employed by (and were attracted to work in) the LHC; and that’s before we get to the armies of scribes and other support staff required for such a programme. This, inevitably, must have a huge impact on the various economies in which LHC is embedded.
Scientists until now have held the idea that ‘value-added‘ – the additional socio-economic regenerational (as opposed to simply business) impact of research investment, over and above its scientific value as such – is irrelevant to their decisions about which proposals to support. Research funds may be from the public purse, but regenerational impact, we are told, is irrelevant to decisions about where programmes are located.
This high-minded dismissal of non-science-related socio-economic impact, I predict, is about to come to an end. Many technologists and natural scientists, like their more arty colleagues, now make compelling cases for how useful their work will be to society, within quite short time spans.
This is the only way practitioners in the more abstract and fundamental physical sciences can go, in terms of short-term impact. They will have to begin, however reluctantly, to acknowledge the legitimacy of questions about the ways their huge budgets can, alongside unravelling the mysteries of the universe, provide improvements to local economies, infrastructures and regional regenerational prospects.
You read it here first.
Science, Regeneration & Sustainability
From Regeneration To Sustainability: A Northern Take On Knowledge
Summary: This is a version of the Keynote Lecture I gave at the NUREC 2008 conference, in Liverpool on 28 July 08.
In it we explore the connections between Knowledge Economies and Ecologies, and Big Science and Regeneration, especially in regional and sub-regional settings, and in respect of issues around Sustainability.
My basic thesis is that Knowledge is not yet recognised for the fundamental resource it surely is.
A complete version of this paper can be found on Hilary’s professional website, here.
Food is rising rapidly up the agenda. Allotments, biofuels, calories, customs, eating disorders, famine, farming, fats, fibre, foodmiles, GM, health, organic, packaging, processing, salt, seasonal, security, sell-by, sustainability, vitamins, water…. Where do we begin with what to eat and drink?
Investment in scientific programmes often has added socio-economic value. But there is little evidence that good indices are available to measure what this impact might be for large-scale scientific regionally-based development. Whilst private investors guard their capital with care, only rarely do the criteria for evaluation of Big Science proposals include adequate consideration of the wider impact of public funds invested.
The bovine foot and mouth pyres of a few years ago are testament to unintentional damage inflicted when strictly focused ‘science’ is applied crudely in wider socio-economic contexts.
Everyone wanted to do the right thing; but the upshot of scientific best advice was rural economic devastation.
The same scenario may be enacted again, if the judgement of a panel of leading scientists results in removal of the Alice (Accelerators and Lasers in Combined Experiments) programme at the Daresbury Laboratory in North-West England.
The science will carry on elsewhere, most probably in the USA, but the NW regional economy, which could have benefited hugely, will instead take a hammerblow.
Best value for government investment
Scientists quite rightly concentrate on what they understand – in this case physics, engineering and the like. I cannot comment on their scientific judgements about ALICE; though it is always open to their colleagues have views on this.
Whatever, the investment of significant government monies must also, as numbers of parliamentarians have argued, be about best value in socio-economic terms, as well as indicated by narrower scientific parameters; and the scientists would without doubt agree they are not best placed to adjudicate all this.
Socio-economic impact studies
If the relevant science councils have undertaken regional socio-economic impact studies on their proposed investments, these, like the scientific appraisals, must now be opened to public scrutiny.
If they have not, we must challenge the science councils to undertake these comparative impact studies immediately, before potentially devastating decisions are made.
Added value – or otherwise
‘Added value‘ (perhaps significantly, a term often used to evaluate the impact of educational initiatives) and ‘unintended consequences‘ (c.f. Robert Merton’s work) may be indices beyond the lexicon of physical science; but, as the rural economists acknowledged after foot and mouth disease, they can never be outside the remit of decisions about big investment, in the public interest, of taxpayers’ money.
A version of this article, entitled ‘Alice in economic context’, was published on the Letters page of Guardian Education on 15 April 2008.
Science, Regeneration & Sustainability
Science & Politics
U.K. clocks go forward on Sunday morning, 30 March ’08, and the lighter evenings which British Summer Time brings will cheer up almost everyone. But there would also be many other anticipated benefits, from road safety to energy conservation and healthier lifestyles, were we to keep ‘Daylight Saving’ all year. A Downing Street petition has now been set up to urge a continuous BST trial period of three years, with research to establish the extent of these benefits.
‘Daylight Saving’ is an issue which won’t go away. And now there’s a Petition to the Prime Minister, asking him to not to let that precious extra hour of afternoon light go away in the Winter either.
Downing Street petition
The Downing Street petition aims to ‘make better use of the limited daylight we receive’. It reads as follows:
We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to consider a change to the current system of British Summer Time / Greenwich Mean Time (BST/GMT). This could consist of a trial period (similar to that adopted 1968 to 1971) and could take the form of a move to year round BST, or a 1 hour shift to GMT+1/GMT+2. Research shows that such a move could reduce carbon dioxide emissions, reduce road deaths, facilitate business with Europe, potentially boost tourism, increase outdoor activity, promote healthier lifestyles and enhance the well being of UK citizens.
You can read more detail of the Petition, and / or sign it, here.
BST Facebook group
There is also a Facebook group, set up like the Downing Street petition by Dave Alexander, which seeks to ‘raise support of and debate the possibilities and benefits regarding changes / trials of different time zone options for Britain…..This could reduce carbon dioxide emissions, reduce road deaths, facilitate business with Europe, potentially boost tourism, increase outdoor activity, promote healthier lifestyles and enhance the well being of UK citizens.‘
An enduring idea
This is by no means a new proposal, as we have already established very firmly on this website, but the need to get some action becomes greater with each year. If further debate is needed, the BST: British Summer Time & ‘Daylight Saving’ section of this weblog remains a forum where everyone from the South coast to scattered Scottish isles is welcome to share their ideas.
Discussion is however no substitute for evidence-based action. Health, energy sustainability and accident prevention are too important to ignore.
This article was also published as a New Start external blog.
Read more: BST: British Summer Time & ‘Daylight Saving’ (The Clocks Go Back & Forward)
Evidence-based policy is central to much contemporary governmental thinking. But how the different phases of policy delivery can best engage ‘real people’ is not always clear. This is true whether the intended policy concerns health, the knowledge economy, or even global sustainability. There is still much to be done in understanding human agency and interaction in policy development and delivery.
In many aspects of public policy, from health through life-long learning and the economy to global sustainability, it is not simply the science or knowledge base which is important. Of equal, or sometimes greater, importance is an understanding of how to apply the established evidence which informs policy.
Phases in public policy development
There are, or should be, a number of phases in developing public policy.
The first phase is to derive as much consensus as possible about the necessary evidence base (both scientific and contextual) and the second is to consider how this ‘translates’ – an exercise which is currently being taken forward overtly by the government in relation to scientific knowledge, industry and business.
Securing public agreement or at least encouraging constructive and informed public debate is another phase which must run alongside these first two phases.
This ‘third’ phase is at risk when the established modes of policy development continue.
The government has now gone some way to seek proper public debate on issues around science, technology, health and so forth. It is not as yet clear however that the corollary of this emphasis has been absorbed by the wider knowledge-related industries or even by some whose task is to deliver policy for real.
We all know that fundamental research and the intricacies of, say, applied medical knowledge are critical for the future. What is less well understood is that there remain huge gaps in our understandings of how such knowledge becomes operational in the real world.
People are what makes things happen. How they do so, in the contexts of such enormous challenges as global warming, the diseases of contemporary societies and the rapidly changing communities we all live in, has yet to be made clear.
Making things happen depends on people
Despite all our problems, many of us in the western world live in the best conditions human beings have ever known. Ensuring this continues and is shared even more widely is very largely a task for policy makers informed by a social rather than natural scientific knowledge base.
Fundamental science certainly needs to remain at the centre of knowledge creation; but, whether in health, industry or the environment, it must be matched by an equally well researched knowledge of the social world, if there is to be any real hope of public policies to sustain all our futures.
Who owns Big Science in the UK? Does government science policy sit within wider public policy, or is it stand alone? The Cooksey Review has stirred strong feelings amongst medical scientists, and also further afield. Few science policy questions can be determined without understanding the wider public policy context.
Who pays for what in the constant race to stay at the global cutting edge in science and technology is a hot debate. Often neglected is an acknowledgement of the multiplicity of stakeholders, but this is an area which the scientists themselves sometimes ignore.
Getting to the bottom of who can / should pay for science and innovation in the UK is a difficult task. When all relevant interests – science and technology, policy makers, the economy / electorate – are perceived there is more clarity, but only rarely does this happen. The issue is however making headway as a result of changes resulting from the 2007 Budget, which promises an increase in investment in public science of 2.5 per cent from 2008-09 to 2010-11..
Both the Cooksey Review on funding for health research, and the (connected) introduction of the new Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills focus on ensuring that progress in scientific research and wider value for money go hand in hand.
Value for whom?
The really big question here is, who benefits from investment in what sort of science? This is surely the nub of the issue, but it needs a wide perspective to answer the question properly.
The emphasis seems so far to be on the ‘translation’ of blue sky research findings into marketable commodities – an entirely sensible idea in general., but not a complete one. The core issue of how much benefit accrues to whom when commodities become marketable is not easily resolved.
Whether the product eventually taken to market is a medical drug, a form of renewable energy or a development in nanotechnology, there are likely to be direct and indirect benefits and costs.
Medical priorities in research
One person’s or sector’s gain may be another’s loss – an obvious but frequently forgotten matter from the perspective of practising scientists.
This may be particularly true in the case of medical scientists, who are currently it seems most agitated, and who often have a specific, and possibly tragic, individual human condition in mind as they undertake their work. Nonetheless, this human priority cannot stand alone.
Medical scientists have not always covered themselves in glory when it comes to collaborating within the Big Science framework – the Daresbury crisis of a few years ago comes to mind – and for some of medical researchers the universe probably finishes at the point where abstract research translates (to use the new term) into pharmaceuticals. This is why, when public money is involved, others must take a wider view.
Science policy and public policy
Policy in government-sponsored science is not, contrary to much of the discussion, a singular issue. For a start, there is policy about science; and then there is policy relating science and the general public interest. These two are inter-connected, but not always the same.
Science policy variously (as examples, and in no order of priority) might be about:
* ‘translating’ or bringing blue sky research to the market;
* meeting a specific human or technical need;
* continuing promising lines of investigation which may or may not eventually go anywhere;
* establishing or maintaining national reputation, or that of an institution and / or individual/s.
Public policy relating to science might, e.g., concern:
* developing local science-based businesses;
* linking scientific and technical / medical research outcomes to the wider economy;
* developing programmes or projects in geographical or otherwise specifically identified areas, to progress regeneration or other ambitions for general benefit;
* seeking answers to particular policy conundrums or challenges, by way of developing the evidence-base available to decision-makers.
Contextual perspectives on science
To make sense of these difficult and often conflicting priorities between science and public policy requires seeing the wider contexts in which science and technology operate.
Social, economic and political backdrops are not secondary matters when government is paying directly for science to be done. They are central and critical, right from the beginning.
‘Translating’ science is ultimately about taking blue sky research to market, but it is also in another sense about making sure that stakeholders – the general public – know and are comfortable with what, through their taxes, they are paying for.
Consensus on taking science forward
From this point of view scientists need to accept that, if government pays directly, it wants to know how the research will take public policy forward.
Politicians are not usually keen to write open cheques for unknown outcomes, nor should they be.
Scientists paid by government are usually there to do their part within a policy framework geared to fairly tight timescales, to make the evidence-base available or to develop a required product. As such they rarely have the luxury of following their noses in research, just because it looks interesting.
Sometimes there is a case for blue sky research directly funded by government, but probably, given budgetary constraints and the constant need to be immediately answerable to the electorate, not often.
The right way to support (most) blue-sky research is through the universities’ wider funding and large science-led corporations.
Such investment will, if directed wisely, bring reward in the longer term, when investors can as a result make the evidence-based case for government to invest in developing the applications of their new-found knowledge.