Great science, shame about the politicians

Science for Survival
January 2, 2004

Peter Cotgreave is director of the campaigning organisation Save British Science. That such an organisation exists and receives strong support from many senior members of the British scientific establishment is powerful evidence that scientists feel unwanted. No evidence is needed, of course.

The heroes and winners of the current debate about genetically modified crops have not been the gene splicers but the campaigning pressure groups, whose strength comes from emotion and belief, not the testing of original ideas and the scrutiny of results by peer review - that stock-in-trade of the scientist. This is not new. Rachel Carson did a successful hatchet job on pesticides nearly half a century ago with Silent Spring , and 100 years ago George Bernard Shaw led the anti-vaccinators with vigour and not a little success.

A few decades ago it was fashionable to think that bringing the public round to accepting the opinions of scientists would be a straightforward task. The problem, it was said, was ignorance. In a nutshell, once the woman on the Clapham omnibus knew the second law of thermodynamics, all would be well. The programme to remedy the deficit was called the Public Understanding of Science. A good deal of money has been spent on it. It had a lot to do with the establishment of science centres in many British cities. As Cotgreave describes in his book, it has had its successes. Science programmes on television have never been so popular, and science books for the general reader have never before been published in such abundance. And yet he has been stimulated to write a book on scientific research and the public interest that leaves one profoundly depressed. His description of the ease with which the public can be mislead by advertisers' "statistics", for example, shows that nothing has changed since Benjamin Disraeli railed against "lies and damned lies".

Rightly, short-termism receives particular attention in Cotgreave's book.

Politicians, and their desire for research to focus on current problems rather than the ones lurking round the corner, are singled out for opprobrium. Poor old Nick Brown, who will go down in history as the agriculture minister who presided over the tail-end of BSE and the unfolding of its consequence, variant-CJD, as well as the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, was an easy target. He is mentioned more often than anyone else in the book, never favourably.

Putting large sums into research projects on BSE and prions, one of the examples Cotgreave describes, is an excellent illustration of the way politicians see science as saving their bacon by addressing today's problems. It enables them to say, truthfully, that something is being done, and that they were the instigators of it. But, as Cotgreave points out, the downside of this policy can be great - even for politicians.

Cash limits mean that research spending is a zero-sum game. If a government department chooses to spend more on one thing, it means less for others; in Britain, where for decades publicly funded research has suffered from the inability of the Treasury to deliver "efficiency and economy", it can mean no money at all. It would have been far better, of course, if Brown and his ministry had given more thought to foot-and-mouth disease before the outbreak. An injection of a little more science into their contingency plan might have ensured their survival on the political scene as well as saving large amounts of taxpayers' money.

Cotgreave uses many other examples to emphasise how important research is for business success, for the protection of the environment, and for the maintenance of a high standard of living that delivers health and comfort in sustainable ways. He has chosen ones that will be familiar and understandable to the target readership of his book: businessmen, politicians and scientists, as well as the general public. He ends with a call for a fresh look at the way these groups communicate with each other about scientific issues.

It is impossible to disagree with this. As he says, most scientists still prefer to stay in their boxes talking about their work just to other scientists, rather than engaging with non-scientists, even the taxpayers who fund them and the policy-makers who need their results.

Science for Survival is an important book. Although I do not agree with everything that Cotgreave says - the legal system gets things right a bit more often than he implies, with senior judges such as Lord Phillips (BSE inquiry) and Lord Cullen (Piper Alpha and Ladbroke Grove Rail Crash inquiries) proving the point - its diagnosis of a long-standing British disease is correct: that we have brilliant scientists who punch above their weight on the world stage and regularly win Nobel prizes and yet are undervalued and underused by policy-makers. Its prognosis is also correct: that if nothing is done, the outcome will be very gloomy. Despite living even longer, with continually increasing choices of food and entertainment and cheaper and cheaper travel, the public trusts the science and technology responsible for these benefits less and less. What a mess! Cotgreave's book is a valuable contribution to sorting it out.

Hugh Pennington is emeritus professor of bacteriology, University of Aberdeen, and vice-chair, Broadcasting Council for Scotland (advising the BBC).

Science for Survival: Scientific Research and the Public Interest

Author - Peter Cotgreave
Publisher - The British Library
Pages - 160
Price - £14.95
ISBN - 0 7123 0891 1

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