MPs, let us introduce you to science’s avant-garde

June 29, 2010

The Royal Society should offer a brokering service to put politicians in touch with experts at the cutting edge of science, according to Lord Krebs.

The former chair of the UK’s Food Standards Agency was speaking at the annual debate of the Royal Society’s Science Policy Centre, held in London last night.

He said it was often difficult to recruit scientists to government advisory panels as “most would prefer to publish an extra paper in Nature”, and pointed out that a great deal of risk analysis was mundane, merely requiring advisers to summarise the literature.

But sometimes novel problems required scientists “at the cutting edge” to think “in a completely new way”, he added, noting that the Civil Service was ineffective at identifying such figures.

“The Royal Society should offer that service,” he said.

Lord Krebs also argued that the relationship between scientists and politicians was “doomed to failure or difficulty” because the latter demanded unrealistic levels of certainty and consensus from the former.

Mike Hulme, founding director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, said that this was what had gone wrong in the climate-change debate.

“We know there are deep uncertainties and to expect science to deliver more than it legitimately can has distorted the traditional relationship between policymaking and evidence,” he said.

He added that the opportunities presented by the internet for individuals to scrutinise claims and mobilise opinion offered a new challenge to science’s authority, and he criticised the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s “scientifically arrogant and high-handed” response to recent criticism.

“It undermines the relationship of trust between experts and citizens,” Professor Hulme said.

Lord Rees, president of the Royal Society, said that some bloggers were “genuine experts” and should be treated as such.

He said it was crucial to keep “clear water” between science and policy responses, but called on scientists to become more involved in explaining issues to the public.

“There is no longer such a wide distinction between the public and experts, but experts still have a special obligation to get involved,” he said.

David Nutt, who was sacked from the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs after claiming that cannabis was less harmful than alcohol and comparing the risks of taking ecstasy to those of horse riding, said that all scientists could ever do was “tell the truth”.

He was highly critical of some scientists who, in his view, had exaggerated the dangers of cannabis in order to curry favour with politicians.

“These individuals did [science] a great disservice because politicians grabbed on to [their words] and used them to justify the decisions they made on ecstasy and cannabis,” Professor Nutt said.

“As long as politicians can hide behind a pseudoscience smokescreen, we will have a problem educating the public about science.”

paul.jump@tsleducation.com

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