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British Science Association Presidential Address 2013

Professor Lisa Jardine delivered the Presidential Address at the British Science Festival 2013, held in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

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Let me begin by asking you a question.  I have asked it once before on a public platform, when I delivered the plenary address at the 2012 Science Communication Conference.  So anybody who was there, please don’t participate!

Put your hand up if you can tell me where your liver is. And I don’t mean, ‘roughly where is it’.  And if you put your hand up, I hope you will be prepared to tell us all the precise answer, should I pick you!

As I suspected, only a handful of you are confident to locate a large and important organ in your body [and the first and second people I asked to stand up and locate it for us got it wrong!]. So, large numbers of you are hesitant or dubious about the location of your liver. 

But in any NHS clinic for a serious illness, you can be sure that every patient sitting for what feels like interminable hours in the waiting room could answer the question about the location of their liver with precision, and any other of their organs for that matter.  They will almost certainly also have mastered a good deal of information about their condition and its treatment, regardless of the level of education they have had.

My serious point is: non-scientists will comfortably – and, in a short time, confidently – engage with an area of science if it impinges directly on them.  And clinicians have learned the value of the informed conversations that follow.  They may well make diagnosis easier, or at least quicker.  They may enable the clinician to allay the patient’s fears, or to better match treatment to their circumstances.

So let me start by dismissing the ‘deficit model’ of public understanding of science – the idea that non-scientists are empty of scientific content and understanding and must be ‘filled’ with appropriately pre-digested knowledge. Today, I suggest, the public at large is prepared (both in terms of intellectual training and inclination) to engage with science, so long as they can see something in it for themselves.

And of course, since our modern world is so underpinned by science and technology, it ought to be the case that that means they are generally open to engagement with science.  If they are not, we need to think about the reasons why. I am going to concentrate here on engagement between government science policy and the public at large – which we should remember includes scientists not up to speed in the specialism on which a particular policy depends.

Let me say clearly here at the outset that I believe there is currently a real enthusiasm among non-scientists for scientific and science-derived information, and that these non-scientists are reasonably comfortable pursuing an unfamiliar topic, so long as their interlocutor doesn’t imply that it is ‘too difficult’ or ‘too complicated’.

Why then am I talking about ‘stalling’, if I am so optimistic (and I am) that there has been a sea change over the past 5 or 10 years in the attitude among the general public towards science and its place in their world?

Let me stress a word I used earlier, ‘conversation’.  I like it because it is a familiar, slightly old-fashioned, pre-social media term, which captures information exchange and intellectual and emotional engagement between members of a community who share a common means of communication (a common language).

Conversation is a defining characteristic of any community of human beings.  Which is why I am using the term to capture what ought to be the natural exchange of information and ideas between members of the scientific community and non-scientists. 

Because for the most part the conventions and even the language used to discuss problems that face us are shared among us all.  And increasingly, I believe, science is part of the conversation we have in our everyday, social life.  A distinguished scientist recently told me that when she was a young lecturer and told people at a dinner party that she was a scientist this was greeted with an awkward silence. People tended to move away, or rapidly turn the conversation back to the latest novel, or the latest concert (which it was assumed she would be entirely comfortable talking about). Nowadays, she says, her interlocutor will want to talk to her about the work she does.

Talking together about science can have important consequences.  Graham Farmelo’s new book, Churchill’s Bomb contains several fascinating examples of the way in which conversation between a non-scientist (Winston Churchill) and a scientist (Frederick Lindemann), long before the outbreak of the Second World War influenced the way in which Britain under Churchill’s leadership responded to subsequent policy discussions – and outcomes – concerning the first atomic bomb.

Not long after they first met and formed what was to be a long and significant friendship, in 1926, physicist Professor Frederick Lindemann (later Lord Cherwell and head of the Clarendon Laboratory) sent Winston Churchill a book on the new quantum theory.  We don’t know precisely which book it was.  We do know that the book ‘grabbed Churchill’s imagination and distracted him from the Budget he was to deliver a few weeks later’ (he was Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time).  In fact, according to Farmelo, a major error Churchill is supposed to have made in the budget concerning the gold standard might be down to his having been distracted by his amateur engagement with quantum theory.

Gripped by quantum theory, and wanting to be sure he had understood what he was reading, Churchill dictated a summary of the book’s argument to a secretary, and had a typed transcript sent immediately to Lindemann for checking.  Lindemann found little to correct.  ‘Churchill’s distillation was accurate enough to do credit to a scholarship student’, according to Farmelo.

And yet Churchill had had an exclusively humanities education – and a poor one at that.  But quantum theory was something he badly wanted to know about. Twelve years earlier he had read The World Set Free by H G Wells (science fiction writer and socialist) in which Wells (another of Churchill’s influential friends) had coined the phrase ‘atomic bomb’, and fantasised about the harnessing of radioactivity to wreak unimaginable damage in war.  So – as a middle-aged man with no relevant training -- Churchill did not hesitate in applying himself to understanding the content of Lindemann’s book on quantum theory, and then having a conversation (or rather many conversations) with Lindemann.

I tell this story as a historical rather than a contemporary example of the non-scientist absorbing ‘difficult’ science on a need-to-know basis, and then pursuing the interest generated with a ‘native informant’.  I would argue that Lindemann’s (and before him, H G Wells’) engaging of Churchill in conversation about quantum physics, nuclear energy and the atomic bomb had important repercussions for British government policy in the Second World War.   I might even suggest that had Truman had Churchill’s grasp of the shocking scale of the release of energy from an atomic bomb, he might have agreed to Einstein and Szilard’s passionate request that the bomb be tested in front of witnesses in the desert, rather than unleashed on the populations of two Japanese cities.

Today in Britain, I propose, the Government regularly delivers science policy outcomes ‘cold’, and it is extremely rare for there to be a real effort to promote conversations with the public in advance of a government decisions.  Yes, departments under the present government carry out large numbers of ‘public consultations’, but their terms of reference are narrow, and the consultation tends to focus on so-called ‘stakeholders’, not the public at large – which I will keep reminding you, includes scientists from disciplines other than the one which is the subject of the policy decision. 

‘Public consultation’ in government terms is, to my mind, pretty much gestural. It makes, I would suggest, as someone who has had their own organisation’s policies subjected to several of them, only tiny inroads into the possibilities for talking to non-governmental, non-expert portions of the public.

This, I would maintain, inevitably drives us (the public at large, the non-specialists in the field) into polarised positions, and makes it difficult to pursue a proper discussion post-announcement.

Think GM crops, think fracking, think badger cull.

In any one of these cases I could trace the time gap between serious internal-to-government consideration of the problem for which a policy is being sought, and the announcement to the public of a decisions reached.

Let’s look briefly at just one (and please understand, I am not taking sides, simply taking a look at what happened).  In 2012 Professor Robert Mair – the distinguished Professor of Engineering who provided crucial advice on the tunnelling for the Jubilee Line, for Eurostar, and now for Crossrail – chaired a committee set up by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering ‘to analyse the environmental, health and safety risks associated with shale gas exploration in Britain’. Its title was: ‘Shale gas extraction in the UK: a review of hydraulic fracturing’.

Here is an extract from the Executive Summary of that report:

‘Concerns have been raised about the risk of fractures propagating from shale formations to reach overlying aquifers. The available evidence indicates that this risk is very low provided that shale gas extraction takes place at depths of many hundreds of metres or several kilometres. Geological mechanisms constrain the distances that fractures may propagate vertically. Even if communication with overlying aquifers were possible, suitable pressure conditions would still be necessary for contaminants to flow through fractures. More likely causes of possible environmental contamination include faulty wells, and leaks and spills associated with surface operations. Neither cause is unique to shale gas. Both are common to all oil and gas wells and extractive activities.’

In other words, Mair’s committee advised the Government that the deleterious effects of fracking which had caused such alarm in the United States could be avoided if specific conditions were imposed on the drilling companies.

The Government accepted all the committee’s recommendations.  It was on the basis of this report – written in exceptionally clear and accessible language as one might expect from Robert Mair -- that in December 2012 the Government lifted its moratorium on drilling for shale gas, and authorised preliminary drilling at the Sussex village of Balcombe.  As we all know, a public outcry followed, with the protesters reacting with growing alarm as the campaign progressed. In the stand-off that followed, the company concerned decided to curtail their exploratory drillings (for the time being).

In the midst of the furore, on 26 August 2013 Robert Mair published an (again characteristically lucid) account in the Telegraph, explaining the conclusions his committee had come to, and detailing some of the measures that would be put in place to ensure that fracking in the UK would not have the detrimental effects that had been seen in the United States. His article concludes:

‘Difficult decisions lie ahead for the Government. Opinions on all sides of the debate must be heard and considered, and uncertainties explored. However, at the heart of any judgment should be evidence-based science and engineering, which will help to ensure that the best decisions are made, unswayed by preconceived notions of risk and benefit.’

By then, of course, it was far too late to try to engage to public in an ‘evidence-based’ discussion.  Positions had been taken, opinions formed, ears closed to alternative arguments.  As far as I know Mair’s article caused no stir at all, and changed no hearts and minds.

A report on the latest public debate at the Royal Society, which took place on 9 September and was posted on the RS’s website yesterday [11 September], refers to the current relationship of the UK to fracking (I take it that means all of us) as ‘a puzzle’, ‘complex and multifaceted’.  The debate, the post ends, ‘has matured’ –which I interpret as meaning that for the time being no consensus has been reached between the policy-makers and the public. 

Such issues will recur.  As things stand they will be explored thoroughly by government scientific advisory committees, who will propose a policy position to the department concerned.  And once again, once the politicians have decided whether to accept or modify the advice, it will be delivered to the public as a fait accompli.  Nuclear energy is another one that lies ahead. Last week several newspapers reported that James Dyson has said he was worried that new thinking is absent from the energy debate in Britain. He has said he remains highly sceptical about the value of wind farms and believedsthe government should invest in new forms of nuclear power. There’s another topic on which any sensible public debate would require a long lead-time of information and discussion.

Here is where I am proposing that the public engagement project has stalled.  Policy-makers and their expert advisory committees make their evidence-based decisions largely behind closed doors, and then release their decision (which may be either science-driven or politically driven according to circumstances).

Of course, the scientific committees who provide advice to governments today are far preferable to the lone individuals who advised Prime Ministers in the past. In 1960, C. P. Snow recounted a notorious example of this in his Science and Governmentlectures, delivered at Harvard University in the United States.

We live, Snow writes in Science and Government, in times when vital political decisions have to be made for which specialist scientific understanding is essential, but for which those charged with taking the decisions have not been prepared:

‘One of the most bizarre features of any advanced industrial society in our time is that the cardinal choices have to be made by a handful of men: in secret: and …  by men who cannot have a first-hand knowledge of what those choices depend upon or what their results may be.’

In the body of the ‘Science and Government’ lectures, Snow dramatises what it means for a ‘handful of men’ to take decisions vital for the nation, using as his example a real-life confrontation between two erstwhile friends and scientific colleagues, during the war. 

His hero and villain are, respectively, Henry Tizard (who chaired the wartime MAUD committee) and our old friend Frederick Lindemann, better known by his later title of Lord Cherwell.  Both were high-level wartime scientific advisors entrusted with decisions on the strength of which the war might have been won or lost.  Tizard was responsible for the accelerated development of radar in the early war years; Lindemann set up the statistical office among whose calculations crucial for the war effort were those on how to achieve the maximum impact with bomb sizes and delivery. Ultimately, however, it was Lord Cherwell who, as the Prime Minister’s old and trusted friend (though by now not highly rated by fellow-physicists), became the first official Chief Scientific Advisor.  And it was he who persuaded Churchill to adopt the Strategic Bombing initiative for the second half of the war – mathematically-calculated saturation bombing of civilian targets in dense urban areas.

Tizard and Lindemann had never got on.  They fell out terminally, Snow tells us, in 1942, over the policy decision to adopt the statistical office’s calculations in support on strategic bombing.  In spite of considerable, well-documented, internal opposition, Lindemann, now a member of the Cabinet, produced the scientific paper which formed the basis for that decision:

‘It described in quantitative terms [Snow writes], the effect on Germany of a British bombing offensive in the next eighteen months (approximately March 1942-September 1943). The paper laid down a strategic policy. The bombing must be directed essentially against German working-class houses. Middle-class houses have too much space round them, and so are bound to waste bombs; factories and “military objectives” had long since been forgotten, except in official bulletins, since they were much too difficult to find and hit.  The paper claimed that – given a total concentration of effort on the production and use of bombing aircraft – it would be possible, in all the larger towns in Germany (that is, those with more than 50,000 inhabitants), to destroy 50 per cent of all houses.’

The issue here, Snow hastens to explain, is not the ethics of the proposal (though by 1960 he admits the reader is likely to find a discussion like this morally distasteful): ‘it was his calculations’. It was the assumptions made for statistical purposes, and the mathematics itself, that formed the basis for the quarrel with Tizard:

‘The paper went to Tizard. He studied the statistics. He came to the conclusion, quite impregnably, that Lindemann’s estimate of the number of houses that could possibly be destroyed was five times too high. … Everyone agreed that, if the amount of possible destruction was as low as that calculated by Tizard … the bombing offensive was not worth concentrating on. We should have to find a different strategy.’

In fact, Snow tells his 1960 Harvard audience,  ‘the bombing survey after the war revealed that [Lindemann’s estimate] had been ten times too high’.

But Cherwell was the man at Churchill’s side, and he convinced the Cabinet that strategic bombing was the right policy to pursue. For the remainder of the war, air-power that was badly needed in other areas, for example, to escort essential convoys of supply ships, or to defend the British coastline, was diverted to concentrate on ‘saturation’ aerial bombardments of Germany.  In a Postscript to Science and Government, published by Snow 1961, he quotes from an article published in Scientific American in the same year by another of the scientists who had disagreed with Lindemann’s calculations about the effectiveness of his strategic bombing policy, in the light of post-war analysis, the left-leaning, Nobel prize-winning physicist Patrick Blackett:

‘Without a doubt the area-bombing offensive was an expensive failure.  About 500,000 German men, women and children were killed, but in the whole bombing offensive 160,000 US and British airmen, the best young men of both countries, were lost. German war production went on rising. …  I confess to a haunting sense of personal failure, and I am sure that Tizard felt the same way. If we had only been more persuasive and had forced people to believe our simple arithmetic, … might we not have changed this decision?’

There are, of course, still differences in opinion over Snow’s assessment of this scientific difference of opinion, but personally I am persuaded by Snow.

We have replaced lone – in this case maverick – scientific advisors by committees made up of the most talented within our scientific community.  But, I am arguing, they continue to make their decisions, and to conduct their conversations, among themselves, releasing reports of many hundreds of pages, usually pretty much unannounced to the rest of us (as in the case of Professor Mair’s fracking committee report). Yes, we can download the full report as a pdf if we know it is there (as I did last night for both Mair’s fracking report, and John Krebs’ equally readable 1997 report on bovine TB and badgers), but no particular effort is made at galvanising an informed public ‘conversation’ as I am calling it.

So what if, instead, ‘lay’ members of the public (including scientists not expert in the field under discussion) were to participate at an early stage in government-sponsored investigations? When I put this to a senior scientist friend as I prepared this lecture, he expressed scepticism at non-experts being able to keep up with or contribute to the deliberations.  And he feared that we would end up with special pleaders for interest groups, chosen for their tenacity to an already-fixed position.

In fact, at the HFEA which I Chair, we already conduct this experiment, and have done so, in my view successfully, for many years. Under the HFE Act, the Chair of the HFEA, and the chairs of every one of its committees, must be ‘lay’.  Furthermore, the Authority itself and every one of its committees must have a lay majority.

And there is a fully documented recent example of the HFEA successfully conducting a conversation with the public at large on an extremely sensitive subject, without polarising the debate. 

In January 2012 The Secretary of State for Health and the Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills asked the HFEA to survey the scientific literature, and to seek public views on the ethical implications of emerging IVF-based techniques to prevent the transmission of mitochondrial disease. The guidance given to the HFEA was as follows:

‘The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (1990) (as amended) (‘the Act’) governs research and treatment involving human embryos and related clinical practices in the UK. The Act only permits eggs and embryos that have not had their nuclear or mitochondrial DNA altered to be used for treatment. However, in 2008 the Act was amended, introducing new powers which allow for regulations to be passed by Parliament that will allow techniques that alter the DNA of an egg or embryo to be used in assisted conception, to prevent the transmission of serious mitochondrial disease’.

The HFEA was asked to provide full information to the Secretary of State for Health which would allow him to decide whether to use the scope left by the HFE Act to present regulations to Parliament which would ‘allow techniques that alter the DNA of an egg or embryo to be used in assisted conception, to prevent the transmission of serious mitochondrial disease’.

I should emphasise that the HFEA was not to be involved in the decision itself, but simply to weigh up and present the results of their surveys.   These were conducted over a period of several years.

To start with, our own scientific and ethical advisory committees (on which, remember, lay members sit), assessed the issue.  There was then an intensive strategy analysis of how to reach as wide as possible a range of informants.

The HFEA’s gathering of information began with a comprehensive survey of the scientific literature.  This was followed by a fairly exhaustive, year-long series of conversations – and yes, I believe they really were conversations – with an extremely wide range of individuals and groups from the wider community: patients and members of the general public, groups representing categories of people directly effected by IVF, ethics committees, and so forth.  The entire process was kept in the public domain.

At the end of the period, the HFEA presented its findings, and the Minister made his decision, which was to proceed with drafting regulations to allow the use in IVF treatment of this extremely limited category of genetically-modified eggs or embryos.

When this outcome was announced in the press, there was practically no polarisation in the public’s response, in spite of the sensationalising headlines announcing that the new regulations would result in ‘three parent babies’. 

We shall have to wait, of course, to see what parliamentarians make of all this.  As Chair of the HFEA I am currently discussing with my colleagues whether we could run a series of all-party information sessions for members of both Houses of Parliament so that they – like all other members of ‘the general public’ – can be properly informed before they begin their debates on the topic.

Why is this so important? The need to engage with the public in scientific policy-making goes beyond the kind of informed participation in the community in which we live that I have been discussing.

Many scientific advances bring with them ethical questions that scientists cannot answer alone – any more than the British and American scientists working together on the atomic bomb for the Manhattan Project in their secret laboratory at Los Alamos could. To be sure that science is answering the issues that matter most and in making sure that we don’t destroy the planet in the process, we must be sure that we all keep informed of what science is capable of achieving and seek to direct its outcomes.

Science is perpetually in dialogue with the world from which it is drawn.  Throughout history scientific progress has fuelled social change, which in its turn has provoked new scientific questions to be answered.

For this to continue to be the case we – the non-scientifically trained public at large – have real responsibilities.  It is simply not good enough for us to shrug our shoulders and pronounce advances in genetics and stem cell research, or the discovery of new particles by means of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN are beyond our competence to understand.  We need to remain in conversation with the scientific community.  We need to understand what goals science is currently pursuing, and how they will affect our own lives.  We need to understand evidence-based decision-making, and to be prepared to be taken through it in some detail.  It is our collective responsibility to make sure that our own science produces outcomes and engages with our most cherished beliefs and principles in ways of which we can all be proud.  

We need to be sure that when history looks back at us, the decisions we have helped take, many of which will impact permanently on our world, will be seen to have been taken by all of us – the whole community, together.  That way, I believe, there is a far higher likelihood of those decisions being in the interests of us all, and of their meeting with the approval of posterity.

Chronology of HFEA’s work to provide evidence for Mitochondria transfer decision

  • Research licence for pronuclear transfer granted: 2005
  • The Authority’s Scientific and Clinical Advances Advisory Committee considers research developments: May 2010
  • The Authority’s ELAC Committee considers ethical issues: June 2011
  • Core panel of experts, co-ordinated by the HFEA, reports to the Secretary of State for Health on the safety and efficacy of methods to avoid mitochondrial disease: April 2011
  • The Secretary of State for Health and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills asks the HFEA to carry out public dialogue work: August 2011
  • Public dialogue and consultation work planning and preparation: September 2011 – June 2012 
  • Public dialogue work takes place (deliberative public workshops and public representative survey): July – August 2012
  • Open consultation runs (open consultation questionnaire, open consultation meetings and patient focus group): September – December 2012
  • The Secretary of State for Health asks the HFEA to provide an updated view on the science to support the assessment of the efficacy and safety of MST and PNT: December 2012
  • Core panel of experts reconvened and call for evidence issued: January 2013
  • 28 June 2013 Secretary of State announces decision to proceed with draft regulations which will enable the use of mitochondria replacement techniques to be used in IVF treatment.
  • Strongly positive response from media and public, and interesting and informed subsequent conversation.
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