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September 03, 2012

The price of Willetts

by Ehsan Masood

What if Cameron thought David Willetts needs a new job?

by Ehsan Masood

So will the prime minister move his highly-regarded universities and science minister, David Willetts, to fresh pastures in his first cabinet reshuffle? That is the question university vice-chancellors and other research-policy watchers are pondering as they return from summer holidays. And, if lthis fantasy really comes to pass then who will fill Willetts' shoes?

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July 09, 2012

Our scientists should be able to handle a little democracy

by Ehsan Masood

by Ehsan Masood

A mostly elected House of Lords it seems will need to hold back some seats for scientists and others with expertise in research.

That is one of the conclusions from a survey carried out in May by my Research Fortnight colleagues, led by our news editor Laura Hood. We asked 37 peers with research expertise (including scientists, engineers, social scientists and medics) if they would stand in an election in order to keep their place in the chamber. Thirty-one said they wouldn't.

Of the 37 surveyed, an eyebrow-raising 15 said the House of Lords should remain unelected, another 15 said it should be partly elected and just five backed 100 per cent election. Another two were not clear on their stance.

Of the brave six willing to submit themselves to an electorate, three were cross-benchers and three came from political parties. Of the total 37 that we surveyed, 17 were cross-bench peers and 20 belonged to a political party.

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May 16, 2011

Why the AHRC is out of step with other research councils

by Ehsan Masood

Political campaign slogans have no place in research council delivery plans, says Newcastle University philosopher Thom Brooks

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May 10, 2011

“I am extremely positive about the future of the arts and humanities” -- Rick Rylance interviewed

by Ehsan Masood

On 11 May researchers and policymakers met to discuss the future of arts and humanities research funding at a one-day conference “Cuts in Culture: The Impact of Creativity” at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in London. Ahead of the event, Research Fortnight editor Ehsan Masood caught up with chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Rick Rylance, to talk funding, fees, science-envy, and, yes, Big Society.

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January 27, 2011

Please sir, not another international food assessment

by Ehsan Masood

So, let me begin with a confession. I am addicted to international scientific assessments. I can’t fully explain why, but I am.

It could be the knowledge that a big global assessment, say in climate change or food security, is not just the work of a small team but of scientists from many countries and different disciplines.

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December 17, 2010

Walter Bodmer breaks his silence

by Ehsan Masood

It is 25 years since cancer geneticist Walter Bodmer wrote his landmark report Public Understanding of Science. In a rare interview from the US he tells Ehsan Masood that much of its content has been misinterpreted.

Did the Royal Society commission Public Understanding of Science because of worries that the government was cutting funding in a recession?

I don’t agree with that at all. I think it’s quite wrong.

 But would you agree that then prime minister Margaret Thatcher was no friend of scientists?

On the contrary, she was extremely supportive. I met her several times—she would come to meetings of the British Association [for the Advancement of Science]. She would also host lunches at Number 10 with scientists, organised by her chief scientist, Robin Nicholson. I suspect that the Royal Society were not quite so negative about her as my Oxford colleagues [Oxford denied Thatcher a doctorate in January, 1985].

Thatcher did cut the science budget…

It was a very tight time—like now. I don’t think she hit science more than anything else. It’s a total myth that she was antagonistic.

 So what really was the motivation behind Public Understanding of Science?

The Royal Society has a long-standing interest in science education. The physicist Roger Blin-Stoyle chaired a committee on science education that reported in November 1982. [It recommended] the society set up a small working group to find ways to enhance public understanding of science. Society president Andrew Huxley asked me to become the group’s chairman.

But would you accept that at the time, for the Royal Society, greater public support for science in recession would have been a positive outcome?

I couldn’t speak for the Royal Society. But this idea that you can boost funding for science by greater public understanding is something that our committee never considered. It has been entirely constructed by others, afterwards. We didn’t believe that, if people understood science better, they would necessarily support it.

What is your report’s greatest legacy?

It changed attitudes within the Royal Society [and] opened the way for so many initiatives: much more science in the media, National Science Week, prizes for science communication and undergraduate and postgraduate courses at universities. Perhaps most important of all was that scientists were encouraged to go out and communicate, which few did before our report…The effects of our report exceeded our expectations.

In 2000, the House of Lords said in a report that “public understanding” of science needed to be replaced with public “engagement”. That sounds like a criticism.

That report was very useful. But I do think some of the criticisms were unwarranted. I have always recognised that public engagement is important—remember that I chaired the National Radiological Protection Board for more than four years and set up an inquiry into the safety of mobile phones. But for the public to engage it’s important to have some knowledge, some understanding. Take science cafés, for example. A speaker starts with talking about the science and later engages in dialogue with an audience. Understanding and engagement are not mutually exclusive.

Is trust in scientists is falling?

The fall in trust affects those scientists who are attached to companies, or to government—not independent, largely university-based scientists. That is the lesson of the [bovine spongiform encephalopathy] crisis and the crisis in [genetically modified] foods.

Perhaps the call for public engagement is a recognition that young people are less likely to be deferential to authority?

You can’t generalise. Forty per cent go to university. Around half will study science to some extent. They are not shy and they do use the web. I spent nine years as head of an Oxford college and I didn’t see students who didn’t listen to their teachers. I did see bright kids eager to learn.

 Is more public understanding of science likely to make people less religious?

This is a good question to explore. I think professional biologists may be less likely to have belief [than] physicists—perhaps partly because you can explain biological phenomena without having to understand the ultimate basis of matter in the way that physicists try to.

So was Richard Dawkins a good choice as the UK’s first professor in the public understanding of science?

Yes. He takes a different approach to public understanding and public engagement than I do. I am not religious but I don’t believe that you achieve much with strident attacks on religion. But Richard has done many useful things, especially with his books.

[First published in 19 December 2010 issue of Research Fortnight]

February 03, 2010

Climate panel's future hangs in the balance

by Ehsan Masood

Former IPCC chair concedes sceptics are winning the media war

[Cover story from 3 February 2010 issue of Research Fortnight]

Influential scientists are pushing for major changes to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change following a string of embarrassing mistakes in its predictions of global climate impacts. Significant sections of the UK media are also calling for IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri to resign.

In an interview with Research Fortnight, former IPCC chairman Robert Watson said that continued revelations of peer-review lapses show that the IPCC’s peer-review system needs attention. He also said that the panel should start producing shorter, more policy-focused reports and consult a wider range of opinion.

The panel’s problems mounted over the weekend when Sunday newspapers, combing through its reports, spotted a student dissertation and an article in a mountaineering magazine as data sources. Pachauri has already had to apologise when a New Scientist article emerged as the source for an estimate of Himalayan glacier melting. Last week, the Information Commissioner chastised IPCC members at the University of East Anglia for withholding data requested under Freedom of Information legislation.

Commentators and mass-market newspapers are now using the controversy to question whether scientists can be trusted on the fundamental issue of whether human activities are changing global temperatures.

Watson, chief scientist at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “The ammunition this is giving to the anti-global-warming camp is causing concern. The IPCC has slipped up and the sceptics have seized the day in the communications battle.”

So far, few mainstream scientists have stepped up to take on their critics in public events or in the media. Though this is about to change. Groups such as the Science Media Centre in London, for example, are preparing to mobilise their networks into action. Their aim will be to reinforce the large body of scientific opinion on climate change that is not contested.

Watson, nonetheless, acknowledges that the IPCC needs to open up more to minority voices in science. He revealed that he, too, was once a sceptic in the field of atmospheric chemistry and understands the value of scepticism to scientific progress. “I published papers that were critical of scientists who had won Nobel prizes, and my own PhD supervisor. But the basis of my scepticism was evidence and not ideology.”

Watson’s view is echoed by John Houghton, a former head of the Met Office and a senior IPCC member until 2002. Houghton says the IPCC should not be frightened of getting into debate with its critics. He explains that the organisation in the past was open to scientists who were critical about a human influence in climate change. But he warns the sceptics that the broader public interest is not served by being loose with facts. “It’s no good saying that climate models are no good. Lets have a debate on precise details.”

In recent weeks, the sceptical campaign has been boosted by a new high-powered think tank based in London called the Global Warming Policy Foundation, established and chaired by Nigel Lawson, Margaret Thatcher’s chancellor. Its board of trustees and academic advisers constitute a Who’s Who of UK politicians, academics, journalists and the business community.

According to its director Benny Peiser, the foundation does not deny a human influence in global warming, but believes that the IPCC behaves as an activist organisation—for example when Pachauri criticises governments for not doing enough on climate change. “The IPCC should adhere to its original mandate and become policy-neutral,” says Peiser. He also agrees that the organisation needs a broader spread of opinion in its membership. “Including critics will make the review process more water tight.”

The IPCC was set up in 1988 to advise governments on the world’s climate. It produces five-yearly assessments and its scientists need to be nominated by member states of the UN. Governments have begun to invite applications for the fifth assessment, which will report in 2014.

Video of Ehsan Masood discussing this issue on Channel 4 News

January 13, 2010

David Miliband on quantum mechanics

by Ehsan Masood

David Miliband is a brave man.

Some media commentators believe that the UK foreign secretary is a coward -- he refused to wield the knife in the (latest) failed coup against PM Gordon Brown. But anyone who thinks Miliband is lacking in courage should have seen him in action before a gathering of the world's top scientists at the Royal Society in London last night.

Miliband gave a short lecture drawing parallels between foreign policy quantum mechanics, while at the same time admitting that he only managed a grade-D in A-level physics. Now that takes guts.

Miliband’s thesis is that foreign policy is like quantum mechanics. How so? He said that international relations today are more complex and less predictable than in previous periods – analogous to the revolution in physics at the beginning of the 20th century.

Like Newtonian mechanics, relations between states “have tended towards equilibrium and self-correction, as states sought to balance each other’s economic and military strength”.

But now it is uncertainty that is a defining feature of today’s world, mirroring quantum mechanics. “Think of the asymmetric tactics of terrorist organizations, leading not to a stable balance of opposing force, but chronic instability.”

Interdependence is another defining feature of modern international relations, Miliband said. “Again, this resembles the shift from Newtonian science modeled on discrete, independent systems, to quantum mechanics that accepts that everything is inter-connected.”

In summary: “The world is more unpredictable and more uncertain. Every action does not have an equal and opposite reaction.”

Miliband also spoke of his belief that science has a critical role to play in foreign affairs – for example in helping policymakers come to agreement where there is political conflict over issues such as arms control, counter-terrorism, climate change and cementing trust between Western and Islamic-majority nations. Quoting the 18th century writer Thomas Paine he said: “An army of principles can penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot.”

He also recognized that science and foreign policy are not the same. "The essence of scientific progress is not just transformational, but disruptive. The essence of diplomacy, however, is to maintain order. And while science is in the business of establishing the truth, it has long been perceived that diplomats are there to obscure it." 

The speech went down well. Though at least one of Britain’s top physicists remarked that he wasn’t so sure about Miliband’s grip on the finer points of theoretical physics.

Miliband revealed that no fewer than 17 previous UK foreign secretaries were also Fellows of the Royal Society.

Last night’s performance was impressive in its display of rhetoric and analogy. But was it enough for the coveted FRS title?.

Ehsan Masood

Ehsan Masood

Ehsan Masood is Editor of Research Fortnight.