X marks the spot.
I write a few of these posts in advance. So this is being written the day before the General Election in the UK to come out the day after the election. I don’t know who has won at the moment, but if predictions are right it’s possible no one will know who’s won for a week or so after the result. We’re politically plural in the AoB Blog office so there’ll be a mix of emotions. For some of us it’ll be a day of exasperation or frustration, while the people who voted for the losers will deal with it in their own way.
But it’s not a foregone conclusion that politicians have to be disappointing.
Back in March last year a group of scientists decided that politicians could make better decisions if they had access to independent information. Instead of just setting up a unit, they chose to speak to politicians first to find out what would be most useful to them. They also wanted to know the best way an Evidence Information Service could deliver that information.
To get that information, they went to the public to ask for help. The idea was that each constituency would have its own champion who would interview an MP, and local representative for the devolved governments. I took part and spoke to my local MP and AM (Assembly Member) with a structured set of interview questions. The aim was to write a paper based on those responses. You can see the draft online.
Impressively, they’ve also released their raw data. Their conclusion is that the politicians who met with interviewers showed their human side in responding to questions. I don’t feel I can say exactly what my MP and AM said without breaching confidentiality, but I was impressed with both of them. It seems around the UK, politicians of all parties would like access to independent scientific information.
For most of the results announced today the winner will have been voted in by an overwhelming minority. Regardless of who wins, it would be helpful for the representatives to have somewhere they can get scientific information. Chris Chambers et al. might have a way to aid policymakers, even if the election results mean they’re not the ones I want.
You can read more about the proposed Evidence Information Service at the Guardian.
The Geek Manifesto by Mark Henderson
The Geek Manifesto by Mark Henderson is a book which wears its heart on its sleeve. This is unashamedly a political book – a campaign. The author, Mark Henderson, is Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust, and was formerly Science Editor of The Times. With those credentials, it is no surprise that The Geek Manifesto is powerfully and clearly written.
And yet… having just finished the book, I am troubled by certain aspects of it. Henderson is clear about the need for more evidence-driven policy in poitics, and yet seems strangely naive about the nature of politics itself. For me, Henderson succeeds in making the case that politicians choose to ignore scientific evidence when it suits them. But he fails to convince me that this book will make any substantial difference in a age of coalition politics and political contingency.
Where does this book leave us and what role should scientists play in politics?
The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters
By Mark Henderson
Read: Online extracts
The Economist, not noted for its bleeding heart liberal tendencies, has a special report in the February 24th issue on feeding the world. The print edition asks Should we increase spending on agricultural research?, and the website has an online poll. Unsurprisingly, in both cases, the answer is yes. The report includes an interesting account of the history of the Broadbalk field at Rothamsted Research station:
The 1.6-hectare (4-acre) Broadbalk field lies in the centre of Rothamsted farm, about 40km (25 miles) north of London. In 1847 the farm’s founder, Sir John Lawes, described its soil as a heavy loam resting on chalk and capable of producing good wheat when well manured. The 2010 harvest did not seem to vindicate his judgment. In the centre of the field the wheat is abundant, yielding 10 tonnes a hectare, one of the highest rates in the world for a commercial crop. But at the western end, near the manor house, it produces only 4 or 5 tonnes a hectare; other, spindlier, plants yield just 1 or 2 tonnes. Broadbalk is no ordinary field. The first experimental crop of winter wheat was sown there in the autumn of 1843, and for the past 166 years the field, part of the Rothamsted Research station, has been the site of the longest-running continuous agricultural experiment in the world. Now different parts of the field are sown using different practices, making Broadbalk a microcosm of the state of world farming.
Asking for more money for research (at a time when prestigious institutions such as Imperial College are sacking plant scientists right left and centre) is a no-brainer, but The Economist puts forward a compelling case which gets to the heart of both the scientific and economic issues:
By the 1990s most agricultural problems seemed to have been solved. Yields were rising, pests appeared under control and fertilisers were replenishing tired soil. The exciting areas of research in life sciences were no longer plants but things like HIV/AIDS. The end of the era of cheap food has coincided with growing concern about the prospects of feeding the world. Around the turn of 2011-12 the global population is forecast to rise to 7 billion, stirring Malthusian fears. The price rises have once again plunged into poverty millions of people who spend more than half their income on food. The numbers of those below the poverty level of $1.25 a day, which had been falling consistently in the 1990s, rose sharply in 2007-08. That seems to suggest that the world cannot even feed its current population, let alone the 9 billion expected by 2050. Adding further to the concerns is climate change, of which agriculture is both cause and victim. So how will the world cope in the next four decades?
A.J. Cann, Leicester, UK.