"Mobilising the geeks" - A lecture by Mark Henderson

1 June 2012


This report was prepared by Dave Bosworth

Continuing the Centre for Science and Policy's (CSaP's) Distinguished Lecture Series, Mark Henderson, Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust and former Science Editor at The Times, spoke about the challenges of creating evidence based policy and paid credit to CSaP for “blazing the trail” in connecting science and policy.

To see a copy of the PowerPoint presentation used in this lecture, please follow the link here.

A video of this lecture including the question and answer session can be found here.

Over recent years an increasingly bold community of science advocates has been evoloving. The rise of social media, coupled with an explosion of high quality science journalism and programming, has contributed to what Mark Henderson describes as a “geek revolution”. This community of scientists, sceptics and a public increasingly engaged in science has shown an interest in a wide range of topics from science funding to the environment, from libel reform to education. In his book “The Geek Manifesto”, Mark Henderson highlights the importance of this community and the roles it must adopt in order to shape the political landscape.

Mark opened his talk with a key message from “The Geek Manifesto”, that this ground swell in interest in science has yet to penetrate fully the policy process. He explained that this is still most noticeable in the lack of representation of science in Parliament, with only three MPs holding a science PhD. He went on to explain that this lack of representation goes beyond a lack of scientists and incorporates a general indifference towards science.

Mark argued that throughout government there is a lack of engagement in science. It is not that there is a deliberate ignorance of science, but rather a lack of knowledge about the scientific process. He gave an example the initial response to the Icelandic volcano. Policy makers required fast, concrete information regarding safe level of atmospheric ash, but this information did not exist and so scientists were only able to offer reasoned estimations. This scientific uncertainty, while central to science is often seen as a major hindrance by those in the policy process who confuse experimental unknowns with poor quality advice. Mark Henderson therefore argues that it is not necessarily that we need more scientists in the policy process but also individuals who are scientifically literate.

During his lecture, Mark suggested that a potential reason for the lack of scientific literacy within policy makers is that those involved do not see the value in an evidence based approach to policy. Often the scientific advice will support long term projects which extend well beyond a single election cycle so while the sitting government must pay for the project they reap little reward. Mark said that “policy makers often require science to deal in certainties while scientists more often deal in questions”.

Mark suggested that the science community does not engage in the policy process as well as other interest groups do. Science lobbying is required not just for science funding issues but also to increase the role of science in the policy process. Social, economic and ethical issues, along with public opinion are all central to good policy but science advice should be on a par with these concerns. Too often scientific evidence is applied only at the end of the policy process to support decisions already made. Not only does this result in poor policy, it leads to abuse of the evidence. Mark stressed that in cherry picking data to support a predetermined view, the evidence is misrepresented leading to an erosion of trust in evidence based policy and also alienation of the science community.

The science community and the public who have an interest in science and an evidence based approach to policy must learn to attach a political cost to bad science. Mark recognised that organisations such as Sense About Science and CaSE have led the way, both in promoting the value of science in policy making but also in providing an organised platform for anyone to productively lobby government. It is this lobbying that indicates to MPs that there are many individuals for whom science issues are a voting issue. The success of such schemes is exemplified by recent progress made in libel reform.

Mark finished by saying that the newly empowered geek community must use this opportunity to raise the profile of science in policy, by making the role of science itself a key policy issue. Only by forcing it on the agenda of government will it force all MPs to become scientifically literate: "MPs feel pressure to understand economics but there is no pressure to understand science". By holding government accountable and by "naming and shaming" those who use evidence incorrectly we can ensure evidence takes its rightful place at the heart of the policy process. This however requires the science community as a whole to do a much more professional job in putting its views forward. The policy process should be as familiar to the modern scientist as any other aspect of research, as Chris Tyler remarked "If we want policy makers to 'do' science better, then scientists need to learn to 'do' policy better".

Dr Dave Bosworth

Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy, University of Cambridge