back to article Minister calls for boffins to engage with public

Minister for Innovation John Denham said the scientific community needs to improve its engagement with the public and that government needs to pay more attention to science when making policy. Speaking to the Royal Society for Encouragement of the Arts, Commerce, and Manufacturers yesterday, Denham said scientific advice …


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  1. Karl Lattimer

    scientists change their research

    Its been shown in recent years especially that the government policy is influencing scientists research. For instance I heard of one research team that was investigating the decline in the mating habits of some rodent, they were denied funding until they tacked on "as a result of climate change".

    The scientists will do whatever they can to get funding, the government have an agenda for climate change which has more to do with the energy crisis in terms of russias control of gas and the middle east control of oil than it has to do with the changing climate.

    This is why a government of an insignificant CO2 contributer like the UK is pushing the climate change agenda to the public, and the public are lapping it up.

    For the record, the only reason they want you to save energy is to try and prevent a third world war, it has nothing to do with the climate which is obviously changing.

    Also the scientists who have done research which proves climate change is part of a longer cycle of earth changes and climate patterns have been brushed under the carpet, and those who entertain the governments "save the world" policy are getting increased funding.

    I agree, the government needs to stop setting the scientific agenda and instead start listening to the facts which aren't skewed through the availability of research grants.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    In related news...

    Boffin calls for ministers to engage with public. Well, I'm a software engineer - that's got to be worth a bit of boffinness.

  3. Jon

    Dump peer reviewing

    "My concern is there may be disincentives in the system that emphasise published and peer-reviewed work over public policy advice"

    Wasn't it the government listening to a policy advisor not peer reviewed science that led to the MMR vaccine debacle and rise in measels cases in this country.

    What we need is more emphasis on scientific method and peer review in schools.

  4. Anonymous Coward

    This is all well and good...

    ...but when scientists DO try and engage with the public, then "news outlets" such as The Register will simply give them stupid nicknames and make every possible attempt to beat them back into their small cupboards at the back of the lab.

    I seem to recall that The Register takes particular delight in doing this kind of thing - thinking of a certain Robotics Professor, and a certain Mars Mission lead scientist.

    Perhaps scientists would be more willing to engage with the public if the media would stop publishing childish comments about the scientists themselves, and instead publish something interesting and engaging about the science...

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    You first !

    "scientific advice should be a key part of all government decision making"

    As soon as I see proff that the government takes the advice of evidential scientific research over the latest headline on the Daily Mail or Rupert Murdoch I'll beconvinced this isn't so much hot air.

    (ps can we have a version of Godwin's law that every story has a global warming debate crowbarred into it - especially those spouting apochryphal stories "I heard of on research team blah blah blah to back up their own agendas)

    Doody (climate change agnostic)

  6. Alan Lukaszewicz
    IT Angle

    It is an old story ...

    It is an old story often claimed (especially at conference dinners).

    The usual hurdle is that scientific knowledge and skills often grate with power politics visions or preconceptions. In other words research should drive practice and policy and in turn should be driven by the same. But when the results jar that is usually the point policy makers start to stop listening.

    It's a bit like saying "know that the Earth orbits the Sun" when common understanding is that it is not so.

  7. Edward Barrow

    The role of publishing

    "Science isn't science until it's published" - in a peer-reviewed journal, meant to be read by by the scientist's peers.

    there needs to be just a little change: science isn't science until it's published, in a peer-reviewed journal, still, for quality control, but with an abstract intended for the public. No layperson's abstract, no publication. The scientist should write the lay abstract, but the journal publisher should insist on it.

  8. D L Clements
    Thumb Down

    It would be nice if they took advice when it's given...

    It now seems that Denham was advised that his chosen settlement for Physics in the spending review <a href="">would do severe damage to the subject</a> and that more money was needed to maintain the UK's standing in the field. Perhaps he should reread his own speech and follow the advice he was given by scientists and restore funding. At 80 Million it's peanuts in terms of the rest of government spending.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Nanny State and Error Bars

    X is 0.5 with an error margin of +-0.1

    You can make a law that says it is illegal for X to be anything other than 0.5, you will prosecute a lot of people as a result. You may even pat yourself on the back, Nanny state protecting people from rogue Xs! Hurrah!

    But there are error bars on that of +- 0.1, we're just not sure if X should be anything from 0.4 to 0.6. Someone closer to measuring each X may know better than us. We're working with the average of X's, not a particular X with a particular error value.

    So at worst the law should be (X>0.4 AND X<0.6)

    Worse still an error bar is itself an average, in extreme cases X may even be 0.7.

    Prison sentences for people with rogue X's have a negative penalty too. Making a crime is not a neutral thing with no consequences!

    So there is a downside to society of X being 0.7, lets called that downside Y.

    And there is a downside to making it a crime for X to be greater or equal to 0.7, you criminalize people who don't need to be criminals, lets call that downside Z.

    You make a law that X must be less than 0.7, you've made Britain (Y-Z) better, and you know that X=0.7 is a bad thing, so Hurrah, Nanny State has made a difference!. But if Y is less than Z you've made Britain worse not better.

    So sure X being 0.7 is bad, but if Y<Z it's not as bad as criminalizing it. At some value of X there comes a net benefit. Perhaps X<0.85, or X<0.9

    My point here, is a lot of the newer Blairist laws ignore the error bars, they treat the law as having no negative consequence (blindly ignoring prisons full of people and ever increasing violence as officers try to enforce ever more petty laws). So the laws typically define strong penalties at sharp cutoffs and the cutoff point is well within the error bounds where it encroaches on signal noise. Margins of error that are best defined by the individual in the individual circumstance are defined by a minister with only a bullet point powerpoint slide as guidance.

    Then there's the rounding error. I set the motorway speed limit at 70mph, 71mph will be prosecuted with every increasing penalties until it stops. So I'm driving home to give my sick mother her medicine and I'm just too late and she's dead. The probability of this happening is 1e-8. i.e. 0.000000001, as near as damn it nothing. There may be a billion of these obscure scenarios,but a billion nothings is nothing so we can ignore it right? Hubble space telescope had millions of tiny rounding errors in the conversion between millimetres and inches and as a result it was myopic. You can't ignore the rounding error on millions of tiny scenarios because those errors add up. You have to estimate it.

    I'd make this point again (quantizing one of the negative effects of strict enforcement of motorway speeding limits):

  10. Chris

    re: Dump peer reviewing

    "Wasn't it the government listening to a policy advisor not peer reviewed science that led to the MMR vaccine debacle and rise in measels cases in this country."

    No. It was the media stirring up a storm over some controversial results (now retracted and disproved) they became aware of. Peer review eventually sorted out the issue, but research takes time to be done properly.

    The government did listen to its Scientific advisor and stuck to its guns in backing the MMR over single jabs. I'm very glad the government stood up to the erroneous public opinion fed by a rabid media. Otherwise many, many (more) children would have died or become seriously ill unnecessarily due to this 'moral panic'.

    The problem with scientists engaging with the media or advising on policy is that science is rarely black and white (esp. at the cutting edge), which is what those people want. It takes time for a scientific consensus to be reached and this can and will only be achieved through peer review! Science is not about sound bites or hyperbole.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Peer review and representation

    Results and research can be misrepresented or taken out of context - and can be used to mislead the public via sensationalist headlines. Happens a lot.

    The government can in fact have a hand in this, their spin doctors supply some of the material.

    Peer review is not a pure or clean or fair process in the scientific sense - although it is essential.

    The peers are scientists who will be biased according to their own personal views (and the views that were engrained in them), and also by the organisations that fund their research or pay their salary.

  12. Tom Hawkins

    I don't think Denham was arguing...

    ...against peer review - he's saying that because the university funding system only recognises and rewards certain types of activity (such as peer-reviewed publications), providing scientific advice to government is not seen as a valuable use of time by university management or by scientists from their own career perspective.

    Who's in charge of that university funding system? Why, I imagine it's the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (yes, I missed that name change too), prop. J. Denham.

  13. Dave

    So, in summary...

    A Govt Minister in charge of doling out the dosh feels the (natural for a politician) need to see some quid pro quo; in essence he feels that if he pays for research he should own the researchers.

    Researchers are habituated to being owned, so no problem there...

    The proposal by Edward Barrow seems initially appealing; unfortunately, the results of 99.9% (estimate) of all research is of litttle direct applicability to 99% of people's lives. Of that which is, or should be, of interest there is the issue of the accessibility of the findings.

    If I may provide an example (copied from a pubished paper, rights of original authors recognised) that actually *should* be of interest to most

    Anonymity vs Information Leakage in Anonymity Systems

    Zhu & Bettati

    Texas A&M

    presented at IEEE International Conference on Distributed Computing Systems (ICDCS 2005),

    The abstract reads:

    "Measures for anonymity in systems must be on one hand simple and concise, and on the other hand reflect the realities of real systems. Such systems are heterogeneous, as are the ways they are used, the deployed anonymity measures, and finally the possible attack methods. Implementation quality and topologies of the anonymity measures must be considered as well. We therefore propose a new measure for the anonymity degree, which takes into account possible heterogeneity. We model the effectiveness of single mixes or of mix networks in terms of information leakage and measure it in terms of covert channel capacity. The relationship between the anonymity degree and information leakage is described, and an example is shown."

    Attempt at a 'publicly accessible' abstract

    "There are a number of different ways a web site designer can choose to tell you apart from all the other users of the site without using your actual identity. This research looked into a new way to measure how well these different ways work and how good they are at preventing sneaky unexpected leaks of information from these web sites."

    To which 99.9% of The General Public will say: "and? ..."

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Tom Hawkins

    Bloody hell - you mean that our government is actually not funding scientists to do the research to give them advice with unless it is subject to peer review?

    Well that's beaurocracy for you.

  15. amanfromMars Silver badge

    Knock knock ..... Is there anybody with Intelligence there?

    ‘Minister calls for boffins to engage with public’ ... Hmmm?

    The usual route surely is for boffins to engage with the public through Government except that Government have so many layers of protection so as to allow them unaccountable administration privilege that they are effectively unreachable by boffins outside of the gravy train system, which is probably by design rather than accident. And that renders them as a virus to Systems rather than as anything useful.

    And don't bother your sweet head sending them anything by simple e-mail for that would require a response which would leave a trail and give an accurate insight into their knowledge...or most probably their lack of it which would render them as most likely unsuited for the task they are supposed to be championing.

    And yes, that is shared with you from long experience of their complicity in maintaining an air of competence in a sea of incompetence.


    Or are they to say that e-mail/virtual communications channels do not reach them.... rather than them ignoring them ?

    The best plan appears to be share what you have online and ignore them and let them do all the worrying about their inability to engage with boffins..... which is exactly surely what the Minister is calling for ... "Minister for Innovation John Denham said the scientific community needs to improve its engagement with the public and that government needs to pay more attention to science when making policy".

    However the perversion is that they would be thought to be in control of the funding needed for boffinry and without the intelligence to engage with it even whenever IT knocks repeatedly upon their door.

    Isn't that right, Mr Douglas Alexander/Mr Alex Allen ..... to name but two persons who hide themselves away?

    Or do they expect the Private Sector to Lead them by the nose, rather than them earning their crust and leading by listening to what the Public want and giving it to them rather than finding every excuse under the Sun not to. They are after all Servants of the Public not their Jailers/Leaders.

    It is no secret whenever you share what you want and one wonders what authority anyone would have to deny it, if it does no one any harm. Just because something may be definitely different or unorthodox is no valid reason for inactivity and inelegant disengagement via an arrogant Silence. It may hide Incompetence.

  16. Mike Richards

    Ah yes, government listening to scientists

    Like the scientists who tell them to stop cod fishing in the North Sea - and then they promptly ignore them. Cut carbon emissions by 90% or face disaster - press on with plans for a new generation of coal-fired power stations and new runways. Biometrics are snake oil, your security plans are nonsense and you're endangering the privacy of everyone in the country - ID cards please (for which John Denham voted).

    As for MMR, the government tried to have it both ways, the DoH said MMR was safe, but the Prime Minister turned it into a long-running media circus by refusing to say if it was sufficiently safe that Leo Blair had been injected.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Your attempt at an abstract illustrates the problem. The paper is not at all about techniques to prevent sneaky website designers from getting information about you. It's about ways to measure the effectiveness of techniques to prevent the communications network that connects you to that website or people observing that network from learning that you are connecting to that website---except that most of what they are talking about isn't about web sites either. It's more for things like email.

  18. Anonymous Coward

    Pot, Kettle, Black

    ... if anyone has done science a disservice in this country, then look no further than HMG, who are as big a bunch of philistines as you can imagine.

    Currently, my hobby horse is the fact that political expedience (i.e. what the Daily Wail says) is trumping scientific value in the current ACMD review of cannabis. Twice in 3 years the ACMD have reviewed all the available evidence (note to Daily (Hate)Mail, nice middle-class people saying things is not scientific evidence) and twice they have concluded there is no reason to change the current situation.

    Yet ballsup Brown has already holed them below the waterline by announcing his decision anyway.

    Why should we pay attention to scientists if the people who pay them don't ?

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    That was one of the most lucid comments I've seen you post - and I could understand where you are coming from (so to speak).

    If I were you though, I would have asked (in your title) if there was any intelligence out there rather than just there.

    We all know there is no intelligence there.

  20. Michael

    The current most easily funded project

    as decided by a small group of post-grads in the bar one evening, was something like:

    "The use of quantum computing and nano-technology to decrease the effects of climate change brought about by the rise in childhood obesity."

    Which would then be associated with the multi-million pound government white paper:

    "The socio-economic impact of using quantum computing..." etc etc.

  21. amanfromMars Silver badge

    Quantum Leaping ........ ?

    "First, there's a fear that scientists could come to dictate government policy – constraining decision-making rather than setting it on surer foundations. This is not true. ....... Nonetheless, the fear can persist that inviting evidence may undermine what we want to do.

    Second, civil servants and politicians – much like the public at large – are sometimes worried about interpreting and acting upon scientific evidence. Only about one tenth of MPs come from a science background. Ministers who keep their fingers crossed and hope the world will work as they would like it to work are likely to come unstuck! " .....

    Mr Denham, all those concerns are very valid in the Fields which XXXPlore Perceptions and Code IT Virtually by Remote Proxy. Careful XSScripting can Present a Reality which cannot be Denied and which, if ignored or attacked, can result in Catastrophic Self Harm. QuITe obviously that would be a Fools' Errand.

    And it seems to me to be the Grandest of Follies for anyone, be they civil servant, politician or the public at large to be worrying themselves about interpreting and acting upon scientific evidence about which they have no knowledge and it would be up to them to share with Science how they would like it to work.... for science to consider. It would be as well to keep it simple though and remember/realise that anything which works exclusively rather than being ubiquitously available will be divisive and cause nothing but problems. In popular parlance, that would be akin to Talebanisation and we would want the Status Quo inventing that monkey again.

    "The Government spends almost £6 billion on some of the best research in the world, but it can still be quite difficult for decision makers to access valuable scientific evidence and advice to obtain advice that is based on the best research but which is tailored to address the public policy choices facing decision-makers." ...... £6 billion wasted if valuable scientific evidence is skewed to support public policy choices facing decision-makers rather than decisions being made to support the best research in the world. We've been down that road recently and it leads to Anarchy and Chaos and may even be so designed to Create it.

    And £6 billion you say? That makes a grant of seven sevens for AI virtual Reality Program for IT and Media to Play with, look far too cheap ...... but then it is only a Driver Enabler and a Perfect Fit for ITs Purpose.

    "We all know there is no intelligence there."....Posted Thursday 17th January 2008 15:19 GMT ...... Michael, I am eternally optimistic and wouldn't presume to judge that anyone is passed learning new tricks if they have a mind to.

  22. Anonymous Coward

    RE: Nanny State and Error Bars

    Ah! Deep insight!

    But, if for example, the downsides are considered as costs against the upsides then provided, at the planning stages, such are recorded as being sufficiently small (anyone remember that the cost associated with deaths on the Tube is less than the cost of making it relatively deathless?) then it is usually deemed fine, dandy and acceptable.

    Should hindsight show that the expected costs were not accurately predicted then in general, provided the BBC does not get hold of such details, all will still be well?

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    research grants

    "The use of quantum computing and nano-technology to decrease the effects of climate change brought about by the rise in childhood obesity."

    Childhood obesity ? That might have been true on Thursday. But today the biggest issue is the youth crime wave. Tomorrow it may be big scary dogs. Or immigrants. Or Pensions.

    It's like Daily Mail bingo here.

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