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Scientists and the public interest

The Royal Society has launched a new project to consider how science can be made to work for the public.

Scientific research has an enormous impact on our world and the lives of citizens. It is therefore important that science is not, and is not seen to be, a private enterprise, conducted behind the closed doors of laboratories, but a public enterprise to understand better the world we live in and our place in it. Effective dialogue about the priorities and insights of science and its relation to public values is vital. Scientists can no longer assume an unquestioning public trust.

The general theme of the project seems sound. As I have pointed out before, scientists have perverse incentives - as civil servants their economic incentive is to publish more, to attract attention and to grow their funding. The public interest is not particularly a priority. And with the Australian chief scientist noting that he sees himself as a lobbyist for the scientific community - no doubt the same situation applies in the UK - this conflict of interest is laid bare. So the idea of trying to get scientists working for the people who pay them is a good one, but I hold out little hope of an effective remedy.

And anyway, I'm not sure the Royal Society wants anyone to take the project seriously. The project is to be led by none other than Professor Geoffrey Boulton, a man whose record on creating public trust in UK science is a tad shaky, to say the least. The panel also includes Philip Campbell, the editor of Nature, whose record is little better.

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Reader Comments (22)

They are likely more concerned about the way science is perceived than actually doing anything constructive. Because they are certainly correct when they say "Scientists can no longer assume an unquestioning public trust."

Having trashed the trust, they realize they need to do .... something.

May 13, 2011 at 10:35 AM | Unregistered Commenterstan

Dialogue? Yeah right.

May 13, 2011 at 10:44 AM | Unregistered CommenterRhoda

Surely making the public work for science.

May 13, 2011 at 10:45 AM | Unregistered CommenterJohn

"The project is to be led by none other than Professor Geoffrey Boulton"


The Royal Society outperforms Nigerian hen-house guarding foxes.

May 13, 2011 at 10:46 AM | Unregistered CommenterSara Chan

The implicit assumption here is that scientists are a body apart, interacting with the general public at arms length. What the climate wars have shown is that there are very many highly capable people of a scientific disposition who do not earn their living as professional scientists. For professional scientists to regain their standing, they must stop acting like a priestly caste.

May 13, 2011 at 10:51 AM | Unregistered CommenterErik Bloodaxe

I am half expecting Philip Campbell to resign after a day or so because (like Climategate) an embarrassing and inconvenient interview will turn up that demonstrates he holds a point of view that is incompatible with the task that he conveniently forgot he held when he accepted the post.

May 13, 2011 at 10:57 AM | Unregistered CommenterNat

Walter Mead wrote this today of America, but it applies equally well to the West or to the science establishment.

I think this line (edited slightly) could have been written of climate science -- "the culture of narcissism and entitlement that has transformed the ... elite into a flabby minded, strategically inept and morally confused parody of itself."

May 13, 2011 at 11:45 AM | Unregistered Commenterstan

The only countries in which science primarily serves public interests over private interests are dictatorships like China, North Korea and the former Soviet Union, and we know what they use their scientific knowledge for, don't we?

May 13, 2011 at 11:52 AM | Unregistered Commenterkiwiwit

"Scientists can no longer assume an unquestioning public trust."

When could they ever? The fact that they "believe" they have the Public's trust, or ever did, or can once again "win" it back, is very enlightening indeed. There does appear to be something for the Cambridge University Department of Abnormal Psychology to dig into here. I'm sure modern medicine has a pill for the problem already, just a matter of finding out which one brings this bunch back from their head in the clowds, super egomania. The fact that these nerds believe they can "reclaim" the heights when they were never ever there, speaks a googleplex about the "real" problem with science (or "psyence") today.

May 13, 2011 at 12:24 PM | Unregistered CommenterPascvaks

Thank you for the link to "Establishment Blues" - Walter Russell Mead

May 13, 2011 at 12:37 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoger Carr

A few thousand years ago God handed down 10 commandments for the righteous. They were laudable waffle and widely ignored. In subsequent centuries less elevated, and often rather unsavoury characters wrote down commandments, sometimes laudable sometimes not, which they enforced with harsh punishment following arbitrary procedure. Their rules worked where God's had failed. They were coupled to effective policing.

Society generally has now reached a position where slightly tarnished people, make ethically motivated rules which are effectively policed to the point where even some the legislators have to do time for stealing.

Boulton is slightly tarnished, so he is well placed to create some new rules for scientists in an evolving society. He's certainly hob nobbed with ethics and accepted credit for it in thepast, but he's far less willing to admit to the tarnish. I'm sure he'll write something quite as laudable as the 10 commandments, but rather less pithy. However I'm not at all sure he's keen on enforcement.

The outcome is likely to be heavy on laudable waffle and ultra-light on effective policing.

May 13, 2011 at 12:40 PM | Unregistered Commenterbobdenton

Perhaps the RS should consider the following though experiment? I'm on an infinite sand expanse; the air temperature is 25°C; the sun is shining but because the wind is strong thus convection is the dominant heat transfer mode, the sand is at 30°C.

I then put up a windbreak as do many others. Because convection falls to a much lower level, the temperature of the sand rises to c.45°C as IR radiation from the sand increases to maintain thermal equilibrium with the incoming short wavelength energy. And of this extra IR energy, half is supposed to return as extra 'forcing' by greenhouse gases according to IPCC science the RS considers 'settled'.

Since 1.6W/m^2 GHG 'forcing' is supposed to have given c.0.65K global warming, add 27 times more and you get another c. 18K locally! That is ludicrous.

In reality, the observable 'downwelling longwave radiation' is that needed to maintain radiative thermal equilibrium [Prevost's Law]. Ex-NASA scientist Miskolczi's 2006 paper shows 'back radiation' is an artefact of Milne's incorrect maths.

There's a serious problem with science education in the UK and it goes to the very top.

May 13, 2011 at 12:51 PM | Unregistered Commenteralistair

"It is therefore important that science is not, and is not seen to be, a private enterprise, conducted behind the closed doors of laboratories, but a public enterprise"

What a load of rubbish. Surely science is done for whoever is paying the bill, and if they want to do it behind closed doors, that's their business. Of course, if the *government* is going to steal half of my income and then spend it on science, I might prefer it if it was good science and I had access to all the information and could check. This is better than spending it on bad science that is used in the interests of politicians.

But really, what else could one expect from science done with money appropriated by politicians?

No, much better if I could keep my money, and spend it on whatever science *I* like.

May 13, 2011 at 2:36 PM | Unregistered CommenterRob Fisher

The World's Oldest Professions - Science, Art, and that other one no one speaks openly of anymore. Which preceeded which is debateable. There is some indication that in the beginning the three were actually one. Sounds reasonable.

May 13, 2011 at 3:04 PM | Unregistered CommenterPascvaks

What is this 'public interest' of which you speak? Is it whatever you deem worthy? Is it something we all vote on? Is it something that we all have to agree on?

May 13, 2011 at 5:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterMark


I take your point and accept it. Help me though - suggest a better form of words.

May 13, 2011 at 7:17 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

This would be the Geoffrey Boulton who somehow always gets cited as being a contributor to the IPCC or as a government advisor on climate change all the time (e.g. here, here, and here), yet always claims to not know how these mistakes originate (e.g. (here)? The same Geoffrey Boulton who also promulgates the famous 'Calculations by glaciologists now suggest that by 2050 most of the Himalayan glaciers will have gone...' nonsense?

May 13, 2011 at 7:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterZT

Hi Bishop,

I think the problem is more than terminological, it's about where the power to direct and enable research resides, and I'm afraid that I don't have a solution.

If you take Steve Mosher's notion of noble cause corruption in climate science as the starting point, particularly the 'noble cause' bit, then you have a bunch of people acting in what they consider to be the public interest. But they don't seem to have consulted the public; they just seem to have decided for themselves. But what if they did consult? The public domain currently consists of a debate that seems to contain very few points of agreement. So how would the public interest be identified to be served?

Two models from politics present themselves from the US and UK, where in the former many public officials are elected and in the UK they are appointed. In other words, in one we decide and in the other an ostensibly dispassionate expert decides (the current system perhaps). Both systems have strengths and weaknesses; the former is, in my view at least, more accountable but more subject to populism, and vice versa for the latter.

Accountability is obviously a laudible aim but people seem to forget that it may have costs. Just ask teachers. Types of accountability may be significant here. Measurement and reporting, for example, may be cumbersome in excess. Visibility, on the other hand may be less onerous but may deter certain kinds of personality - visbility is what 'release the data' is about in part.

I have no idea how to balance all these things, or perhaps more pragmatically, which ones to emphasise over others. I hope someone else does though. Sorry mate.

May 13, 2011 at 8:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterMark

Might be good to have a round-up of the Bish's views on the select committee's peer review discussions - you announced it was happening, but not said much about that happening since it, er, happened. A Lot of footage to sit through, however!! :-(

May 13, 2011 at 8:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterBig Yin

Your Grace: "scientists have perverse incentives - as civil servants"

Most UK scientists in the public sector work for universities. And, in contrast to, say, Germany, UK academics are not civil servants. They work for institutions that have charitable status and those institutions derive most of their income in ways that the government tightly controls. They are subject to perverse incentives but those perverse incentives are not quite the same as those that apply to, say, a Senior Scientific Officer working in DECC.

May 13, 2011 at 11:46 PM | Unregistered CommenterJane Coles


Can you explain the difference between the two sets of perverse incentives.

May 14, 2011 at 6:56 AM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

> Can you explain the difference between the two sets of perverse incentives.

The chief perverse incentive for UK scientists in academia is the use of research funding as a primary performance indicator. Given a choice between applying for (a) a small grant to do something which is scientifically important but which is not flavour of the month with the relevant research council, or (b) applying for a large grant to do something rather trivial but fashionable, then the academic (or their Dean) will be strongly tempted to opt for (b). A secondary perverse incentive arises from the use of publication counts as a performance indicator: this favours producing lots of 'normal science' rather than, say, spending three years writing a single paper that changes the field.

I can't speak with any expertise about UK government scientific officers ("civil servants") but I assume that they mostly work on what their superiors tell them to work on with the money that is made available to them (i.e., they typically do not need to apply for research grants). And I very much doubt that publication numbers play much role in their promotion prospects. Rather, their career prospects depend directly on delivering what their bureaucratic and political masters want of them (remember Alan Carlin?).

May 14, 2011 at 6:33 PM | Unregistered CommenterJane Coles

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