The politics of science

When science and free expression clash, it’s often a matter of public concern. The fallout from Professor David Nutt’s clash with the government was one of many topics tackled at a panel discussion at the British Academy on Monday night. As perhaps the most famous recent example of government rejection of scientific research, the furore over Professor Nutt’s findings about drug use exposed the disconnect between scientists’ presentation of data and government policy –– and, for those working in criminology, education or communications, the problems can be even greater.

The event, jointly organised by SAGE and the Academy, part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science, presented the panel with the question: “How can social scientists and government work together to strengthen public trust in scientific evidence?”

For Julian Huppert MP, this was a chance to challenge the belief that politics and science simply don’t mix. Unhappy with the way in which some politicians have shied away from attempts to place the work of social scientists at the heart of some of their own decision-making, he applauded the Conservative manifesto pledge to encourage MPs to attend a course in understanding science. Unfortunately, only a handful of politicians took part — and those who amounted to “crisis cases” within politics were nowhere to be seen.

Professor Anthony Heath also had some complaining to do: lamenting the fact that social scientists rely too often on “stylised”facts and selective use of events. Social scientists need to be aware of the difference between advocacy research and scientific research, he added.

For Imperial College academic and Guardian contributor Dr Alice Bell, who contributed to research for the BBC Trust’s review of impartiality in science reporting, there is a real need for social scientists to have their findings challenged, acknowledged and debated, not only in Westminster, but in the public arena: for this, the media is crucial — and the work of PR professionals should not be discounted.

How scientists communicate –– and what is hidden –– is explored in the forthcoming issue of Index on Censorship magazine, Dark matter: What’s science got to hide? The issue, published by SAGE, looks at how scientific data is digested, politicised or suppressed — whether it be the work of doctors, physicists or oceanographers. Fred Pearce, author of The Climate Files, is an advocate for data sharing, calling for an openness in scientific communities, particularly on the heels of the Climategate scandal at the University of East Anglia. Sense about Science‘s Tracey Brown laments the increasing pressures on scientists and stepped up attempts to silence their debate, not least due to the chilling effect of English libel law. The BMJ’s investigative editor Deborah Cohen looks at how keeping information about drugs trials out of the public domain can have disastrous results — here some trusted names in the drugs business come under scrutiny.

Elsewhere, in the United States, warnings over the dangers of deepwater drilling go ignored in a political environment that has led President Obama to disappoint those who had hoped for a more transparent approach to research. The ACLU’s Heather Weaver outlines the beguiling trajectory of the powerful creationist lobby and its impact on the US education system. And in China, the pollution politics at play paints a worrying future for some of the country’s population.

The issue is out on 28 November, with a launch of the magazine at Imperial College on 6 December.  For more information about The Art Issue, available now, and to subscribe to the magazine, click here.