October 2008 Archives

happy young people After much debate the Government has finally announced that Personal, Health and Social Education (PHSE) will be compulsory in schools at a level appropriate to each child's age. This decision has been widely welcomed - though strangely not quite by everyone. All children need to understand their own bodies and relationships. But only a few years ago some of us, as educators, were still battling to save this entitlement and embed it into the curriculum.

In 1990 the Cambridge University Press published a book entitled The New Social Curriculum. Edited by Barry Dufour, it was intended as a 'guide to cross-curricular issues', for teachers, parents and governors. I wrote the chapter on 'Health Education: Education for Health?'.

How different things were such a relatively short time ago.

Quotes from another era
Even as recently as 1990 I find, looking back, that I was obliged to write as follows (please forgive the self-plagiarism.):

[My first thesis is] that health education is far too weighty a matter to be left to the varies of visiting speakers, odd sessions, leaflets, films, etc... and the whims of individual teaching staff...

[The second thesis is] that meaningful (or even plausible) Education for Health can only be achieved in institutions where the teaching staff as a whole have a competent grasp of [these] curricular issues and where the mores of host institutions themselves support an alert and sensitive response to the social and personal needs of learners. Isolated 'lessons' on the 'nightmares of adults' (to use Chris Brown's apt term) are unlikely to meet effectively the aims of an informed and humane programme of Education for Health [where] health can be viewed as a positive feeling of well-being....

Any institution which means what it says about Education for Health will recognise the necessity for:
1. a curriculum which acknowledges the overlap between different aspects of social and personal experience;
2. an adequate allocation of resources - financial and personnel - to develop and deliver such a curriculum;
3. careful attention to the dignity and welfare of all who are involved in work or study within it....

But the majority of developments in Health Education continue to occur outside the context of the mainstream curriculum, and certainly outside the professional remit of those who manage formal educational organisations [which..] may account for the lack of impact which many health messages appear to have on their intended recipients.

Contentious issues
It has to be remembered - or retrospectively understood - that this was written in the context of what amounted to moral panic and the Victoria Gillick campaign on the subject of 'Sex Education', which had become the almost singular 'topic' focus of the then-Conservative Government's educational legislation.

Teachers had to contend with, and at their peril remain within the requirements of, the Education Act (Number 2), 1986, the DES Circular 11:87, and, until it was clarified, Section 28 of the Local Government Act, 1988. All these legal frameworks had the effect of putting teachers of anything to do with sexual education, not to mention student counsellors dealing with issues such as homosexuality, at personal and professional serious risk.

A wait eventually worthwhile
Much water has flowed under the bridge since then. In 1990 I ended my chapter by remarking that, whilst much good work was being undertaken, there was 'as yet little evidence to encourage the hope that national educational structures, combining the experience of health promotion personnel, health educators and classroom teachers firmly within the context of the National Curriculum, will soon emerge to encompass and consolidate this good practice.'

Now however the Government has at last announced that all pupils will Get Healthy Lifestyle Lessons, including age-appropriate information on sex and drugs, and a review by headteacher Sir Alasdair MacDonald will be carried out into the best way to shape and deliver this essential new core curriculum.

A positive step forward for children
This development, in the context of Every Child Matters, is enormously to be welcomed by anyone who wants every child to receive what is surely their basic entitlement - to understand, in ways suitable for their age and maturity, their own bodies and behaviour. How else can small people grow up to be sensible big people?

Across age, gender, social class and marital status, most adults have recently been found by a BBC survey to support this initiative. It's been needed for a very long time and at last nearly everyone seems ready for it.

Read more about Education & Life-Long Learning.

See also: 'Where do baby rabbits come from? Sex education to begin at five in all schools' (Polly Curtis, The Guardian, 24 October 208).

Sunrise over an urban park, from a window This is the day and date when the clocks go 'back'. We have an extra hour in bed on Sunday morning, and then... darkness an hour earlier until next Spring. And most of us will miss the dawning of the day as well, since the majority of people in the UK no longer keep agrarian hours. So let's do something about using daylight in the best way, in the modern world: Sign the No 10 Petition for 'better use of sun'.

The petition for 'Daylight Saving' - i.e. keeping British Summer Time (BST) all year long - is here [http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/betteruseofsun/].

We have already discussed in detail on this website the safety, energy, health, leisure and other benefits of not going into the grimness of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) every Winter. Let's make it clear that (as is in fact the case according to surveys *) most of us would welcome a continuation of 'summertime' hours.

Watching beautiful sunrises and sunsets offers aesthetic reasons for keeping summertime hours. But there are many hard-headed reasons too; and if you still doubt this, just check out for yourself with bodies such as RoSPA - or indeed read the views of Sir Stuart Hampson, who, as chairman of the John Lewis Partnership from 1993 to 2007, surely knows a thing or two about looking carefully at the facts.

Who can really argue, when the evidence is so clear? In Sir Stuart's words,

Daylight is precious. Let's stop wasting it. If we didn't put the clocks back we could cut crime, keep fitter - and reduce carbon emissions.

And enjoy more sunrises....

Sunrise and sunbeams through trees on a frosty morning

* 4,215 people took part in an online vote on RoSPA’s website between 24 October and 2 November 2006. The vast majority (86%) supported this change. Of those who voted, 3,625 voted ‘Yes’, 548 voted ‘No’ and 42 voted ‘Don’t Know’.


Dates for 2008 - 2011 when at 2 a.m. the clocks go back (October) and forward (March) by one hour in the UK are:

In 2008: the Sundays of 30 March and 26 October
In 2009: the Sundays of 29 March and 25 October
In 2010: the Sundays of 28 March and 31 October
In 2011: the Sundays of 27 March and 30 October


Read more about BST: British Summer Time & 'Daylight Saving'

Woman executive red briefcase, pink notebook + accessories The current financial chaos is producing a lot of debate about regulation. On one hand we're told that very tight scrutiny, emboldened by severe legislation, is a must; whilst others say more 'good, moral people' from the City are the answer. Both positions have merit. But urgent action to widen the pool from which Board Directors is drawn is one essential and immediate option, insisting that many more women become directors of the most influential companies.

Few would deny that, as Andrew Phillips said recently in The Guardian, a 'welter of regulation' cannot in and of itself avoid further catastrophe for the Threadneedle Street and City of London and Wall Street.

Of course 'good, moral' people are a pre-requisite of effective reformation of the financial system; and of course this must include people of 'all talents'.

Diversity improves scrutiny
What Lord Phillips might also propose, however, is that none of this is likely to deliver unless the talents involved are those of a truly diverse lot, in background, ethnicity, gender and otherwise.

The best way to secure proper scrutiny is to ensure, however well meaning they might be, that decision-making groups are not also a collection of people with much, beyond the necessary skills and expertise, in common.

Diversity improves business performance too
We already know that diversity at the top makes for successful business. Group members of different sorts, from a variety of backgrounds, aren't an optional extra when it comes to effective group working. They're essential.

And the UK workplace equality legislation to deliver this - applicable as much in the boardroom as on the shopfloor - is already in place.

Read more about Business & Enterprise and about Gender & Women.

Radio dials The UK Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills has just conducted a consultation on Science and Society. What follows is a version of my submission to DIUS on this subject, covering issues such as the role of scientists in the service of government, the use of social science, the need to develop regional science strategies, engagement and stakeholding, the iterative way science evolves in its inevitably social context/s, and how different sorts of people feel about and become active (or not) in this process.

Introduction

The DIUS Science and Society Consultation document is a valuable contribution to contemporary debate on this complex matter. There are many important issues within that discussion on which others will doubtless offer advice, but which will not be touched upon in the commentary below.

Rather, this response will concentrate largely on the nature of science in society, with a particular (though not exclusive) focus on the centrality within that focus of the question of science, scientists, government and policy-making.

The approach in which follows will look more to the general issues, than to the specific, enumerated questions posed by the Science and Society consultation document. We are here addressing some aspects of the assumptions and constructions underlying final question of the document, i.e.:

Do these areas and questions (on roles, responsibilities and actions) provide a suitable framework for addressing the challenges we have identified?


The critical questions

The DIUS Science and Society document suggests a number of critical questions, answers to which may influence the analysis and commentary DIUS invites.

These questions include:

* Is there a difference between ‘Science and Society’ and ‘Science in Society’? To what extent is it important to recognise that science and all other forms of knowledge are inherently iterative in nature?

* Is it also important to recognise that ‘Science’ is a socially constructed area of endeavour and form of knowledge, just like every other form of human activity and knowledge? Can this help us?

* Are the roles and specific obligations of scientists different for those employed by Government and for those who are not? Do Government scientists have obligations which are additional to their basic professional ones?

Whilst it is not now the time to explore these basic questions in depth, they are fundamental to our understanding of that ‘science and society’ is about, and what it can do. A few observations on these fundamentals follow...


‘Science and Society’ and ‘Science in Society’

‘Science’ is one form of knowledge amongst many. It derives its claimed authority from the way it operates – the rigorous testing and rational pursuit or ordering of evidence – which is generally understood to be the basis also of modern western culture. To that extent science is of (or ‘in’) society, rather than an adjunct to it.

Even in modern rational societies however there are many other forms of ‘knowledge’ or belief. Indeed, one of the challenges of liberal western governments is to establish that the state is granted legitimacy by its citizens through that state’s willingness to adhere to the rules of rationality – what the state insists upon can be demonstrated empirically to be in the generic best interests overall of its citizens (adherence to the evidence and ‘rule’ improves your health, safety, environment, freedom, whatever...).

Scientists themselves, however, often seem to operate in the public domain as through there were no other modes of legitimation – they can appear as authoritative per se, rather than as offering the ‘best available’ evidence for a particular course of action or decision making.

Whether this matters depends on what is being considered: a professionally judged and clear-cut way forward is often required in emergencies for instance, but may be less appropriate for public discourse about disputed issues (and especially ones where questions of ‘morals’ or other non-empirical matters are significant).

We all need to be clear about the difference between long-term scientific debates and immediate professional judgements.


‘Science’ is a socially constructed area of endeavour and form of knowledge

It is critical to recognise that all ‘knowledge’ is socially constructed.

Scientists can legitimately, and should, offer evidence opinions on an enormous range of issues, but everyone needs to recognise that not all issues can be resolved to the satisfaction of all citizens by rational debate.

Science is an iterative activity; it does not hold that there are immutable and universal empirically-based truths, but rather that there are good reasons to develop evidence-based and rational understandings of our universe, society and other phenomena.

These reasons – better health, environment, business etc – are also the reasons why emphases in science change over time. We discover something about X which leads us to enquire about Y... which in turn takes us to Z; and in so doing we often discover also that the premise behind X is no longer secure, or that aspects of Y put a new light on how we planned to develop activities arising from something not previously seen as a related issue.

At every step our perceptions of science and ‘the evidence’ are permeated by our social and economic understandings and priorities. This is a critical and consistent underpinning of science-based enquiry, but is not always self-evidently appreciated even by scientists (and especially physical and natural scientists) themselves.

Indeed, scientists can sometimes seem to believe that it’s simply ‘the evidence’ which takes them from one enquiry to another, as though the availability of resources and socio-economic priorities had little to do with the direction of research.

This ‘knowledge-seeking imperative’ – the ‘seeker after truth’ model – may possibly have applied early in the emergence of modern science, but is not usually a realistic mode in modern-day science, often though science may still be perceived (on all sides) as like this.

Scientists often still do not articulate transparently the socio-economic or other formative rationales behind their research; but there is almost always more than one direction in which research might travel, if all the most likely routes and outcomes were to be considered at the point when research is initiated.


Roles and specific obligations of scientists employed by Government

A number of obligations, by common agreement between practitioners and the wider society, apply to all science practitioners, in whatever discipline. These include the requirement to conduct and report their work according to strict criteria of accountability, as well as the injunction to ‘do no harm’.

These obligations are incorporated into the criteria for professional activity as a Chartered Scientist, a status which was formalised in 2000, and in the ‘Hippocratic Oath’ for scientists, introduced by the UK’s then Chief Scientific Advisor in 2007.

Almost all scientists, in all disciplines, also have other obligations. For a number, mostly academics, this will be simply to the extension of the paradigm or framework for their specific discipline, ‘pure science’ as defined by themselves and their peers.

For some others - probably many - it will be the requirement to produce the information and technologies required by their private sector employers in business and industry.

And for another group it is to inform and / or provide professional support for the work of Government, which in turn makes for the same relationships in regard to the interests of the citizens of the state.

Each of these circumstances makes particular demands on, and offers specific perspectives on the work of, science practitioners.

Specifically, these circumstances define ‘stakeholding’ – the ways in which science practitioners have common cause, and the people or communities to whom they are responsible.

In some cases (e.g. business and sometimes academia) that responsibility and commonality is direct and indeed directed.

In other instances (e.g. most Government-sponsored science) the extent or boundaries of common interest and stakeholding are far less easily defined.

This fuzziness of definition is not because there is no clear line of commissioning and formal direct accountability – these are usually very transparent – but because none of the parties directly involved is acting simply on their own behalf. Activities undertaken for the Government (state) are, at whatever distance, activities undertaken on behalf of us all.

There is therefore a very real sense in which science ‘for the Government’ is ‘for’ us all; yet scientific research and development is sometimes conducted (and permitted to be conducted) as though only those who, metaphorically speaking, sign the chequebook are of serious consequence.

One example here might be research in an area such as energy conservation or animal health, where considerations of ‘social / socio-economic application’ are put aside until the work is almost complete, perhaps to be dealt with ‘later’ by non-scientists (policy makers etc). But leaving potential wider social (dis)benefit indicators, measures and frameworks until the science research and development is underway is not a rare occurrence.

There is a significant risk when this happens of ignoring central issues around the ultimate public good. Socio-economic / public interest issues must not be left to ‘end of pipe’ where there is Government funding of science. Yet the number of available research and other specialists who have experience of embedding wider public (‘indirect’ stakeholder) interest from the onset of a scientific programme is small.

In short, there are generic and also specific responsibilities on both scientists and commissioners of science. Whilst the generic responsibilities apply to all scientific activity, the specifics may vary; and this is particularly true in terms of stakeholding.

In private business there is still regulation, but within this boundary the reciprocity and obligation is between scientists and their employers. (The issue of how governments and private companies influence each other is a separate factor – though also critical.)


Other aspects of Science and Society

Whilst there are many considerations deriving from the thoughts above which may be brought to bear, this note will focus on just a few, as follows:


Creationism, culture and community concerns

It seems that the challenges arising from issues such as Creationism have caught scientists on the hop. They do not as yet appear to have a coherent strategy for addressing such matters, although fundamental beliefs of this kind have now been expressed in the UK for some years.

This may seem a matter at a distance from the Science and Society issues we are here discussing, but perhaps it is not.

As we noted above, modern science and technology is predicated, like modern business and law, on the over-riding notion of contestable rationality. Not everyone however sees the world in this light. That is why, it might be suggested, many scientists have such difficulty understanding how Creationism and other similar belief sets are acceptable to people.

There is however no obligation on anyone in the UK to sign up to (or, NB, ‘believe in’) rationality outside that underpinning the law itself.

Perceived like this, it is possible to think of a whole range of non-empirically demonstrable belief systems – including aspects of health care, environment and so forth – as part of a continuum from clear demonstrability to a full-scale non-empiricality.

Dismissing these belief systems as irrelevant to science in the modern world is a serious risk, not least because it is likely to widen the divide between those who subscribe to science and those who prefer, or are accustomed to, other bases for their interpretations of people and their lives.

Of course there are cross-overs, but there is nonetheless an apparent reluctance on the part of many different sorts of citizens to become involved in science if they are not themselves ‘standard model’ stereotype. Perhaps this is because some people shy away from the rigid functionality – as they see it – of science.

Other professional disciplines (such as Health, Social Care and Sure Start services) have learned that there is rarely a part of the community which is ‘hard to reach’, but rather there are ‘difficult to access’ services; science in general has not even begun to recognise this in itself. It seems often to stand beyond ‘real people’, a monument to apparent clarity of thought and dispassionate analysis – a model which practising scientists themselves would very probably reject, if asked.

If the assumption of apparently dispassionate and unbending science is correct, one way that science might reach back into ‘the community’ (in reality of course there are many communities) might be for scientists, and especially scientists in the service of the state and teachers of science, to emphasise the exploratory, ever-hypothetical, nature of their work, with all the fluidity and changes of emphasis and development which occur at every stage. Every practitioner of science is aware that choices about how to interpret information, and what to do next, must be made every day.

Perhaps the real challenge here is to distinguish the substantive, measurable outcomes of science and technology – those much admired, massive achievements gained by scientists for the benefit of us all – from the frailty and vagaries of the scientific journey or endeavour itself.

There may be many scientists who do not (or prefer not to) themselves recognise this distinction very clearly, but the acknowledgement of human agency, with all the issues which thereby arise, is a reciprocal balance to the towering achievements of science and technology.

For science to become truly accessible to ‘ordinary people’ of every kind, it needs to be seen by them as something ordinary human beings actually do, and something to which ordinary people can, with hard work and application, aspire.

Peer review, media perceptions and science communications

These quasi-political issues also relate to the ways in which science is communicated.

Just as most scientists are not trained (and so cannot be expected) to assess the wider socio-economic etc impacts of their work, nor are they often trained to communicate it to the wider world.

There is evidence that most scientists are reluctant to expound on their work before it is completed, if even then. This relates to the way in which they have been trained – do not share your findings until they have been peer-reviewed and approved. In effect, there is a requirement of silence.

Little surprise, then, that most people think of science as inflexible and ‘correct’ in a way that brooks no debate. Yet the reality of scientific research is crammed with side-lines, reversals, dead ends and brilliant serendipity.

There are good reasons to observe confidentiality in e.g. commercial operations, but much of publicly funded science is not at this later, particular stage in the game. It is the underpinning and exploratory work which is usually best fitted to direct public support.

This support has as its general corollary the ‘right to know’ and usually to consent. For this reason alone government supported scientists must be encouraged (if not obliged) to share their research processes and findings with the wider public.

There needs to be a clear understanding that peer review is a qualitatively different process from public understandings. The former is a matter of ultimate quality control (which in itself may be less evident anyway in commercial undertakings, where review is internal not external); the latter should be propagated as a perception of a way to find things out – always a fluid and challenging journey.

There is much can be done here to make things better.

Government should require of its scientists that (in appropriate ways) they share their research as it progresses. Peer review must be seen as only a part of that (state funded) journey, not as an end in itself. (Presumably, all government funded research is continuously monitored anyway?) Peer review is an important process internal to science. Communication must become an on-going external activity.

The production of story-boards and other modes of open communication can and should be taught in undergraduate science training. Not all will feel comfortable with this, but there should be someone in every team who is able to deliver.

And science must become a media story in its own right. This means that well qualified scientists need always to be available (as those who worry about specific science issues seem always to be anyway) so weight can be added to emerging debates; and so also science can become reported before it becomes controversial, as well as when it does.


Public science from the inside: Science Advisory Councils

The role of Science Advisory Councils (SACs), which offer advice as ’critical friends’ to government Chief Scientists and through them to Ministers, is another aspect of public engagement and stakeholding. SACs can offer both the highest levels of expertise, and a cool look at the wider picture and the longer term.

The relationship between SACs and other influences on scientific decision-making in government sponsored science is sometimes unclear, but the assurance of impartiality which Nolan appointment procedures seek to impose is an important element in the mix.

SACs, suitably supported, are able to appraise and advise on science developments in a way which adds considerable value for government, especially if the wider issues of engagement and stakeholding are kept firmly in mind.

It is therefore surprising that thus far SACs have not been seen as a major contributor in the objective of securing public confidence in the functioning of science, and neither have they been bodies brought as appropriate to the attention of the wider public, as evidence of partnership working at this level. (It might reasonably be assumed that anyone willing to be appointed by a Minister to such a role might in normal circumstances also be willing to be publicly accountable and visible in that role.)

Although some scientists are keener than others on this idea, there is important potential in the use of SACs (which rightly now include Generalist or Lay members as well as internationally recognised specialists) for reducing public uncertainty and lack of clarity about major public concerns around how government directs science and technology.

A start in this direction could be the bringing together of SAC members across government departments to enquire how they perceive their work, and how they would like advise it should be taken forward. This potential has so far barely been recognised, let alone developed, either as a general proposal or, in regard to their very specific functions, for Lay or Generic members of such bodies, for whom role development remains largely latent - but in terms of future-facing engagement and stakeholding perhaps central - as things stand.

The Social Sciences, engagement and stakeholding

The current Science and Society consultation recognises the role of the Social Sciences in modern government and activities; but these disciplines are thereafter little discussed. This is problematic, not least in the sense that the social and natural sciences, properly brought together, offer a synergy and iterative energy which neither alone is likely to produce.... a matter which seems sometimes to be better managed by profit-facing private businesses in science (customer intelligence), than by government.

Social science is of course far more than empirical ‘surveys’ and ‘public opinion’. It covers many aspects of the reality of science, including economics, social outcomes, customs, attitudes and beliefs, cultural contexts and constructions, training and education, and much else. It is also iterative and reflexive, in that at its best it makes overt the interactions between researchers in all disciplines and their work.

In government supported natural and physical science ‘social’ issues should therefore never be left to ‘end of pipe’. Public accountability and understandings of wider stakeholding – ultimately everyone, when state funding is involved – must involve social as well as natural scientists; and this is true of Science Advisory Councils as well as of individual research projects.

The Haldane principle, the Science Councils & regional science policy

The Haldane Principle now has a century of history, and it may be helpful to consider how it is applied in the contemporary setting, where perhaps it is at times more of a constraint to action than it need be.

The Principle is fundamentally critical part of the science process when it is applied to the requirement that there be no external (and especially no governmental or political) interference in the way science is conducted, and in how the outcomes of research are presented and considered. Science must be led by the evidence, ascertained and corroborated (if it is) by the experts, and not by the convenience or otherwise of unsubstantiated opinion.

There is however a sense in which now-conventional understandings of the Haldane principle probably cannot be applied in the world of ultra-expensive modern ‘Big Science’. Whilst the major funding councils properly and necessarily work at arms’ length from the government (and vice versa) it is unrealistic to think that the best judgements ‘in the public interest’ will inevitably be made by these councils operating alone. They are eminently best placed to judge the viability and likely excellence of proposals for research; but they will necessarily often lack the skills and perceptions required to judge which of a range of proffered potential activities will best serve the citizens of the UK – who are the ultimate funders of much of the research which is conducted, and often also the ultimate beneficiaries or otherwise of this work.

There are many compelling reasons to go ahead with seriously costly science projects; international prestige and economic impact, likely direct outcomes, technological benefits and much else are at stake. Some of these are quantifiable by scientists and their advisors, some of them require a wider perspectives, such as the examination of possible added-value socio-economic impacts, which are beyond the strictly scientific.

It is at this point that Haldane becomes problematic.

One example here might be the newly introduced Science Cities, which have been created on an apparently rather ad hoc basis. These at present appear to be more about branding and commercial synergies (both of course essential) than about science as such – which is left as ever to ‘the scientists’, as though this were a different matter beyond the ken of economic strategists.

Another example might be the prospect of a regional science policy. It is probable that there is added value to be had at least in some instances from investing in very large scale science in the UK on a regional basis, e.g. in investing in say global collaborations to be located beyond the ‘Golden Triangle’, even if there are marginally more challenges for the science operation when things are done this way.

Regenerational impacts beyond those ensuing from the science itself may be critical and should in some circumstances be one of the determining factors in the investment of the huge amounts of public money required for very large scale Big Science investments.

But whilst Haldane holds sway at every point, there is little to persuade those who make funding decisions to look at these wider impacts, or to give them a sensibly determined weighting in the debate.

This position is perhaps acceptable when funding is not from the public purse, but that is rarely now how things happen. Public money requires the best possible return in as many ways as possible, both direct and indirect.

In other large physical and infrastructural investments this potential return is given due weight; and so it should be when the physical investment is in plant or infrastructure for ‘Big Science’. The normal added-value and multiplier outcomes, in addition to the special ones for technology development and so forth, are also important and should be given due weight in the decision-making process.

The English regions and the devolved administrations are relatively large agglomerations of land and population, and the case for considering regional science policies – including wider socio-economic impacts and issues of sustainability - is now pressing.

A genuinely ‘Knowledge Culture’

We rarely see the day-to-day world around us as a transparently knowledge environment. With the right handling and encouragement however, this could change.

There is enormous scope for enhancing perceptions and understandings of science, technology and other very high knowledge / skills activities in the UK today – an outcome which could have huge impact in terms of the future success and, critically, sustainability in all senses, of Britain in the twenty-first century.

Many people, we are told, see science as ‘exciting’; but far fewer understand very much about how it comes about and what it actually does.

This situation is likely to change radically only if there is a much deeper recognition of the constantly changing human choices and emphases which confront us all, scientists and non-scientists alike.

The unexamined notion that science is a solid construction, an immutable rock on which other things are built, is not as helpful here as the idea that science, in common with all other human behaviours, is a socially constructed activity.

This perceived immutability is not an aspect of science which makes it attractive as a form of knowledge, or as an activity, to everyone (and especially not to some groups of people); but neither is this perception necessary.

Modern science and technology is an ‘enterprise’ which has enormous potential and has already delivered amazing impacts over many decades. It is in these respects amongst the most powerful belief systems (religion is another), and without doubt also the singularly most powerful force for rapid change, that the human race has ever experienced.

Science is a negotiated, humanly determined, part of our experience. That experience is self-evidently filtered through our cultural contexts, our personal and given characteristics, and our education, work and civic lives.

These humanly grounded perceptions of science now need to be commonly and widely recognised. In so doing we would be opening wide the door to science for many for whom that door is currently at best ajar.

Far from making science seem less important by recognising its fundamentally negotiated nature, this basic understanding of what science ‘is’ would enhance the identification and delivery of positive synergies between ‘science’, and, in its broadest sense, ‘society’, dramatically.


Hilary Burrage
(writing in a personal capacity)


Read more about Science Policy.

08.10.16 Cathedral Leunig-Robertson debate 'Making Liverpool Prosper Beyond '08' Regeneration has been headline news in Liverpool these past few weeks, as the debate continues about Dr. Tim Leunig and his Policy Exchange report, Cities Unlimited, in which it is suggested that Liverpool's time is over. This evening Prof. David Robertson of Liverpool John Moores University and Dr Leunig of the London School of Economics presented their opposing views on Liverpool's future in Liverpool Cathedral.

True to the demands of academic candour, both speakers offered evidenced-based if very different understandings of the harsh reality of modern day Northern city economic prospects.

There was no contest in terms of the evidence presented in Cities Unlimted; the debate promoted by Dean Justin Welby this week, on Thursday 16 October 2008, was about what the established socio-economic data on Liverpool means, and whether it alone can tell us what is likely to happen to Liverpool as a city.

Interpreting the evidence
For Tim Leunig - an economist and authority on the history of the cotton trade - the essential message was, 'Liverpool's time is past'. He was, he said quite obviously sincerely, very sorry about this, and he didn't wish anyone to be upset, but that's how he believes things are.

For David Robertson - a policy adviser to the Government on life-long learning - the message was rather more upbeat, 'Liverpool's fate is in its own hands; everything's now up for grabs.'

And of course for some people, though probably not so many of those in the audience, the real issue might well have been, 'What's your problem? Liverpool's great anyway.'

08.10.16 Liverpool Cathedral Prof David Robertson & Dr Tim Leunig debate 'Making Liverpool Prosper Beyond '08'

An opportunity to make a point
A similar debate, also chaired by Roger Phillips, was held in the Cathedral just last year, as part of the farewell events organised by the then Dean, Rupert Hoare, when he and leading local expert John Flamson invited us to debate The Future of Liverpool's Economy at a well-attended seminar on Saturday 27 January 2007, in the Lady Chapel.... and this event in turn followed in the footsteps of Dean Hoare's illustrious predecessor, Dean Derrick Walters, a man for whom, alongside his calling, hard-headed and warm-hearted regeneration was a way of life.

As last time, the current debate offered an opportunity for those who have considered Liverpool's prospects carefully to make their point. Even the most optimistic were agreed that a step change is required in how plans for progress should be viewed.

... and to face up to the facts
The message of hope, for those who wish to hear it, is - as indeed we have consistently argued on this weblog - that things can change. History tells us what's already happened, not what will happen.

Currently, Liverpool isn't that good at creativity and innovation (it doesn't feature in the Intellectual Property or patent stakes) and there are many challenges for educational, health and other major features of the local population. But with a will to achieve, things can be done.

We need to make a frank assessment of where Liverpool's going. History is in the past, not a predictor of what is yet to come about. To quote David Robertson:

What we've inherited can be unpacked for the future.

The moment of truth has arrived for Liverpool... We need to understand the limits of what we can do, to understand our strengths and focus on how we can succeed.

An enduring analysis
This was the message in the Cathedral last year, it's the message now, and it will continue to be the message.

I just hope enough people in this city are beginning to listen.

07.01.27 Dean Rupert Hoare's Leaving Debate about 'The Future of Liverpool 's Economy' (with John  Flamson) in Liverpool Cathedral Lady Chapel


Read more about The Future of Liverpool.

For further commentary on this debate see Larry Neild's article, a report in the (Liverpool edition of) the Daily Post and the account by Adrian McEwen.

08.10.06 Monday Women @ Heart & Soul, Liverpool Monday Women (Liverpool) has been going for more than five years now, so it was really encouraging to see such a good turn out for the first meeting of Autumn '08. There's clearly a continuing enthusiasm for a (free, open access) 'space' for women in our city to meet friends old and new, and just to catch up on the news. It's fun; so come! Please note: future meetings venue now changed, see below.

Please note: Sadly, subsequent to this great meeting, circumstances at Heart & Soul have changed. We are however really pleased that we have found a new 'home' for future meetings, in Starbucks on Bold Street in Liverpool city centre; same times (5.30 - 7.30 pm), same dates (first Monday of the month), same lovely MW people....

08.10.06 Monday Women @ Heart & Soul, Liverpool

These Monday Women are amongst those who arrived earlier on for this friendly, lively meeting at Heart & Soul bistro in Liverpool, after work this evening (6 October '08). Monday Women meet between 5.30 and 7.30 p.m. on the first Monday of the month. All women, from Liverpool or just visiting, are welcome to join us. There's no joining fee or any other membership process; if you turn up you're a 'member'.

There are also two completely free email goups * which women in Liverpool and further afield can join, for the exchange of news and views and to chat with everyone about events, business opportunities, courses, arts activities, good causes and anything else with which people may be involved.

Monday Women is free and it's fun
The sole reason for the group, whether the actual meetings or the e-groups, is to give us all a no-cost avenue to keep in touch and to make friends and find other women with similar interests! If you like, it's a sort-of zero cost social enterprise. The only 'capital' in this 'enterprise' is social capital - the friendliness and fascinating interests of Monday Women themselves.

Our very special and warm thanks to Monday Women member Chumki Banerjee of Heart & Soul, who has been our kind host for meetings over the Summer of 2008.


Read more about Monday Women
and see more photograhs of Liverpool & Merseyside.

* The egroups are on Facebook and at Yahoo. For either, just log in and search 'Monday Women Liverpool', then click to say you'd like to join. We only ask that people 'apply' to be on these e-groups in order to avoid spam, so as a real woman you'll be warmly welcomed.

fish market Recent advice is that, to 'save' the planet, we in the developed nations should eat meat at most four times a week; but we should also recognise the current fundamental economic centrality of meat in many parts of the developing world. Discussion of these recommendations has produced some very interesting ideas about what might constitute almost zero carbon food and even zero carbon meat. Hill grazing sheep, jellied eels and lobster aquaculture are amongst the food items and techniques coming to mind.

A recent Food Climate Research Network report says that we should reduce our meat consumption to four portions a week, to avoid 'runaway climate change'.

By a coincidence, this topic came up when I was at a Defra (Department for the Environment, Food and Farming) Consumer Consultation in London last week, with other consumer people and Defra senior policy makers and stakeholders . Food and food security were debated in some depth, and amongst the topics we considered were future trends in the production and consumption of food.


Food security and self-sufficiency
How secure and / or self-sufficient is the UK, or indeed Europe, in the way this very basic commodity is used?

Actually, it transpires that the UK is about 60% self-self-sufficient in food (even though we are a small island with a lot of people, 70% of the UK's land is still in agricultural use), and Europe as a whole almost completely food-secure, if it chooses so to be. It's not just the self-sufficiency in food as such which counts, but also food supply security overall.

And this is where the discussion of the move towards vegetable-based food came in; generally, it uses much less carbon in the process of take-to-table. Nonetheless, this carbon equation cannot always be judged simply on the basis of e.g. 'food miles' alone.

Mostly-meat based local economies
As is frequently acknowledged, there are many places where moving to a vegetable-based food economy any time soon is not an option. Some of these economies are in Europe, and quite often they are very local, but meat is also basic for many much more challenged food economies in the developing world.

As examples, we might consider sheep grazing on rocky hillsides (to quote: "Forages constitute 75 to 90 percent of the total diet for sheep. Sheep are excellent converters of forage to meat and fiber") or perhaps eels in estuaries ("Jellied Eels were once a staple food of the poor in the East End of London").

Other functions of food animals
Not much else edible is likely to grow in these environments, and sometimes (aka the sheep) the animals also perform other functions, such as wool production, or keeping the balance of plant life in check.... which both in turn help rural tourism and other rural trading and local economic functions.

This is of course critical in some parts of the world where local economies (and local ecologies?) are particularly fragile.

The management of naturally occurring meat sources
Another example, which involves deliberate human agency, is an aspect of the newly-termed aquaculture. Work at the National Lobster Hatchery in Padstow, Cornwall has I gather shown that if baby lobsters are nurtured in a protected environment (i.e. with fewer predators) until they are a few centimeters long, they can have a survival rate about one thousand times greater than if their initial growth is totally 'in the wild'.

Just think what a thousand-fold increase in good food could do for some communities in the developing countries... (and what more immediately it can do for fishing-based economies closer to home).

Transitioning to low meat economies
These few observations are clearly only the tip of a very big 'carbon iceberg'.

There's strong evidence that in general cutting back on meat (in the developed world anyway) is a move in the right direction for sustainable living and sustainable food supplies.

And there's also the very real issue of how to make the global step-by-step transition - probably over decades and even longer - from meat economies, to those which are likely to be more realistically long-term food sustainable. Even in New Zealand you can't just stop growing beef at a stroke....

[Later note: A colleague, responding to this agenda, has suggested that part of 'food transitioning' should be to link sustainable energy technologies with sustainable foods, e.g., marine wind turbines should also have a facility to grow edible mussels.... the scope is no doubt becomes endless when we start to think about it.]

Food for thought
It's not up to me to decide who eats what, and for which reasons; and 'even' vegetarians can't assume that all they nibble is virtuously eco-good. And there's nothing virtuous in those of us who are more blessed criticising a way of life elsewhere which requires meat-eating, if meat is the basis of an already desperately poor livelihood.

But if I were a meat eater - and especially if I were a younger meat-eater - I'd be thinking quite hard about all this.


Read more about Food and Sustainability As If People Mattered.

Liverpool Sefton Park 'Sage' - tree trunk sculpted Is it Merlin, or is it some other mystical creature, whose likeness arose silent and unannounced from the lone long-topped tree trunk in the heart of Sefton Park? One August morning, in the midst of the more expected park renovations of 2008, there 'he' was, the beautifully sculpted Sage of Sefton Park, the beginning, we can only hope, of a serendipitous array of creations in the park, for us to enjoy and create further in our imaginations as we wish.

08.08.23 Sefton Park 'Sage' - sculpture from a tree trunk

08.04.06  Sefton Park tree trunk in snow

It's heartening that, even so long after it was first suggested, a tree sculpture has now appeared in our park, a place subject, for many months now, to less engaging and sometimes jarring disruption.

Who sculpted our 'Sage' and why or how, we don't at present know [later: or at least we didn't then]; but perhaps that mystery can be resolved [please see Comments below]? Is 'he' Merlin the wizard or some other mystical creature? Does he have a message, or is he simply there to lift our imaginations and to add some fun as we stroll by, or as we pop into the cafe with the kids for a little treat?

May this be the start of much more creativity and friendly magic for the imagination, in this special urban green space right by the centre of our city.

08.08.15 Sefton Park 'Sage' wood sculpture by Hanna Jelinek


Read more about Sefton Park, and see more photographs at Camera & Calendar.