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Science Museum Valencia 06.08 132 (115x122).jpg 'The next president of the United States of America will control a $150 billion annual research budget, 200,000 scientists, and 38 major research institutions and all their related labs. This president will shape human endeavors in space, bioethics debates, and the energy landscape of the 21st century.' So says Chris Mooney in his seriously impressive review of the options - options in reality about human beings, not 'just' about knowledge - awaiting electors of the next President of the USA.

Chris Mooney, in his recent Seed Magazine blog piece entitled Dr President, examines the options for American science and suggests what needs to happen now.

America's relationship with reality
During the past seven years of the Bush administration, Mooney tells us, America has been subject to 'what can only be called antiscientific governance'. Scientists, he says, have been 'ignored, threatened, suppressed, and censored across agencies, across areas of expertise, and across issues...

'Under George W. Bush—the man who pronounced climate science "incomplete," who misled the nation in his first major address about the availability of embryonic stem cells for research, who claimed that Iraq was collaborating with Al Qaida—America's relationship with reality itself has reached a nadir.'

What's next?
Chris Mooney is right. The status of science is in crisis, at least as far as States-side politics is concerned - and also in terms of what people in many parts of the world, even many sophisticated knowledge economy parts, understand about what science is and does.

'To better grapple with emerging science controversies', Mooney proposes that the in-coming president 'reconstitute something akin to Eisenhower's President's Science Advisory Committee, but with a strong emphasis on forecasting the looming problems of tomorrow. ...The conversations wouldn't shy away from controversial or speculative topics. They would be designed, at least in part, to spark discussion in the media, on the Sunday-morning talk shows, and also at the kitchen table.'

Engagement beyond the science
This paper on antiscience, and its resolution through widespread debate and respect for scrutiny of the evidence base, offers many rich seams for us all to explore. But I think it also offers a new perspective on what I might call the 'Post-Science Century' which is before us.

The term 'post-science' means much more to me than simply the arid 'total value' anaylsis deriving from Milton Friedman et al. Instead, it focuses attention on the socio-political impacts and synergies of science and technology (one of a multitude of examples might be IT and the developing world) rather than on measures of money.

No longer can it be said that 'knowing the science' is enough - and Mooney is clear on this. We need to understand the future of climatalogical, environmental, genomic, military and many other applications of developing knowledge.

From tested knowledge to the human condition
In seeking to grasp what all these enormous issues, with their huge budgets, mean for each of us, we move from formal and tested knowledge to insights concerning the nature of human experience.

Perhaps it's an irony of the twentyfirst century that the human condition itself will force us to think about science, rather than any new-found urge to look dispassionately at evidence bases and how to test them. This is what should drive the Science Advisory Council of the next President of the USA.

It's not what we know, but why we all need to know it, that will spur this critical agenda.

Two chicks (small).jpgTruth in Science is the latest version of the so-called Intelligent Design 'theory' of Creationism. It now reaches into U.K. schools where one expects more measured understanding of the differences between Science and Comparative Religious Studies. What other equally unlikely notions could we, on the same 'logic', incorporate into the curriculum, and where? Your comments and ideas are welcome.

A year or so ago a senior and very well respected politician assured me that Intelligent Design would 'never catch on' in the U.K. because people here are 'too sensible'.

Unfortunately he obviously hasn't spoken to enough people in Liverpool. Following the news that the Bluecoat School in this city is offering the Truth in Science view to Science students, this morning's Daily Post carries a two-page spread asking Should religion be part of science teaching? All but one or two of those questioned said Yes, they thought it would enhance students' understandings to be exposed to 'alternative ideas' such as Intelligent Design ... in science lessons... Apparently all 'theories' are of equal value, or so it is said by some.

I can only think these people are playing devil's advocate. They must be.

Balance or baloney?
It's one thing to suggest pupils learn about myths and stories in Religious Studies, There, they could perhaps, responsibly presented, ignite young imaginations in many ways - but it's another entirely to deny the consensus of the very large majority of serious scientists and give these ideas status alongside the multitude of strands of evidence which support Darwinian theory and evolution.

If any children of mine attended a school where a version of Intelligent Design was introduced into the Science curriculum I would have to transfer them to somewhere which I judged a more responsible place of learning. I hope the governors of any schools where Truth in Science is 'taught' will ask some really searching questions.

The evidence
I have written before about Intelligent Design and its even more extraordinary cousin, Creationism. The links are:

Creationism Is An Attack On Rationality: The Scientists Rally At Last

Survival Of The Fittest In The Marketplace, But Not For Life On Earth?

Evolutionary Theory In The Lime Light

US Universities, Privatisation And 'Intelligent Design'

To be quite clear: Children are entitled to learn about things which equip them for modern life. Notions like Intelligent Design and its Truth in Science corollary are unforgivable, as serious science, at a time when it has never been more important to understand how our planet 'works' and what we need to do to protect it (and all the living things which inhabit it) for the future. The rising generation deserves far better than this.

Let the debate begin
If you think Intelligent Design has a rightful place in the mainstream Science curriculum, here's your chance to show why literally thousands upon thousands of highly trained scientists (not to mention a goodly number of senior clerics) have got it wrong.

There again, you more probably think my senior politician contact is reasonable to expect an educationally sensible debate.

But sometimes we have to lighten up a bit. So here, tongue in cheek, is your opportunity to suggest other mysterious or untestable 'ideas' which a few folk might like to introduce into the (already over-crowded) mainstream curriculum - the sort of ideas which most of us recognise as simply stories, maybe fine for a tale to tell, but absolutely not fine in any modern educational provision intended to equip young people for the complex futures they must face.

I give you a starter for ten: try flat earth notions and ancient myths in mainstream Geography and History respectively. Or fairies at the bottom of the garden in Environmental Science... What else can you come up with?

Light stream (74x112) 2007 004aa.jpg It has taken the scientists quite a while to wake up to the serious dangers for science and its rational underpinnings of creationism and the 'theory' of intelligent design. But now at last this danger - to the scientific community and far beyond - is beginning to be understood and confronted.

It's taken a long time, but the scientists are at last beginning in numbers to fight back vocally against the attack from the Creationists, those mainly right-wing religious followers who believe despite the evidence that the story of the Old Testament is somehow literally true - and, even more worryingly, that it should be taught in schools. And in this rebuttal the scientists have been joined also by most mainstream churches and religious people - the large majority of whom in the case of both science and religion have until recently mainatined it is enough simply to ignore the creationists' exotic claims.

But now scientists are seeking the active support of the churches to back evolutionary theory, especially in America, where Creationism and the related 'theory' of Intelligent Design have made the most headway.

Disputing creationism is not enough
It is not however enough simply to say that scientists should dispute creationism and intelligent design.

Far more is at stake than 'just' the challenge to an explanation of the origin of life on earth - vastly significant though this is.

The ideas of the creationists are, as some have recognised for decades, an affront to rationality. It is said that the President of the United States is a prominent supporter of creationism, or at least a proponent of intelligent design, but we must ask how this can be so when he is also a lawyer.

Lawyers may indeed sustain the view that 'both sides' of an argument should be aired, but rarely do they believe this even when one of those 'sides' has barely any evidence to uphold it. So what else is going on?

Economics and authority
The position of those who support creationism is usually authoritarian, and often anti-intellectual. This is in many respects evident in the current enthusiasm of some to promote such beliefs in Britain. In the USA, perhaps, this stance is even more established.

Many on the right of politics and religion like certainty. They do not feel comfortable with complex debates about evidence; and they are happier when intellectual challenge is replaced by the logic of big business. In other words, there is a deterministic preference here for authority and authoritarianiam to come together so that all is right with the world. God has pre-ordained the universe and our place in it, and this place is evidenced by our wealth (or not) and our religious observance. It's an old-established way of thinking. Let there be no more debate!

A chasm between world views
For the vast majority of scientists there is a vast chasm between the exploration of the evolutionary paradigm and the determinism of the religious right. Small wonder then that scientists have been ill-prepared for the creationist onslaught.

And sadly small wonder too that many who might challenge the attack on science have not done so, perhaps for fear that in so doing they might also put at risk the funding of their research. There are significant numbers of wealthy benefactors out there who are comfortable with the idea of a creationist world and their hypothecated place in it.

Perhaps the scientists have failed to appreciate how precarious is the wider understanding of their work. Perhaps they have continued in their research mostly oblivious of the threat to their way of interpreting the world.

Fundamental issues
Neither of these positions can be seen as any more than innocent or at worst naive. But what is at stake is fundamental. Few people would wish to dispute the entitlement of individuals to perceive the world and all that is in it in their own way. Many however, the scientists amongst them, must now challenge more overtly and vigorously the view that we can dispense with informed debate and rationality. At last this is beginning visibly to happen.

Evolutionary scientists have been awarded the top accolade by the journal 'Science' this year. Perhaps scientists until now have taken too much for granted the public understanding of the scientific basis of evolution; but recent attacks on evolutionary theory by proponents of 'intelligent design' have demonstrated the need to be much more pro-active about ensuring that the amazingly complex evolutionary process is generally understood.

The the leading U.S. journal Science has just published its top ten list of major accomplishments for 2005. Happily, its top placing, for 'breakthrough of the year' was awarded jointly to a number of studies about evolutionary theory.

The aspect of the science of evolution which attracted particular plaudits was the way the selected studies illuminated the very complex mechanisms underlying evolution as a general concept. These included the sequencing of the chimpanzee genome, reconstruction of the flu virus of 1918, and a study of European blackcap birds which demonstrated how two different populations can become separate species.

The fightback starts in earnest
Science says that its award this year was solely on the basis of the excellence of the work done on evolutionary studies. And deservedly so.

But there is also another aspect of evolutionary science which has for a while been of deep concern to observers and scientists alike - the attack on formally constituted science as knowledge, by proponents of 'intelligent design' and 'creationism'. Neither of these latter ideas carries any credence as science.

There would for many be no problem if these ideas were claimed only as alternative, non-scientific, belief systems, but there's a huge issue for the very basis of science itself if these 'theories' have to be placed in the school curriculum alongside the continously tested and explored notion of scientific knowledge. Yet that is exactly what sizeable, wealthy and powerful groups of people in the U.S.A. are currently seeking through their very highest law courts to do.

An attack on science is an attack on rationality
The debate about what this attack on evolutionary theory actually means is becoming much more overt (e.g. Guardian Unlimited blog earlier this week) but it still sees some scientists at a loss. Yes, there are risks in challenging big sponsors of universities and other large-scale institutions. But without peer-reviewed and tested knowledge, scientific education itself means nothing.

In the end an attack on scientific method (for such it is) is indeed an attack on science and rationality themselves - which makes for a strange conundrum, given that the 'intelligent designers' have chosen the courts of law as their vehicle for attempting to impose their 'theory' as a serious contender, against evolution, as an explanation of the physical basis of our being.

Universities in the USA are increasingly funded by private interests. This has already raised curriculum concerns, especially for instance about ideas such as 'Intelligent Design'. Anything which is at base an attack on scientific method and, indeed, rationality, should be watched very carefully indeed.

Public funding of universities in the USA has fallen further since 2001 than at any other time in the past two decades, according to the New York Times today (74% in 1991, 64% in 2004). Some university presidents are therefore becoming vocal in their concerns about 'public higher education's slow slide toward privatisation'.

The concern is in part that private funders set an agenda not always in tune with public universities' wishes. These centre on teaching, autonomy in research and time spent securing private funding.

Could this be a particular problem in the context of so-called Intelligent Design? This is the notion, akin to 'creationism', that somehow the human race has emerged in just a few thousand years, after being 'designed' by... who? Yet this unlikely thesis - with absolutely no credible basis in evidence or scientific theory - is increasingly being pressed upon American schools, for inclusion in their curricula. Apparently this is to 'balance' Darwinian theories of evolution.

Buying beliefs?
So what is the link with university funding? Well, presumably not all funders are scientifically well informed; such knowledge is by no means a necessary prerequisite of huge wealth or of a desire to influence what others know and learn.

Some observers of American science have wondered why more outstanding scientists do not speak out loud and clear about this attack - for such it is - on scientific method and, indeed, rationality. But the reason why seems clear: they don't want to rock the boat when it comes to funding.

The price of academic autonomy
Never has there been a clearer case for academic autonomy, away from the beliefs of those who do not appreciate what sturdy, contestable peer review is all about. Peer scrutiny is not perfect - one is reminded of the slogan (was it Joseph Schumpeter's?), 'Two Cheers for Democracy!' - but it is the best we can currently come up with, and all genuine universities need to continue to keep as far as possible from undue influence.

In the modern world of macro-economics not every bit of science can be influence-free. Creeping privatisation of public higher education is, however, one area where extreme caution is required.