Recently in Political Process & Democracy Category

pink calculator & spectacles caseSonia Sotomayor is the lawyer and judge who has been nominated by President Barack Obama to fill the vacancy on the bench of the American Supreme Court. This week Judge Sotomayor has been grilled at a senate hearing about her suitability for the post. She is also Hispanic and a woman. This it seems gives rise to fears by interrogating Senators that her judgements may differ from those made previously.

Social Inclusion & Diversity

The hearings on whether Sonia Sotomayor should become an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court have been both predictable and in some ways depressing: her eleven inquisitors include just two women and the dialogue has reflected this.

Obama's broad church
On the other hand President Obama, in nominating Judge Sotomayor, has demonstrated again (as he has with other appointments, such as that of Hillary Rodham Clinton to the post of Secretary of State) that he intends his administration to be a broad church, inclusive of the talents of people of many sorts.

It's interesting that Sonia Sotomayor was able, in sworn evidence, to affirm that the President did not ask her personal views on matters such as abortion and gun control - issues which persistently appear in every hearing for appointments to the Supreme Court. Nor, apparently, do Sotomayor and Obama agree about the relevance or otherwise of 'empathy' in legal judgement (she says she puts it aside; he sees it as relevant).

The obstacles of gender and ethnicity - and class?
It looks increasingly likely that Judge Sotomayor's appointment will be confirmed. After the usual party political jostling, significant Republicans on the panel have indicated they will not oppose her nomination.

But why, and how, do these people think it appropriate to suggest that Sonia Sotomayor's gender and ethnicity are critical issues which might mitigate in the future against fair and transparent interpretation of the law?

Sotomayor's personal background is not unlike that of Obama; her early life, living in public housing in the Bronx, was uncompromisingly unprivileged. Perhaps social class also plays an unacknowledged part here. The Republicans amongst the Senators grilling her are not of the Grand Old Party (GOP) for nothing.

Privileged white men
But surely even they can see that the Supreme Court has thus far been an enclave of privileged white men? In its entire history it has been administered by 111 justices, only two of them so far women (the majority of the population), and none Hispanic (the fastest growing ethnic group in the USA).

Perhaps the Supreme Court has always adhered to interpretation of the law, with no fear or favour (though frightening statistics on what sorts of criminals are not excused judicial slaughter, for instance, might suggest otherwise).

But as far as I can tell, not many of these white, male, privileged nominations for the Supreme Court have been quizzed for days and days about whether their personal demographic provenance will endanger justice for all US citizens.

Politics and competencies
Assurances of propriety and competence are essential before any Supreme Court justice is appointed. Party political posturing is inescapably part of the game.

It's a ritual of Supreme Court nomination that questions have to be asked about every imaginable variable, and that Senators at the hearing go to extraordinary lengths not to set procedural precedence which they may later find uncomfortable.

Striking failures of insight
But, glaring omissions of insight about how and by what sorts of people the US law and constitution have been determined in the past.....?

Small wonder during her inquisition that Judge Sotomayor has stuck unservingly to the position simply that: "The task of a judge is not to make law. It is to apply the law."

I'm not a US citizen, but I am a citizen of a country which, like the US, seeks, in however flawed a way, to achieve fairness and equality. That fundamental - and perhaps intended? - apparent omission of insight on the part of Sonia Sotomayor's inquisitors I find downright bizarre.


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desk and computer How do 'evidence' and 'policy' fit together? It's one thing to hope the evidence will tell us what to do; it's another to persuade everyone else that the logic of how to resolve a given situation is so compelling. Evidence-based policies are a great idea; but different people ask for different sorts of evidence. And policy makers can only deliver what electors will accept. There's a dialogue challenge here somewhere.

Political Process & Democracy

We all know that public policies these days 'should' be based on evidence; but I'm not clear about when and how the full might of rational thought is best brought into the public policy arena. We seem sometimes to have mislaid the 'politics' part of 'policy', in our reliance on 'the evidence'....

The logic of the evidence
Scientists and researchers in areas where policy is being developed frequently tell us all that their evidence points this way, or that way, and I have no doubt that in their minds this is so.

I don't however recall, ever, hearing one of these very well-informed and rational observers reflect on whether the way forward they propose is actually understood or acceptable to the public who will be paying for the implementation of the policy.

The art of the possible
It's a cliché, but true, that politics is the art of the possible; the evidence base may be pristinely rational and logical. People, on the other hand, are not.

If we really want to see decent and well-founded changes in policy, 'the evidence' has to lie alongside what we can reasonably expect our policy-makers to deliver, in the pragmatic contexts of public understanding and mood.

Communicating findings
Perhaps we should find routine ways to use 'the evidence' to inform real dialogue and debate, not to jump straight to policy.

This is likely to happen only when more scientists and researchers start to communicate on a human level, and not just as rational-legal beings. Maybe research has to become a communicated art, as well as a science, if it's to be really, really useful where it matters.

Changing how we do things
Perhaps scientists need (in general) to learn more about the art of communicating.

Perhaps policy-makers need to learn more about how to explain that research must actively address what at any given time is possible, as well as what's best in an ideal, rational world.

And perhaps the rest of us have to understand that sometimes we need to move from what 'they' should be doing on our behalf , to what we ourselves can do to help each other see where evidence best fits into the very human process of decision-making and change.

A version of this article was first published as a blog in New Start magazine on 14 July 2009.


Read more articles about Political Process & Democracy. and see Hilary's Publications.

09.06.04  European election Stop the BNP The 2009 European Elections on June 4 are no ordinary political exercise; this time it's about fundamental democracy, not 'just' party politics. There is a real danger the BNP will gain seats, unless everyone gets out and votes strategically - especially in the NW of England, where the BNP are focusing much attention. European Parliamentary seats are allocated proportionally, so the BNP will probably gain a NW seat unless Labour receives enough support for three candidates to be successful. Essentially that means it's Theresa Griffin (Labour) versus N. Griffin (BNP leader)...

The world (as Albert Einstein reminded us) is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.

In this case, the result of doing nothing could be very unpleasant indeed. There is a real risk, if turnout in the 4 June '09 European elections is low, that the British National Party (BNP) will gain a seat in the European Parliament.

Once a BNP member was elected, they would have the resources which are required to be allocated to each and every MEP, and the legal right to have their far-right-wing opinions heard. This frightening prospect of real power for the BNP is why they are fighting so hard to win a NW of England European Parliamentary seat.

Proportional representation
In the 2004 European elections the BNP got 6.4% of the vote in the NW of England region, but no seat. This time they could need as little as 8% to gain one*.
[* Later: this is exactly what happened; please refer to footnote below.]

It has been calculated that only a strong vote for the Labour Party candidates (see note to follow) is likely to ensure the critical 8% level is not reached.

Keep the BNP out
As well as yourself voting against the BNP, you can help to keep the them out by supporting the non-party-political HopeNotHate campaign.

09.06.04  European election Stop the BNP

How to vote: the practicals
But actually making the effort to vote yourself is fundamentally important, whatever else you do.

The mechanics of voting are easy, but not everyone has voted before, so please bear with me whilst I do a quick run-through of what happens. Unless you already have a postal vote (which comes with its own instructions), all you need do is take some ID - preferably but not essentially your voting card - to a Polling Station on election day.

You can find out where the (many, local) Polling Stations are by phoning your town council, if needs be. They are open from 7 am till 10 pm on the day of the Election, Thursday 4 June.

At the Polling Station you will be given a voting slip which you take into a private booth, where a pen will be provided. How you vote is entirely up to you alone, but in the European elections you can only vote once, with a cross - nothing else - against the political party you have chosen. For example:

09.06.04  NW of England European election Labour Party candidates

When you have made your choice, you simply fold the paper so your vote can't be seen, and take it over to post into the nearby ballot box.

That's it. Just a very few minutes of your day, and an infinitely smaller sliver of your life, to keep democracy alive.

How European Parliamentary seats are allocated
After polling closes, the votes will be counted, and the political parties with the most votes will be allocated seats in the European Parliament on a proportional basis.

The names of the individuals who will take these seats has already been decided in rank (preference) order by each of the political parties - you can see what this order of preference is when you look at the voting paper itself.

Most parties in the NW of England European elections have listed eight names, because that's how many seats are allocated to this region; but no party expects to send all eight of their candidates to the European Parliament.

The allocation of European Parliamentary seats is calculated proportional to the total vote - and since there are in fact thirteen Parties contesting just eight seats, any party with over [13 party options divided by 8 seats = about] 8% will very probably gain a seat.

09.06.04  European election voting part-list

This is why it's so crucially important to ensure the BNP gets an extremely low proportion of the vote - and this will only be achieved if a high percentage of the electorate actually get out to vote for the main political parties, and especially (in the NW of England particularly) Labour.

In other regions of the UK alternative ways to vote strategically against the BNP may apply.

NW Labour fights the BNP
The candidates whom the Labour Party 'slate' (list of candidates) emphasise are Arlene McCarthy, Brian Simpson and Theresa Griffin; the first two have already been MEPs for several years, and Theresa Griffin*, who lives in Merseyside, has also been active in local European politics for a very long time.
[*NB no relation to any other non-Labour candidate with the same surname]

You can check these candidates out, or contact them direct, through the links attached to their names as above.

Theresa Griffin, Brian Simpson, Arlene McCarthy

But whatever you do, it's crucial to realise that your vote can help keep the BNP out.

If you prefer other, non-Labour candidates that's absolutely your democratic choice; but everyone needs to know that not-voting (or indeed voting - however earnestly - for small parties which cannot realistically win a seat) may end up with just the same result as actually voting for the BNP.

For me, having decided my personal politics already, it's straightforward. I am a member of the Labour Party and will vote for its European Parliamentary candidates.

Strategic voting
This is not however a party-political blog, and I have never written a piece just supporting a party line for the sake of it, or asking anyone to vote simply along party political lines.

If you think there are other strategically feasible and decent ways of ensuring the BNP does not blight British politics through gaining a European Parliamentary seat from the NW of England, this space is yours to make the case... and to accept the political debate, as I have done here.

Democracy in action
Caring about democracy means being open about things and exercising the freedom to discuss without fear what you believe in, and why.

Never in modern times has it been more important to do so.

Whatever your mainstream political party of choice, please be sure to exercise your democratic right to vote on 4 June 2009 - and encourage other people, every way you can, to do the same.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


P.S. 8 June 2009

Exactly what we all so much hoped wouldn't happen has become a reality. The BNP NW candidate has gained a seat in the European Parliament.

The final results for the NW of England are:

Seats: 8 (previously, 9)
Turnout: 1,651,825 (31.9%)
Electorate: 5,206,474

Votes for main parties
Conservative: 423,174 (25.6%, up 1.5%) 3 seats (as before)
Labour: 336,831 (20.4%, down 6.9%) 2 seats (3 before, lost 1)
UK Independence Party: 261,740 (15.8%, up 3.7%) 1 seat (none before)
Liberal Democrats: 235,639 (14.3%, down 1.6%) 1 seat (as before)
British National Party: 132,094 (8.0%, up 1.6%) 1 seat (none before)
Green Party: 127,133 (7.7%, up 2.1%) no seats (as before)

To quote Nick Robinson, on his surgically precise BBC Newsblog:

Nick Griffin [British National Party: BNP] is now a Member of the European Parliament even though he won fewer votes than he did five years ago.

That's right, fewer.

In 2004, the BNP in the North West polled 134,959 votes. In 2009, they polled 132,194 [132,094?]. So, why did he win?

In short, because of a collapse in the Labour vote from 576,388 in 2004 to 336,831 in 2009. In Liverpool, Labour's vote dived by 15,000; in Manchester by almost 9,000; whilst in Bury, Rochdale and Stockport, its vote halved.

The switch away from postal votes for all in the last Euro election in the region also led to a fall in turnout.

Thus, the BNP could secure a higher share of the vote whilst getting fewer votes.

.... and this, sadly, is the very thing we most feared (above) might come to pass.


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If you value it, vote for it So David Cameron says he'd like to see UK referenda on local taxation and much else; whilst another Conservative says they want to do away with regional development agencies - though local councils may thereafter join up to reinstate these if they wish. But some of us recall the damage done to northern parts by the abolition in 1986 of the Metropolitan County Councils, and the energy invested later on in having to re-create the regional development agenda. Will local democracy really be enhanced by taking decision-making away from elected councillors?

Read more about Political Process & Democracy.

Your views are welcome.

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)


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British Sociological Association (BSA) logo The British Sociological Association, founded in 1951, promotes the work of sociologists and social scientists as practitioners and scholars, in the UK and, through links, much further afield. Sociology offers an analysis which helps surprisingly large numbers of us make sense of what happens in our ever-changing world.

I recently re-joined the British Sociological Association, of which I was an Executive Committee member when I worked in further and higher education, much earlier in my career.

It's fascinating to see how things have evolved since that time, back in the 1980s.

Battles now won
Then we were battling to 'save' the Personal, Social and Health curriculum, which Sir Keith Joseph, then Secretary of State for Education under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was keen to remove or at the very least side-line. History in schools was to stop at 1945, the end of the Second World War and before the arrival in 1948 of the National Health Service (NHS) and Welfare State; Section 11 legislation made it almost professional suicide to teach about HIV / AIDS; the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) had to be renamed the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) lest anyone should think that social research was scientific - in retrospect a far cry attitudinally from current demands for 'evidence-based' policy at the highest levels.

All this we addressed, through the Executives of the BSA and other professional associations, via FACTASS, The Forum of Academic and Teaching Associations in the Social Sciences, of which I was Convenor. Now there is no need for FACTASS. We managed to hang on in there, and it's unlikely that any mainstream politician in any modern democratic country would want to see it otherwise; the PSHE curriculum and entitlement of children to understand their world is, along with positive resolution of the GCSEs-for-all debate, now established.

Fundamentals
But the fundamental emphases of the BSA on social equity; on understanding the interactive social constructions which give meaning to our daily lives, continue, developed and debated by people who have now spent a lifetime exploring how human societies and communities work and are understood by the people in them.

The 'classics' - gender, 'race' and ethnicity, age and life transitions, and social class - remain (alongside matters such as health and medicine, work and employment, and so forth) the fundamental building blocks of sociological analysis, keeping us constantly aware that big and sometimes invisible forces shape our day-to-day experience, even to the extent that they often determine our actual life expectancy.

New social analysis too
And beyond that, there is a new and critical emphasis on our physical world, on sustainability and green issues and how societies and communities will find themselves responding to the challenges we all face.

It may be too soon to say that Human Geographers and Sociologists have found completely common ground, but it looks as though a convergence may slowly be developing, after a decade or more when the gathering of empirical data on population change and socio-economic impacts was sometimes perceived to be enough to take governmental programmes and political policy forward.

Contextualising for the future
There is now a recognition that 'social research' must inform, e.g., environmental as well as community, health and education policies. (I was recently a co-author of the Defra Science Advisory Council report on Social Research in Defra - a fascinating and I hope very fruitful experience.)

The BSA, I note, has a growing Section (interest) Group on Sociologists Outside Academia (SOAg). I intend to sign up for it.

See more articles on Social Science , and
History Lessons Need More Than 'Hitler And Henry'
Social Geographers Take The Lead In Social Policy

08.05.11  pink & black cotton reels  160x98  032a.jpg The Presidential potential of both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is great. So how has this embarrassment of riches for Democrats in the USA seemingly become an advantage for John McCain and the Republicans, as the ‘race’ and gender agendas compete for dominance? Do progressive politics in race and gender need to collide?

The current – but perhaps soon to be resolved - contest for the Democratic Presidential nomination has revealed some aspects of the political process usually less visible to outside observers.

To understand what’s happening we probably need to look as closely at the (social) psychology of the evolving situation, as we do at the formal political process.

How did two of the most powerful and internationally visible advocates for equal rights find themselves head to head in the same contest? And what does it tell us about gender, 'race', and age in politics?

The prospect of candidature is daunting
Only the most stout-hearted would ever consider running for Presidential nomination. It’s a hiding to nothing for most contenders, it costs millions of dollars, and it requires vast amounts of personal time, energy, drive and gritty optimism.

So we’re not talking about ‘normal’ people when we consider Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.

Testing the water
Sometimes, nonetheless, the time seems right.

For both Clinton and Obama the Bush administration’s record of failure offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Democrats to take the USA and the world by storm.

And for Clinton it represented the culmination – and justification - of a long period of influence on the global stage. She’d planned for several years to become the first ever female World Leader; and her experience gave her huge justification for this ambition.

Complex judgements
Obama’s situation was probably rather more complex. Did his family, worried about his safety, really want him to stand? Would his short time as a Senator be seen as inexperience or as a fresh face? Were race issues going to make things difficult?

But crucially, he will have asked himself, would there ever be a greater opportunity, a more open goal, for whoever was nominated by the Democrats? Best perhaps to put down a marker now....?

It has been said Obama promised his wife he’d only stand once. When could be better for establishing the first black President in office?

Firming the intent
There comes a time for all serious election candidates when they really believe they can win. Surrounded by supporters and campaign workers, they are, however inadvertently, at one remove from the cruel truth that there will be many losers but only one victor.

Presumably this moment came quite early on for Obama. He decided to stand and looks at present as if he will gain the Democratic nomination.

These are very delicate issues, but put bluntly, the contest appears to be developing – as surveys have largely shown – according to the usual lines.

Age, gender or race?
Both candidates have huge appeal to progressive Americans, eager to shrug off the turgid, backward-looking and deeply divisive Bush era. But there are differences not easily dismissed in who the two potential candidates ‘are’.

Clinton is an older (age 60), white woman, inevitably carrying the baggage which decades of deep political engagement bring.

Obama is younger, black and male; and his lack of baggage, because of the good fortune (at 45) of his comparative youth, compensates for his inexperience.

A hierarchy of preference
If things turn out as seems likely we shall have observed again the hierarchies which present in so many aspects of public life.

Given the opportunity to choose between two symbols of progressive - if not leftwing - politics, race is it currently appears perhaps less of an issue (overall?) for the electorate than gender.

Could it be that this consideration in some way enhanced Obama's enthusiasm for standing so relatively early in his political career? (Earlier in his career he reportedly told a male colleague, Jesse Jackson Jnr., that he, Obama, would only contest a Senate seat if the other man did not.)

Discomforting agendas
Many people across the free world - including me - would like to see Clinton and Obama together on the world stage, running side-by-side as Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates. They are as good, in the context of US realpolitik, as it gets.

For some of us there remains nonetheless an unbidden sadness in the realisation that, even now, the odds are apparently stacked against a (any?) woman. More than half the population of the USA is female (an estimated 153 million, of a total population of nearly 302 million - of whom 240 million are 'white'); but there is - unless you consider Chelsea? - no immediately obvious female presidential successor to Hillary Clinton, if or when she pulls out.

Seeing things longer-term
To many younger people it seems Obama looks the more attractive option, for the reasons we have considered above. Some of us who have been involved in the equal rights movement for decades may, however much we genuinely want to see equality in 'race' just as much as we want to see gender, go along with that judgement with a heavy heart.

Perhaps the truth is this: Gender becomes more oppressive for many women as they experience full maturity - it's when hard 'family vs career' choices have to be made that the full force of being biologically female hits one. (And how many women under, say, 35 are ever going to run for president?)

On the other hand, for people of 'minority' race, especially if they're educated men, maybe the oppression lessens a little as maturity approaches and one's destiny is more one's own? I would like to think so, anyway - and would be interested to learn more from those who can speak directly about this.

Squaring the circle
These are delicate and difficult matters to discuss.

We are all a product of our individual genetic makeup, and of our socio-economic background, age and culture. No-one is immune from these influences; but everyone is fundamentally entitled to shape and take charge of their own way in life. To enable this to happen requires a very firm commitment, embedded at every level of society, to respect for equality and diversity.

To repeat: Progressives are seemingly spoilt for choice. Both Clinton and Obama are hugely refreshing and talented alternatives to the usual presidential offerings. Either would serve the equality and diversity agenda - so very essential for our future well-being and sustainability - really well.

A step forward or a step back?
But some of us, in spite of our earnest and well-meaning selves, are a bit weary of being the majority which is always and apparently irredeemably second in the race. Especially when, as is the truth for Hillary Clinton, we were there first.

How can feminists - advocates of a progressive perspective which at its best will always seek equality for everyone, female and male, black and white, aged and youthful - cope with the evidence apparently emerging that voters still prefer not to select a woman, if other progressive choices are available? (And, probably, those other candidates have recognised, and can benefit from, this usually unexamined preference...)

As Marie Cocco of the Washington Post puts it, we are now facing the 'Not Clinton' Excuse - and that could put things back a very long time.

A challenge Obama must resolve
Somehow the putative President Obama must show this is a challenge to his progressive credentials, and to the inner feelings of many disappointed women who in other respects share his progressive position, which he understands and can accommode.

Perhaps in the current situation the best we can hope for immediately is that Hillary Clinton is acknowledged by Barack Obama in some seriously meaningful way.

The worst possibility is that an extended and exhausting Clinton-Obama contest gives John McCain the opportunity he seeks to slip through the middle and retain the Presidency for the Republicans later this year.


Read more articles about
Social Inclusion & Diversity
Gender & Women.

Women listening 121x102 4459aa.jpg Just 90 years ago on this date was the first time any woman in the UK was 'allowed' to vote. Some people still alive now were born when women's emancipation did not exist; and even in 1918 the Representation of the People Act permitted only specified women over 30 this privilege. It was to be another ten years before women gained equal voting rights with men.

From the time of the Representation of the People Act of 6 February 1918 until the Equal Franchise Act of 2 July 1928, despite this and other first and desperately hard-fought victories, democratic voting rights were still not equal between men and women.

But that was by no means the end of the fight for formal equality. It was, extraordinarily, not until 30 April 1958 - a date still easily within the memory of many people - that the Life Peerages Act enabled just four women gained entry to the House of Lords.

Not there yet
So progress has indeed been made towards women's equality in the past century. No longer are women paid less in, or indeed debarred if they marry from, professions like teaching; no longer does the law formally and overtly permit differences in the way women and men stand before it.

But still much remains to be done. As Katherine Rake, Director of the Fawcett Society, says in her Guardian interview this week:
We have done as much as we can levering women into a system designed by men for men. Now we have to work for a society where the rules are fitted for everybody.... There has been a huge change in women's lives, but very little in men's. [To make further progress] we have got to look at what happens in men's lives.....

Even now, these battles continue, worldwide....

Unapologetically feminist
So I make no apology for being a long-time committed feminist. Half a century after women's first step towards full emancipation, the feminist agenda of 1968 was a turning point as I entered adulthood. But the year 2008 still sees a long road ahead.

In my lifetime much has changed; but not enough.

Whilst, for example, the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act brought about a fairer situation for women requiring maternity leave (and , thereby, their partners and families) - though it was too late for some of my friends and me.

Still unequal in work and in power
But gender equality in the workplace is even now nowhere near achieved. British women in full time work are still paid on average 17% less than men similarly employed; and when part-time the difference between men and women is 36%.

And in national politics, where the big decisions are made, women remain even now a minority. The 2005 General Election saw 128 women elected in an assembly of 644, most of them - as Theresa May, a leading Conservative, herself acknowledged, from the Labour Party. (As at the end of 2006, of 712 Lords, 139 were women.)

Gender fatigue there may well be; but this is no time for inaction.

A way to shape the future
There remain enormous gaps, for both men and women, in parts of our lives which, whatever the legal frameworks, still have to be addressed. Men and women remain unequal, for each of them in different ways. (And so as we know do people of different sexualities, of different colour or age, of different beliefs and with different abilities.)

You don't, actually, need to be a woman to want to seek equality, to hold that feminism is a sensible and decent way to see the world. You just have to be a fair-minded person.

Read more about Gender & Women.

Meandering route 328a 113x99.jpg Evidence-based policy is central to much contemporary governmental thinking. But how the different phases of policy delivery can best engage 'real people' is not always clear. This is true whether the intended policy concerns health, the knowledge economy, or even global sustainability. There is still much to be done in understanding human agency and interaction in policy development and delivery.

In many aspects of public policy, from health through life-long learning and the economy to global sustainability, it is not simply the science or knowledge base which is important. Of equal, or sometimes greater, importance is an understanding of how to apply the established evidence which informs policy.

Phases in public policy development
There are, or should be, a number of phases in developing public policy.

The first phase is to derive as much consensus as possible about the necessary evidence base (both scientific and contextual) and the second is to consider how this 'translates' - an exercise which is currently being taken forward overtly by the government in relation to scientific knowledge, industry and business.

Securing public agreement or at least encouraging constructive and informed public debate is another phase which must run alongside these first two phases.

This 'third' phase is at risk when the established modes of policy development continue.

Public debate
The government has now gone some way to seek proper public debate on issues around science, technology, health and so forth. It is not as yet clear however that the corollary of this emphasis has been absorbed by the wider knowledge-related industries or even by some whose task is to deliver policy for real.

We all know that fundamental research and the intricacies of, say, applied medical knowledge are critical for the future. What is less well understood is that there remain huge gaps in our understandings of how such knowledge becomes operational in the real world.

People are what makes things happen. How they do so, in the contexts of such enormous challenges as global warming, the diseases of contemporary societies and the rapidly changing communities we all live in, has yet to be made clear.

Making things happen depends on people
Despite all our problems, many of us in the western world live in the best conditions human beings have ever known. Ensuring this continues and is shared even more widely is very largely a task for policy makers informed by a social rather than natural scientific knowledge base.

Fundamental science certainly needs to remain at the centre of knowledge creation; but, whether in health, industry or the environment, it must be matched by an equally well researched knowledge of the social world, if there is to be any real hope of public policies to sustain all our futures.

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.

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