Recently in Science & Technology Category

Science & Music books C.P. Snow introduced the idea of the Two Cultures in the annual Rede Lecture in Cambridge of 7 May 1959. Himself both an eminent scientist and contemporary historian of science, and a novelist, in that lecture he lamented the gulf between scientists and 'literary intellectuals', arguing that the quality of education in the world is on the decline. Now fifty years later (as on the fortieth anniversary) a range of commentators continues to debate this claim.

Science & Technology.

Some of us may feel that the great contribution to British culture of Charles Percy Snow (1905 - 1980) was in fact to write novels and commentaries about science which are still remembered for the light they shed on how science works in modern society.

For me that's certainly true: the dozen novels of the Strangers and Brothers saga (1949 - 1970) and his non-fiction (if not undisputed) accounts of how science 'works' - especially Science and Government (The Godkin Lectures at Harvard University) (1961), The Two Cultures and a Second Look (1963) and The Physicists: A Generation that Changed the World (1982, republished 2008) - have helped to bridge that science - humanities chasm.

Focus on the Corridors of Power
These were the books which, as a post-grad student of the sociology of science, opened my eyes to a world I hadn't even previously known existed: the world of high level science and policy, the world as Snow himself styled it, of The Corridors of Power.

But this focus has been largely lost in the debate about the Two Cultures and the heavyweight attack which the literary critic F.R. Leavis (1895 - 1978) made on C.P. Snow's thesis a couple of years after the Rede Lecture, suggesting that Snow was a dreadful novelist and rejecting the validity of his concerns that the literary elite was not scientifically literate.

Not always incompatible
Isn't it interesting in this context that quite a lot of excellent musicians are also good at maths and science; and probably just as many very good scientists are also decent musicians?

There remains as ever a cultural gap between the humanities and 'science', but they are both very complex enterprises, and it does not follow that all those in the arts are unaware of science, any more than the converse must always be true.

The nature of evidence
What is more worrying is that sometimes people don't seem to understand the nature of evidence (not 'science') ... that whenever possible it needs to be good enough to rely on, before conclusions are drawn.

Of course all evidence in the end is relative, but we have to start somewhere.... the important thing in a democratic society, is that the basis on which we as individuals, and those with influence, choose to decide actions and positions is open to scrutiny.

Moving towards rationality
Slowly, modern western society is becoming more rational and moving out of the mists of myth and cultural comfort zones. There is without doubt a limit to how much this can or should happen, but I think we're nearer to a balance on this than we were even a few decades ago. Many scientific terms are commonplace in everyday debate.

When C.P. Snow wrote his Two Cultures lecture we as a society 'knew' less than we do now. It's difficult to accept the claim that education for most people is 'worse' than it was in the 1950s and 60s - and I say that as the product of an inner-city grammar school of that era. Then we just didn't perceive the awfulness of the education which most children received; this was still the post-war era when anything was better than nothing.

For most people, cultural memory is it seems very short. We can surely now, despite all the naysayers, learn more, quickly, about anything, than ever before.

The longer view
It's said that 90% of the scientists who ever lived are here on this planet now. Possibly the same applies to artists, for what it's worth. But what I'm sure of is that C.P. Snow has excited a lot of people - including me - over several decades, with the debate he sparked.

Snow's perspective is of course now dated; but those who currently deny that things have got better have (potentially) the benefit of hindsight ,and they need to think quite carefully about whether they are using that very valuable vantage point properly. More people now know something about science and the arts, than ever before.

You don't need to be able to describe the double helix and the works of great poets in detail to share some mutual understanding about our complex cultural underpinnings.

Evidence and ideas for sustainability
What you do need to be able to do is draw threads together to make sense of where you find yourself in the world... and never has that been more true than now, with the 'one planet living' challenges we all face.

Indeed, Lord Snow argued himself that the breakdown of communication between the "two cultures" of modern society — the sciences and the humanities — was a major hindrance to solving the world's problems.

Bridging the gap
I'm not therefore sure that the most important debate around education can continue now be an arid discussion of so-called 'standards'; surely it has to be about searching for common understandings? And in that debate C.P. Snow and those who followed have helped a lot.

If the musicians and their counterparts can sometimes bridge the gap, then maybe the rest of us should start to be more positive, and have a go too.


Read more about Science & Technology.

For more commentary on the fiftieth anniversary of the 'Two Cultures' Rede Lecture, see e.g. here and here.

09.03.27 Liverpool University Post-Graduate Poster Day: 'Poster Day is a rainforest of research diversity' The University of Liverpool has one Graduate School for all disciplines. The School's annual Poster Day (27 March, in 2009) enables all these fields to be showcased together. I had the happy task with a few other 'external' judges of selecting the first-ever prizewinner for the new 'North West Hub' award, to emphasise links between academia and the wider world.

Education & Life-Long Learning and Knowledge Economy.

The exemplary aims of Poster Day are to offer graduate students practice in the skills required to communicate to a degree educated public, and to provide an opportunity for them to learn more about research being undertaken in other parts of the University.

09.03.27 Liverpool University Post-Graduate Poster Day: exhibiting in Mountford Hall

The University of Liverpool Graduate School Poster Day exhibition was fascinating; the cross-faculty range of work under one roof would surely have taken months to get fully to grips with, but we had just a couple of hours. I used the time to talk to some very interesting people, all passionate about their work and the reasons they were doing it.

09.03.27 Liverpool University Post-Graduate Poster Day: No. 307 ~ Woolly Welfare? Reliably Counting Lame Sheep

09.03.27 Liverpool University Post-Graduate Poster Day: No. 270 ~ An Empirical Investigation of the Libyan Audit Market & No. 272 ~ Corporate Governance and Firm Value

09.03.27 Liverpool University Post-Graduate Poster Day: No. 31 ~ Achaemenid Egypt: 130 years of Mystery

The involvement of 'external' visitors was a new step introduced this year. Here we see some of the Graduate School Team, including Dr Richard Hinchcliffe (Director of Postgraduate Training) with my fellow judges:

09.03.27 Liverpool University Post-Graduate Poster Day: Dr Richard Hinchcliffe (Director of Postgraduate Training) with the Graduate School Team & Poster Day external judges (NW Hub)

But in the end we had to make a decision, spoilt for choice though we certainly were.

The general criteria for the North West Hub overall prize included visual impact, organisation of the material, the accessibility of and rationale for the research, and, last but not least, the enthusiasm and clarity of the researcher him or herself. It seems very fitting that the award was after much discussion made to Andrew Lee-Mortimer for his engineering research project around Design for Sustainability.

09.03.27 Liverpool University Post- Poster Day: No. 85 ~ Andrew Lee-Mortimer: Design for Sustainability (NW Hub prizewinner)


Read more articles about Education & Life-Long Learning and about the Knowledge Economy.

Precision instruments Research Forum has this week, 5 November 2008, carried an analysis (including an article by me) of A Vision for Science and Society, which DIUS, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills launched on 18 July and concluded on 17 October. The debate is by no means over. This is a conversation which has as yet a way to run.

The article which follows is a version of my contribution to that debate, exploring the view that science in the service of civil society needs to find ways to engage more openly with those whom it seeks to serve.


What's science for?
The social sciences don’t get much of a profile in A Vision for Science and Society, the document that launched the three-month consultation organised by the DIUS, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills that closed earlier this month. So perhaps I, as someone at the ‘social’ end of science, am bound to see this documentation differently from some of my colleagues and fellow contributors to the debate from the natural and physical sciences.

Nonetheless, this debate is a big step towards an answer to what in my view is a central question in complex contemporary society: “What is science for and what should it do?

Science in the 21st Century
I was lucky enough to attend the inaugural Sir Gareth Roberts Science Policy Lecture at the Science Council in November last year when Ian Pearson, then Minister of State for Science and Innovation, initiated the current discussion. He asked us to consider how to nurture a “more mature relationship between science, policy and society” for the 21st century.

Subsequently, when the consultation was launched in July, DIUS re-iterated the vision: “The government is committed to creating a society that is excited about science and values its importance to our social and economic well-being; feels confident in its use; and supports a representative, well-qualified workforce. This vision encapsulates our long-term ambitions and we believe it directly addresses the science and society challenges facing us today.”

The Big Question
All excellent stuff, though I recognise it’s not a universally popular perspective. The seekers-after-truth may sometimes feel it diminishes or side steps their endeavours; but all scientists seek veracity, and, within that, the subset comprising research scientists also all seek new truths. The Big Question is:

Which of these many truth objectives should the state and other collaborating parties encourage and finance, and why?

The DIUS consultation goes some long way to securing answers to this question, but not perhaps quite far enough. However, let’s consider the positives first.

There is a fundamental underpinning in the DIUS discussion of the ways in which science must address the global challenge imperatives—climate change, security, population, resources and disease—and on how the rest of civil society (all of us) must engage in this, too.

Addressing the imperatives
There is also much discussion about how to focus science translationally in our economy, towards the delivery of real enterprise and products arising from scientific research....

This makes the department’s failure to acknowledge the potential value of regional science policy in the regeneration of economically depressed areas all the more bizarre.

But the evidence of DIUS’s earnest intention to encourage more, and more diverse, people to become scientists is perhaps a fuzzy first step towards developing some sensible regional science and knowledge economy policies.

From the inside looking out
And yet…and yet… Somehow, the debate feels as though it is being conducted from the inside, looking out.

There is, it might be felt, an implicit assumption that if only everyone understood science better, even half as well as the scientists, things would be fine and we could all just get on with it.

Much as I wish this might be true, there is a part of me that doubts it.

Strategic fit
The consultation documents and the questions DIUS posed to aid discussion did a thoroughly decent job of exploring ways to achieve a better strategic fit of people, business, services, science and technology at the national, if not at the regional, level. But they do not explore why, conversely, science just does not seem to ‘fit’ everyone in our complex and diverse society.

Many of us, according to the surveys that informed the DIUS discussion, maintain that science is ‘exciting’. However, far fewer people are actually up for it when career options are floated or other aspects of informed involvement are tested.

Forms of knowledge
Science is the ultimate in human rationality (though, even then, less rational than proponents may choose to believe). But consistently rational, many of us simply are not.

Even among those well qualified in science, there are some for whom it is no more than a technical adjunct to their personal overarching beliefs and way of life.

Science is just one form of knowledge among many. What distinguishes it is its startling capacity to provoke and direct change. In this, we all, every one of us, have a stake. Science underpins our lives and we often pay for it through our taxes.

Science for the people
Looked at in this light, perhaps scientists employed or funded by civil society (‘government’) have an additional responsibility, beyond that of their usual professional obligation to seek transparency and veracity in their work.
This additional responsibility is to ensure that publicly funded science is both relevant to, and good value for, the investment civil society has made in it—just as private employers expect the same for their investments.

But where is the focus in DIUS’s debate about the particular roles and responsibilities of the scientists themselves, when they conduct ‘science for the people’?

Multi-disciplinary teamwork
Publicly funded science must be responsive and iterative; it must offer ways forward for implementation in real communities of real people.

I don’t, however, see much in the DIUS debate about how science programme managers (and, ideally, all others involved) are to be equipped to deliver this. At the very least, it requires integrated truly multi-disciplinary teamwork between scientists, policy makers and wider stakeholders at every stage, from concept to delivery.

Public scrutiny and quality assurance
And here, too, is a meaningful role for government science advisory councils, offering quality assurance and public scrutiny through independent expert opinion on which science government should support, and why.

Yet the value of these bodies—let alone how to strengthen and learn from them—is not considered in the DIUS debate.

In private industry, company boards appraise their scientific investments. Civil society must do the same for public investment, transparently.

Science as human agency
Which takes me back to the central issue.

We can’t expect everyone to be enthused about a science that appears granite-like before them. If we want true public engagement, science has to emphasise, not deny, its human agency.

Science is about risk, uncertainty and adventure, and the way real human beings cope with and grow through these challenges.

As we all know in our heads if not our hearts, it is not just about serious-looking chaps in white coats, whom the bravest of other sorts of people may join in the search for knowledge.

A compelling human story
Scientists have a very human story to tell, of choices and priorities, crossroads, blind alleys and huge successes.

If we want everyone to believe science is ‘for them’, this story must be told openly, explicitly and contemporaneously, warts and all, by those who are actually doing it.

Then science will seem genuinely relevant and accessible, a humanly shaped, ever-evolving and fundamental part of modern life. That is how things really are, from the outside looking in.

Is DIUS game for this? The debate has yet to begin.

A version of this paper was first published in Research Fortnight, 5 November 2008, pp. 17-18. Hilary Burrage has experience as a member of a science advisory council, but writes here in a purely personal capacity. Her submission to the consultation on DIUS's A Vision for Science and Society, is available here.


Read more about Science & Politics and see more of Hilary's Publications, Lectures & Talks

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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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Science Laboratory with computers Are the Natural and Physical Sciences squaring up for inter-disciplinary combat? Each requires huge sums of money to maintain research momentum, but who decides what research offers best value? How can we measure Particle Physics 'against' say, environmental technologies? With their vast 'pure research' budgets to secure, perhaps the Physicists will now also discover that evaluating research investment regenerational impacts supports their case.

The rumblings of dissent between the physical and natural scientists are getting louder. There is a view abroad that investment in areas like Particle and Theoretical Physics is too expensive, when we need urgently to develop sustainable, 'One Planet Living' technologies.

Applied or fundamental research?
Today's Guardian newspaper (6 September '08) has an article about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) - a facility (apparatus or laboratory) in Geneva which will cost £5bn over the next 20 years - which adds substance to these rumblings. Prof. Sir David King, previously the UK Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, argues that 'big' money for scientific research is best spent encouraging top scientists to address climate change and related environmental issues; Britain has so far contributed about £500m to the LHC.

The Physicists however argue that thus far we know about only 5% of what constitutes the universe; we cannot stop exploration of the fundamental nature of matter.

Valid views
Both perspectives are valid. But which will hold sway?

The environmental research argument is compelling to people who know little about science, as well as many (often including natural scientists who feel short of funding) who do. The fundamental, 'science for the sake of knowledge' position is also persuasive, but perhaps only really to those who already perceive the deep intellectual challenges of exploring the nature of matter.

Political decisions
It was probably alright to leave science decisions to the scientists a century ago, when the Haldane Principle decreed that political involvement in research decisions was unacceptable. But things have changed, and science is now infinitely more expensive than it was then.

How, on behalf of UK plc, should the Government allocate its cash? Decisions on specific scientific programmes are still made by the Research Councils; but overall allocations are decided by the politicians.

The socio-economic case
Some while ago, practitioners in the Arts and Culture began to espouse the 'socially useful' position: what they do should be supported because it helps community development and regeneration generically, and makes jobs.

My expectation is that, finally, the physical scientists may catch on to the same notion.

Currently, there is little of any discussion about how investment in Big Science - the large research facility programmes - impacts on the locations in which it is placed. In the future this may change.

Jobs and infrastructure
Some 10,000 scientists are employed by (and were attracted to work in) the LHC; and that's before we get to the armies of scribes and other support staff required for such a programme. This, inevitably, must have a huge impact on the various economies in which LHC is embedded.

Scientists until now have held the idea that 'value-added' - the additional socio-economic regenerational (as opposed to simply business) impact of research investment, over and above its scientific value as such - is irrelevant to their decisions about which proposals to support. Research funds may be from the public purse, but regenerational impact, we are told, is irrelevant to decisions about where programmes are located.

Shifting criteria
This high-minded dismissal of non-science-related socio-economic impact, I predict, is about to come to an end. Many technologists and natural scientists, like their more arty colleagues, now make compelling cases for how useful their work will be to society, within quite short time spans.

This is the only way practitioners in the more abstract and fundamental physical sciences can go, in terms of short-term impact. They will have to begin, however reluctantly, to acknowledge the legitimacy of questions about the ways their huge budgets can, alongside unravelling the mysteries of the universe, provide improvements to local economies, infrastructures and regional regenerational prospects.

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Science, Regeneration & Sustainability

From Regeneration To Sustainability: A Northern Take On Knowledge

08.07.29 Hilary Burrage NUREC Conference keynote lecture  Liverpool BT Convention Centre This is a version of the Keynote Lecture I gave at the NUREC 2008 conference, in Liverpool on 28 July 08. In it we explore the connections between Knowledge Economies and Ecologies, and Big Science and Regeneration, especially in regional and sub-regional settings, and in respect of issues around Sustainability. My basic thesis is that Knowledge is not yet recognised for the fundamental resource it surely is.

I’d like to begin with some thoughts on what Urban Regeneration in ‘the North’ might be about.

I shall assume two things in doing this:
* first, that we are orientated towards a positive and stable future, and
* second, that ‘the North’ means, from beyond Birmingham up to Stornoway, and all parts East and West between.

Regional regeneration
I know more about regeneration in the North of England than I do about that in Scotland, or indeed Wales or Ulster, but I hope it’s useful to acknowledge that we are all in this together.

I hope too that you will forgive me if I refer from now on to ‘Northern Britain’, as a shorthand for all these locations.

So...

There is ‘the South’, that Golden Triangle of perceived opportunity between London, Oxbridge and Bristol. And then there are, at least in some respects, The Rest Of Us: the periphery, perhaps including the far South West of England, and certainly comprising all of us ‘up North’.

Knowledge and sub-national agendas
My specific theme today is Knowledge, how it infuses complex contemporary society, and how it relates to U.K. sub-national agendas in Regeneration.

To use the emerging terminology, we are about to take a look at the KNOWLEDGE ECOLOGY of Northern Britain.

The idea of ‘Knowledge Ecologies’ allows a wider appreciation of the interrelationships of various factors which affect and influence Knowledge in its various contexts, be they economic, social or environmental.

What is Knowledge?
For our purposes I’d suggest ‘Knowledge’ is a pragmatic notion with a number of different aspects, which can be likened to some of the different states in which we encounter water:

* Social understandings and culture are like the mist or dew which maintains all living things.

* Civic and community rules are like rain, which falls whether we want it to or not.

* Our formal education can be compared to the streams and rivers which criss-cross our terrain, sometimes preventing us from travelling and sometimes moving us along.

* Expertise is a lake in which we can immerse ourselves, or indeed where we can go fishing, if we are well-placed to do so.

* And research tools and methods are to knowledge what a hydro-electric dam is to water at the end of a reservoir, not without risk, but hopefully unleashing its power to good use.

Knowledge can be wasted.
Knowledge, like water, can be wasted when
* the commodity is not perceived to be a resource, or of value
* it is not used properly
* it is allowed to stagnate, or not maintained in a good condition
* nit is not conserved
* it is allowed to go its own way or run its own course.

And we do also sometimes hit ‘unintended negatives’ – so-called ‘beaver dams’ – which are blocks to the flow of knowledge but intended by those who created them actually to assist constructive development.

One example might be the rules around Objective 1 funding, which is blocked to enterprises physically outside the Objective 1 area, such as Science and Technology Parks just outside Merseyside.

I hope by now you are beginning to see where the parallel between water and Knowledge lies.....

Knowledge centres move over time
The question is how can we, as Regeneration practitioners, use Knowledge, in the same way as conservationists would use water?

It’s interesting to recall that the Industrial Revolution, that precursor of the Knowledge Economy, began in the North.

But we are all aware that somehow things slipped Southwards thereafter, to the magical land of the M4 / M5 corridor, otherwise known as the Golden Triangle.

In more recent times this Southward flow of wealth-making has been accompanied by

* the globalisation of markets and products, by-passing almost every geographical and political boundary;

* very easily accessed information and networks, via the internet; and

* intensification of activity in fields related to information and other technologies, often to the exclusion of other more traditional industries and economies.

Fundamental changes in the Ecology of Knowledge have brought about big shifts in our experience in every aspect of our lives, whether social, economic or environmental.

Knowledge in Regeneration
In what ways do Knowledge, Regeneration and Sustainability interface and how can we best gear each into the other? How should we approach them in the new climate of devolved decision-making?

At first it might seem silly to consider the whole Knowledge Economy or Ecology in terms of Local Area Agreements and the like; after all, modern Knowledge investments are a very expensive and large-scale enterprise.

But attention to Knowledge at every level presents an opportunity to get things right in a way that the broad sweep alone cannot.

Conserving Knowledge
To extend our analogy, we are learning fast that conservation of water, like that of energy, has to be a collective effort.

And so too does the ‘conservation’ of Knowledge.

If we want to keep and get the best out of Knowledge in Northern Britain, we need to make sure we look after and invest in it just as our Southern cousins do.

Finding the right criteria
So where might we start? Perhaps by looking for good criteria by which to evaluate proposals for Regeneration....?

These criteria need to be transparent, meaningful and coherent for everyone concerned - be they planners, politicians, policy makers or indeed the general public and those most directly concerned in ‘communities’.

I do not however believe that currently this happens with any frequency.

If it does happen, why is the cry from stakeholders – whether community activists, service providers, businesses or others - so often for ‘more consultation’?

In terms of major misunderstandings, criteria tend to be more contested, the further we move away from the location of national government - especially when it comes to things such as large-scale investment in Knowledge.

The Golden Triangle
In this respect the Big Science Golden Triangle is significantly advantaged.

To return to our global economy model, the Golden Triangle is close to the corridors of power, it is hugely resourced in both financial and human terms, it has all the right infrastructure and it is well focused on delivery.

There are some outstanding Knowledge centres in the North, not least in the Daresbury Laboratory collaborations, in the Science Cities of Newcastle and Manchester, and in the Edinburgh – St Andrews nexus.

World-class excellence in specific disciplines
Even more locally, we can point to the world-class excellence of work done in ous Diseases.

The Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine can stand proud against institutions anywhere in its achievements in this field, and there are alongside the work of the School hugely significant Biomedical developments, both at the University of Liverpool itself and at Speke Liverpool industrial locations near Runcorn.

Knowledge 'pools' have big potential
The potential for Merseyside’s economy of these connections - as also of the clustering of skills and facilities in aspects of Information Technology - are enormous, if they can indeed be brought together not just as a pool or pond, but as a river flowing purposively from the tributaries of its component parts to serve a stronger socio-economic ecology.

And similarly we can point to many other Knowledge ‘ponds’ in Northern Britain, bringing together very high skills in professional services such as Law and Accountancy; cultural provision such as Music, Theatre and Museums; or public services such as Health.

Socio-economic contexts
But to be blunt, these facilities sometimes lack the wider socio-economic cogency and contextual enhancement of comparable facilities further South.

We have seen the emergence of the ‘Northern Way', an admirable development which seeks to focus the synergies of all our Knowledge and related assets; but these still do not always ‘flow’ to our benefit as they might.

Yes of course there are pockets of disadvantage ‘down South’. But we only have to look at basic measures such as a life expectancy and health to know that overall the Southern half of Britain fares better than the Northern half.

It would be downright wrong to suggest, as some do, that Northern Britain has no Knowledge facilities which stand up against those of the Golden Triangle.

Knowledge contexts and economic outputs
But it would be equally foolish to suggest that all Northern Knowledge centres have the same supportive hinterland as most Southern ones.

Northern Knowledge facilities do not always lever in the economic outputs and other advantages of some Southern facilities of equivalent standing.

The reality is, until all of us are clear about the range of required criteria – not only academic criteria, but also many other sorts - for deciding where and when to invest in Knowledge, we will not have a proper conversation; and opportunities in a range of locations and situations will then be lost.

Knowledge as 'Science', and otherwise
But before we go any further, I should make one thing clear: Whilst I would like to be able to discuss the management and nurturing of Knowledge in the UK, we will inevitably find that we need to consider more narrowly defined sorts of Knowledge such as ‘Science’, or ‘Arts and Culture’, or ‘Education’.

‘Knowledge’ and ‘knowing’ as such do not seem to feature in the policy debate at any level. Nonetheless, I hope you will accept that ideally I would encompass all sorts of Knowledge in my analogy with water; as indeed I would urge you as Regeneration practitioners to think of Knowledge in this broader sense. But we must work with what we have, and the nearest to that for Knowledge as we intend to use the term is ‘Science’.

We have 'Science' funding councils, which have much larger budgets than funding councils for any other sorts of discipline. But we do not have a 'Knowledge' funding council. And so, for much of the rest of our discussion, we shall needs be use the terms ‘Knowledge’ and ‘Science’ almost interchangeably.

Big Science in North West England
So let’s take one topical example, which is Scientists and Big Science facilities in the North West England.

There are in Merseyside perhaps just half the number of scientists and technologists one might expect pro-rata from the UK general demographic. It is hard not to see a connection between this low concentration of high skills in Science, and the alarmingly modest school-leaving results in this City.

Merseyside is a sub-region where outcomes in terms of a low skills economy and its clusters of industry-based technologies are vulnerable to the operational decisions of powerful corporate Boards, often located in entirely different parts of the world.

The New Light Source synchrotron
And Liverpool is also a City within a Region which is still fighting, a decade after the battles started, to keep the world-leading Fourth Generation Light Source (4GLS) at the Daresbury Laboratory, between Manchester and Liverpool.

The proposal is that this spectacular New Light Source will be designed using an energy recovery linear accelerator to yield very short pulses (around a ten million millionth of a second), so that it will 'freeze' the motion of molecular vibrations and other microscopic scale processes. It will also combine light beams of different wavelengths (energies) which will put it at the leading edge internationally.

But now the Light Source synchrotron may not be built at Daresbury.

We can, we are told, have a jolly good Science Park there. Indeed, we have even been given special Innovation Centre status to take forward the ‘spin-offs’ from our excellent higher education facilities, as well as an important £8.5 million project for something called EMMA (Electron Machine with Many Applications), a development which will ultimately have applications in e.g. cancer therapy.

EMMA will be connected to, and use, ALICE (Accelerators and Lasers in Combined Experiments) designed as a prototype for 4GLS. ALICE is located at Daresbury but has only just been funded for future operations.

A Science Park, not a Synchrotron?
But it has been emphasised that we should not automatically expect to keep 4GLS, one of the most significant Big Science programmes imaginable, in the North West of England - even though scientists at Liverpool and neighbouring Universities devised it.

Indeed, 4GLS has now been renamed the New Light Source (NLS), and the histories around its genesis have been revisited by what some regard as ambitious and perhaps hostile external forces.

The £8m+ for EMMA is obviously a good thing, but this should be seen in the context of the £200 million for other major scientific facilities elsewhere in the UK.

The truth is, there are very influential people elsewhere who want to develop this incredibly important work in fundamental Physics; and some of them don’t really want to do this in the North West. Their preference, as you may have surmised, is the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL), located in the Golden Triangle.

Investment and brain drains
In the meantime Daresbury has suffered a ‘brain drain’ of top scientists leaving not only the Daresbury Laboratory itself, but also vacating their academic positions in Daresbury’s partner Universities in the North West of England.

It is therefore excellent news that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills has just a few days ago announced a £50m funding boost for Daresbury Science & Innovation Campus. The cash has been earmarked from its Large Facilities Capital Fund to create the Hartree Institute of Computational Science at Daresbury.

But this still leaves a question mark over the future location of the New Light Source and the world-class scientists who work on it. And similar considerations also of course applied to the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s threatened financial reductions at Jodrell Bank, which is closely connected with the University of Manchester, until a ‘reprieve’ just very recently.

The best people often feel obliged to go elsewhere when the research dries up.

Support for Russell Group universities
When this sort of talent haemorrhage occurs, it makes for even greater challenge in maintaining the very high reputational stock of Russell Group universities in the North West.

The Russell Group, comprising twenty of the UK’s top research universities, boasts that in 2006/07, Russell Group Universities accounted for 66% (over £2.2 billion) of UK Universities' research grant and contract income, 68% of total Research Council income, 56% of all doctorates awarded in the United Kingdom, and over 30% of all students studying in the United Kingdom from outside the EU.

So nurturing Russell Group universities in Northern Britain is surely one of the most essential and obvious ways to maintain and extend the reservoir of knowledge and skills in this region.

Big Science 'added value' neglected
But the criteria for where to locate the main programme for the New Light Source - or indeed any other Big Science programme anywhere in the UK - are sadly lacking in respect of the ‘added value’ of wider impact, whichever regional economy becomes the host location.

There has been endless debate about the ‘quality of the science’ - an obvious essential - but, lamentably, almost none on the wider sub-national impacts for the regions concerned.

Much of the funding is put up by the Government, which might reasonably expect a good return across a range of benefits and indices both scientific and much wider.

But the funding allocators don’t worry that scientists might have to ‘go South’ if they wanted to follow this exciting Light Source work.

Regional inaction
And it must also be said that initially far too few policy makers in the North of England actually understood the fundamental significance of this ground-breaking work.

A couple of years ago Rachel Lomax, then a Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, reminded us all, at a conference in Liverpool, that you ‘can’t laugh your way out of economic decline’.

I’d add that perceiving the possible loss of the New Light Source as principally a blow to ‘civic pride’ won’t get us very far either.

Such a view, still occasionally perpetrated by local media, does not help people in our region to understand the significance of this fundamental research. It also suggests to external observers that our local Knowledge Ecology is weak, and we haven’t much idea about how substantive Knowledge Economies actually work.

Big Science benefits its locations
Rather, we need to say, very loud and clear, that there would be huge benefits, quite possibly to the whole of Northern Britain, in developing the New Light Source at Daresbury.

To summarise so far: Northern Britain has some excellent pools of Knowledge, but not, to date, a great reservoir of supportive cultural understandings and high skills, from which we can really empower Northern people and position our region to advantage.

It’s being hard-headed, looking for common understandings between all parties, local, regional and national, which will make a difference in the end. That is why established and shared criteria for Regeneration proposals are so very important.

Who decides?
As Regeneration practitioners, we need to think about regional Big Science and Knowledge investment.

We do not invite only Transport specialists to have a view on the location of main road and rail routes; nor doctors alone to choose where to put internationally recognised Medical facilities.

Likewise, the location of Big Science facilities is, in the most positive of senses, too important to be left only to the Scientists.

We must now ask, quite urgently, how those of us in Regeneration should be thinking about the management of investment in Science, as a massively important influence on the ebb and flow of Knowledge Ecologies.

Knowledge as an orientation to the world
We need to think of Knowledge, not as a set of academic disciplines, activities, ideas or skills, but rather as an orientation towards the world. It is, to extend my analogy, the watertable on which our society is based, the underpinnings of what we believe, perceive and do.

Informal Knowledge or ‘Knowing’ is the taken-for-granted culture which we all share – the dew, mist or rain which keeps us socially alive and operational whether we recognise it or not. But climates can change, so we will need in future to be more aware of these often ‘invisible’ life-support systems. We need always to be orientated even in our taken-for-granted culture towards seeking to find out more and understand what’s happening around us.

Formal Knowledge, on the other hand, is a more direct driver of modern economies. It includes almost everything ‘High Skills’ – whether these skills are scientific, technical, professional, academic, entrepreneurial, artistic, strategic or whatever. Formal knowledge comprises the streams, rivers, lakes and reservoirs of our endeavours.

Who makes Knowledge decisions?
So at a very early stage in any Regeneration proposal we need to find out where these Knowledge resources are, and begin to decide what we can – or should – do with them.

And we must also ask who decides how Knowledge is handled.

Many contemporary Knowledge issues can be determined only at a macro- scale.

Yet the policies and actions which culminate in such Knowledge decisions are often made with no such considerations in mind, by people at a relatively local level.

For example, many matters around transport and infrastructure, education, housing and other services are determined at the micro- level, and against criteria relating mainly to quite short-term local electoral accountability.

Big decisions and Big Science
But decisions about Big Science or other large-scale investment in Knowledge of whatever sort, are often made by people and organisations with little or no local accountability, and according to criteria which have nothing to do with local people’s direct concerns.

Only in places where Knowledge – or at least its outcomes – are intrinsically valued, is there likely to be congruence between local decision-making and the consequences of this at strategic levels for Knowledge. Context in these matters is critical. Hence once again my emphasis on widely shared and comprehensive criteria.

So let’s also look at things the other way.

Talking to the right people
Trying to persuade investors in another country that they should do business in a given region can be difficult, especially when the plants and professional skills may be more cheaply available elsewhere.

This is one of the reasons I have doubts about the single-minded pursuit of clustering industries in Technology Parks as an end in themselves.

Things look different however, if we seek to attract expertise at the international cutting edge of scientific Knowledge, rather than simply seeking investment capital.

Technology Parks or Big Science?
It may be more effective to talk with a handful of very top experts who might be persuaded to stay and work in a regional location, provided they have the laboratories and other back-up they require.

If we just concentrate on building the real estate for technology parks we will get a qualitatively different regeneration outcome, from if we push the boat out on globally cutting-edge scientific research.

Regeneration practitioners, please take note.

Combining approaches
Ideally, of course, we should put the technology and the pursuits of high-level scientific research together. And indeed this has to some extent happened in regard to the Merseyside identification with work on Infectious Diseases.

We have the world-class Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, and the Teaching Hospitals, in conjunction with the Bioscience facilities of the University of Liverpool. These facilities, as we have noted, are working in tandem with the Biotechnology cluster for vaccines and so forth in Speke, on the city outskirts.

Here is real and potential synergy indeed. I hope someone is conducting the case study!

Knowledge Ecologies and their potential
Ultimately, it is Knowledge Ecologies, the contexts in which Knowledge activities occur, which determine how much benefit may be derived from the resources available – and I’m sure by now I don’t have to extend this, as an analogy, to the management of water, to make my point.

Understanding Knowledge Ecologies, and valuing Knowledge, produces a virtuous circle.

Decision makers at every level must be geared in to ‘looking after’ Knowledge, before everyone can benefit fully from what it can deliver.The physical detail of Regeneration programmes must marry with the human requirements of the people the programmes are intended to serve.

Knowledge centres in their communities
Recognising the role of schools, colleges and universities in their communities, and ensuring they are integrated into their localities – as well as outward-looking – is an essential element of this.

And what, for instance, is or could be the full impact of a teaching hospital or any other facility which employs and / or engages many ‘ordinary’ people, in a very extraordinary and high skills setting?

Or how should we value a cultural initiative such as the renewal of Hope Street, in Liverpool? Hope Street Quarter is home to this city’s international orchestra, several of its theatres, its two cathedrals, and much else, including more recently the joint Universities’ Science Park headquarters. The refurbishment of Hope Street has quite literally brought together the aspirations of flagship Knowledge-led educational and cultural organisations, significant independent businesses and local people in communities across the spectrum from university residences to the more challenging parts of Toxteth, our nearest neighbouring area.

As Chair of HOPES, the charity which spear-headed Hope Street’s renewal over several years, I can vouch for the difficulties – and also the huge benefits – of trying to bring all these perspectives together.

Checking the human realities of Knowledge Ecologies
Whether we are looking at the siting of a Children’s Centre – not, please, in the middle of an uninhabited industrial estate, just because the local authority has a nice spare building there – or, indeed, at the location of an international centre of excellence for Big Science – maybe a decent air link away from the Golden Triangle might be a good idea? – the question has to be:
Will this development serve its purpose in the most humanly effective way?

Attention to Knowledge Ecologies at whatever level, from early years learning right through to the operation of the most complex scientific research, reminds us of something which is quite obvious but sometimes put aside...... The economics of land acquisition and construction or physical development are only one of a large number of factors which Regeneration practitioners must address when taking programmes forward.

If we want the best from Regeneration programmes we need to be joined up.

The USP of Regeneration
It is the full acknowledgement of physical and socio-economic integration and cohesion, as a basic underlying principle, which distinguishes Regeneration from simply construction, community engagement, economic development or planning. This is what makes Knowledge in all its senses so critical in Regeneration.

Our Unique Selling Point as Regeneration practitioners is that we seek to bring together all the skills and understandings of the various disciplines and endeavours which underpin our work. Not every construction, community, developmental or planning scheme comprises Regeneration.

Full Regeneration programmes include all these elements, plus that special ‘extra’ of ensuring that all the Knowledge streams, formal and informal, will, ultimately, flow together for the common good.

Delivering synergies
Bringing all these elements together is however a tall order.

This ‘gearing in’ or re-alignment is not however something with only top-end outcomes. Appropriate understandings and management of Knowledge by every one of us, across the board, would help us as Regeneration practitioners to address all sorts of issues.

We must deliver the potential synergies in the conjunction of these themes. One of the most fascinating things about Knowledge and Regeneration is that what we know develops iteratively – the layers on the onion keep growing, as we share experiences and thereby understand more.

Looking at Knowledge Ecologies
We might consider three questions which arise from these thoughts about Knowledge.

1. Do we in fact share common understandings about the fundamentals of how Knowledge and Science interface with Regeneration?

Would we agree that common criteria and measures for the evaluation and understanding of Knowledge are now emerging? And what, if so, might these be?

2. Do we as Regeneration practitioners need a special take on ‘regional’ or sub-national Knowledge strategies?

Should those who determine science policy now as a matter of good practice assess likely socio-economic impacts – the ‘added value’ - when the Government invests in Science and Knowledge at sub-national levels?

In 2001 I was amongst those who worked towards the inaugural NW Science Conference, which resulted in the first regional Science Council. Should we collectively now to take this initiative a further step forward, and incorporate the Regeneration agenda directly into national Knowledge and Science strategies?

The Haldane Principle, established in 1918, prescribed that Government should not influence how Science is developed, this being the job of the Research Funding Councils alone. But things were very different 90 years ago. Science was a much less complicated activity, the costs of scientific research were proportionately less significant, and certainly nobody thought about connections between investment in Science and investment in what we have come to call Regeneration.

So should the Government now revisit Haldane? Should those who determine science policy now as a matter of good practice assess likely socio-economic impacts – the ‘added value’ - when the Government invests in Science and Knowledge at sub-national levels?

And should we in Regeneration also be developing tools for the same purpose?

3. How can we confront the idea of ‘Sustainability’ – a term which is often dismissed simply I suspect because it is so difficult to ‘unpack’?

To return to the original metaphor, it is not enough that we know where the canals, tributaries, rivers, lakes and hydro-power dams are.

Stable and sustainable systems
We need also to ensure that we have a stable system, one which depends on just a single planet’s-worth of resources.

In this scenario issues such as equality and diversity, or for example the urban-rural divide, take on a new significance. One Planet Living means having an adequate sufficiency for everyone; and this in turn requires a far greater focus on how we deliver Regeneration for real people, whoever and wherever they are.

There is not time right now to develop the theme of social equity, but I am sure everyone agrees it is a non-negotiable, in terms of taking things forward. There is no hope of Sustainability if we do not address the basic needs of all members of our society, women and men, people of every culture and ethnicity, older and young, city and country dwellers alike.

Sustainability is where the social meets the physical
And Sustainability is also the point at which my water metaphor turns into a literal reality. The physical and social worlds meet when we consider Sustainability.

Knowledge is not a finite resource. It can take any of the formats, by analogy, which water has; but it can and does also constantly increase in its volume and impact. And like water, this volume and impact must be managed, if it is to deliver positive change, not destruction.

One of the ways in which Knowledge grows is through our increased understanding of sustainable systems. In this sense, Regeneration practitioners cannot in truth do their job unless they seek also to do themselves out of one.

The end of Regeneration?
Our ambition has to be that Regeneration will become an occasional sideline, for ‘Emergencies Only’ if you like. Our main task as practitioners will be to manage change, and lead not simply on ‘Regeneration’, but rather on Sustainability.

At its best Regeneration provides the connectivity and energy to enable and empower everyone, at every level, building on common understandings to produce positive synergies and outcomes.

This is why I have concentrated here on the idea of Knowledge and how it ‘flows’.

Study Group on Knowledge, Science and Regeneration
And with BURA, the British Urban Regeneration Association and a number of others - some of them here now - I am seeking to take this work forward.

We are developing a Study Group on Knowledge, Science and Regeneration and input to this would be very welcome. Please do get in touch if you’d like to know more.

Testing the 'Knowledge is like Water' analogy
But for now I will leave you with an invitation to test out my offered analogy between Knowledge and water:

1. Does the ‘Knowledge is like Water’ model actually ‘hold water’?

2. Does it help us to see how the management of Knowledge in different parts of the United Kingdom may vary, and why?

3. Does the ‘Knowledge is like Water - it flows where it can’ idea help us to see, at every level from Local Areas, through Sub-regions to large chunks of Britain, how a more equitable distribution of Knowledge might be achieved?

4. How might this distribution model nonetheless encourage a free-flow between many different points, such that the Knowledge Ecology, like a good water system, is kept healthy, vigorous and stable?

5. And lastly, how might developing a model to describe the movements and management of water help us in delivering Regeneration?

The interface of Knowledge and Regeneration
The new challenge in Regeneration is to see how in practice Regeneration can interface with Knowledge. This is much like the challenge of managing a watertable, whilst also providing the irrigation systems and the hydro-electric power for revitalising communities and the lives of the people living in them.

Those of us ‘Up North’ continue to hope that a synthesis of Sustainability and Growth will see improvements in our economy and basic standards of living, to match those already enjoyed by the more fortunate of our Southern cousins.

We want Sustainability, but most of us still want regional Growth as well.

I look forward through our work in the new Study Group to discovering more about how we can resolve these challenging demands.


I am grateful to a number of friends and colleagues for generous encouragement and commentary on this paper, and I will also of course appreciate further dialogue about any of the ideas I have here tried to explore. Please contact me, or use the Comments form below, as you wish. Thank you.

Read more about Science, Regeneration & Sustainability,
Science Policy
and
The Haldane Principle, 21st Century Science Research And Regional Policy;
and see more of Hilary's Publications, Lectures & Talks.

Research lab There are compelling reasons for a regional science policy for the UK; but they are often dismissed as incompatible with the Haldane Principle of 1904 and 1917/18, that government must not 'interfere' with scientific research. Science then was vastly less expensive and impacted far less on the economy and ordinary people's lives. In the 21st century, the potential for regional development through science is huge - and it can only be done through intentional government direction.

The 'arm's length' principle, that government should not intervene in how to determine what scientific research is done, was developed about a century ago, by Richard Burdon Haldane (1856-1928), who chaired UK Government commissions and committees on this subject in 1904 and 1917/18.

The 1918 Haldane Report recommended that only specifically required research should be commissioned and supervised by particular governmental departments. All other research, said Haldane, should be under autonomous Research Councils (of which the Medical Research Council was to become the first), free from political and administrative pressures and able to develop as was deemed fit by the Research Councils themselves.

Noble and fictional?
Noble as the pursuit of knowledge simply for its own sake may be, it's impossible in our age of huge expenditure on Big Science that this recommendation, now almost a century old, can remain unexamined as the way forward.

The possibly apocryphal story is told (sadly, I can't remember by whom) of one of the extraordinarily talented Huxley family having, many years ago, a laboratory at home in which he explored scientific questions; and of his son asking innocently of their young neighbour, what his father did in his (home) laboratory.... It's not like that any more.

And in most cases it probably wasn't like that then either. Not many people in any age have been able to pursue science just as a self-financed hobby.

Vast investments
As recent House of Commons debates have illustrated, there is growing concern that the UK Government's huge investment in science should have the best possible return, on what is in the end tax payers' money.

But no investment returns in our complex world can be measured in only one way. There are impacts of many kinds - on jobs and the economy, on infrastructure, on the environment, on people's future life expectations, as well as on the state of knowledge itself.

Who does what evaluation?
Few of these impacts are easily measured, and even fewer carefully monitored from when a line of research is first proposed. This is at least in part because of the Haldane Principle and its continuing influence on government.

Politicians continue be nervous of any accusation that Haldane has been breached, an accusation easily made by scientists keen to pursue their work unhindered. So, little is made of the positive or negative impacts that scientific research of itself (as opposed to later 'applied' through technology and industrial developments) may have on, for instance, the locations in which they may be placed.

Single criterion decisions
'The science', it is proclaimed, must speak for itself, unhindered by base considerations of how it might benefit (or otherwise) non-scientific developments such as urban regeneration.

One result of this position is that decisions about large-scale and fundamental scientific research are made only by scientists, with scant if any regard to the measurable impacts which the process - as opposed simply to the possible eventual outcomes - of undertaking the research might have on the people (tax payers) who provided the wherewithal.

Surely even a hundred years ago this was not Haldane's intention? He was in fact advising the government of the day on how best to benefit from science at a time of war.

Imaginations and applications
There is a strong case for supporting fundamental or 'pure' science, in the sense that it allows the very best scientists to take their disciplines forward in exciting and truly astonishing ways. The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is a core activity in science, and, properly handled, can be an enormous catalyst for progress.

Haldane can be very properly invoked to ensure that there is no interference in the way fundamental science is actually done. We can understand that fundamental research requires scrupulous peer review, but never political meddling.

This is however very different from the idea that politicians have a positive duty to ensure all the 'added-value' they can squeeze for the wider community which they represent, when the government funds big research investments.

Regionalism and regeneration
In Haldane's time the very concept of regeneration as we now know it didn't exist.

It was only later that observers such as J.D. Bernal (in 1939) argued that the overarching consideration be social good rather than freedom of research; this being followed in 1971 by Sir Solly Zuckerman's critique of the artificial separation of applied and basic science - a critique in part accommodated by the Rothschild Report of the same year, which saw some funding and decision-making being handed back to government. (This thinking was also followed elsewhere, e.g. in 1972, when an article in the respected journal Nature called for an 'End to the Haldane Principle in Canada'.)

That was respectively 80 or 35 years ago; and despite continuing debate (in Canada, the United Kingdom and elsewhere) it seems we still fail to see where Haldane helps in the modern world, and where he doesn't. I doubt this was a legacy the man himself intended.

Good science can also offer added value
There is little doubt that only good science is worth doing - the other sort isn't really science at all - and good science requires genuine independence for its practitioners. Haldane continues to offer assurance that scientists can and must conduct the work they do unhindered.

We should not however confuse this guarantee of research independence 'on the ground' with the duty upon government to ensure its (and our) money is invested well.

Sometimes the best investment is indeed in fundamental research, expensive though this is. But the 'non-science' dividends of placing that research, whether fundamental or applied, in one location rather than another, may be compelling.

Regional science policy
Now that science involves such enormous funding, the case for investing that money also as part of regeneration strategies in the UK 'regions' is persuasive.

Some scientists on Research Councils, divorced from the realities of wider public policy, may want to cite Haldane as they resist the idea of looking at regional investment impacts ensuing from the development of research proposals. They are wrong to do so.

The time has come for regional science policies to become part of the equation, acknowledging the impact that Big Science research based away from the Golden Triangle would have on areas of the UK which require regeneration. This is hardly an ask too far.

And it is certainly not a threat to the integrity or operational independence of science, Haldane Principle or not.


Read also:
Science & Politics

Natural Vs. Physical Science Research Points Up Regeneration Added-Value
and
Big Science, Technology And The New Localism

08.05.11  computer keyboard 156x112  001a.jpg When did the World Wide Web emerge for most people? Around the Millennium? Like most things technical, it took off first amongst young men who enjoy gadgets.... who happen also in general to be less concerned with what was going on previously. So does History now begin in 2000? Will western culture and destiny henceforth be shaped by what the second generation web tells us?

A hunch today saw me typing the words 'cyber.history' into the Google search engine. I suppose I was not surprised that there are almost 5000 entries listed for that exact phrase.

Developing the idea
One of the most interesting entries I looked at was John Stevenson's cyber history collection and timeline, in which he cites commentary going back to 1945 (!) on what has become the world wide web. This fascinating list includes, of course, the ground-breaking insights of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, including his 1992 CERN paper on World-Wide Web: The Information Universe.

If you're a historian or a social scientist (as I am) looking at the development of science and technology, this is a rich seam ; and one indeed in which, as second generation blogging develops, many of us play our own tiny micro-parts.

Generational and other divides?
Despite the rise of the silver surfer, non-technically-directed people with memories at least as long as mine still form a very small element within the www community.

For most young people the www is the first port of call when information and ideas are sought; and most easily accessible content on the www is probably posted by (relatively) young people. When put alongside the reality that the www became popularly available only in about 2000, it begins to look inevitable that the Millennium just past is where History starts.

An open network
As Tim Berners-Lee, who has steadfastly insisted the www should be an open network, said in 2006:

'We're not going to be trying to make a web that will be better for people who vote in a particular way, or better for people who think like we do.....The really important thing about the web, which will continue through any future technology, is that it is a universal space.'

Lee-Berner's remark was made in response to serious concerns that the internet might become an unpleasant place of anonymous rumour and malicious intent. And he is right to be so worried, before it really is too late.

Losing the past
I would add to that my own concern that the www has permitted us to forget how far western societies have come in the past few decades, let alone the past century. Right now, life truly is better for most of us in the developed democracies than it has ever been. But will this good fortune last? And can it be shared?

Losing our pre-Millennium reference points would also result in the loss, at a time when our culture is already very immediate, of our sense of what has worked to make the world better, and what perhaps has not. This loss would make it more difficult to sustain what's good and to improve what's not good or what looks worrying.

Learning for the future
Things reshape and evolve all the time. It's now 40 years since the last time 'history changed', in that surreal summer of 1968. For some who witnessed it, what the lessons are remains a matter of debate.

I still hope the www will help more people of every sort of experience and background share what they know and have observed. We have only to look at the work of political scientists and historians such as Peter Laslett to realise what a better understanding, say, of pre-industrial society might have done for many current social concerns.

Contemporary sharing might encourage us all to reflect just sometimes on the historical medium and longer term, and on how we can learn from it to sustain what we optimistically call 'progress'.


Read more articles on:
Hilary's Weblog
Communicating
Pre-History / Herstory (1950-)

Ratatouille Today marks the start of UK National Vegetarian Week. The arguments for a balanced vegetarian diet are persuasive - it 'saves' energy, it uses less carbon and water, it can respect the seasons, it has potential to make a huge contribution to resolving global hunger, and it's good for us. So how can we make vegetarianism more often the diet of choice?

Nobody expects an immediate cessation of meat production, let alone a stop right this minute to diary farming. Many people, admittedly not all, will be happy for now to see the continued consumption of vegetarian diets could just be 'meat-free', with all the benefits that would bring.

But one of the things National Vegetarian Week can do is introduce us to the wide and tasty range of foods which a vegetarian diet includes and the reasons for choosing it. And it can help raise awareness of how to prepare and cook vegetarian ingredients.

Long-term business
And, most importantly, perhaps National Vegetarian Week can help along the debate about how in reality the transition to a more sustainable food economy might happen. There have to be ways to protect the livelihoods, for instance, of people who currently produce meat, but who in the future will need to farm differently. Food production is self-evidently critical for us all. It's the nature of the product, not the supply, which must change.

At last we're beginning to act (albeit far too slowly) to the idea that carbon needs to be conserved in our industial, domestic and transport arrangements, as does water.

Canny investors have already realised that now is also the time to get a grasp on how to make meat-free food an integral part of the move towards what we all hope will be a sustainable future.


Read more about Food (a series of postings on this theme)
Food, Facts And Factoids
Beans Or Beef? The New Eco-Moral Choices
Seasonal Food - Who Knows About It?.

08.04.02 place laid for dinner 140x78 010a.jpg Food is rising rapidly up the agenda. Allotments, biofuels, calories, customs, eating disorders, famine, farming, fats, fibre, foodmiles, GM, health, organic, packaging, processing, salt, seasonal, security, sell-by, sustainability, vitamins, water.... Where do we begin with what to eat and drink?

Modern society has moved from food as nutrition and survival to food as an element of our leisure experience. Until recently it's been seen by many as an issue to be left to dieters or even ‘health freaks’.

But now people are beginning to ask what food's about. The immediate answer to this question could be, it’s all very confusing. There are 'facts' and there are, it seems, 'food factoids'; and there are some consequences for action, when we think things through....

Here are some general headings and questions about food which may help:


Nutrition (Should we eat it?)
Strange as it may seem, for most adults there is still more concern about calorific value and ‘losing weight’ than there is about the nutritional value of what we eat. Almost everyone wants to be slim; yet despite concerns in many parts of the world about obesity and health relatively few people actually eat their fruit and veg ‘Five A Day'.

We as consumers still don’t fully appreciate nutritional information or understand the significance for our health and well-being of salt and other minerals and vitamins, various sorts of fats, fibre, ‘additives’, sugar, glycaemic index, units of alcohol and so on; and in some respects nor, completely, do the experts.

The healthy eating message is beginning to sink in, but questions around nutritional labelling and how to project the public health message continue to loom large.


Children eat too (Is food for kids especially important?)
Even (especially) for children, the health impact of being overweight, along with issues around longer-term well-being and educational outcomes, are now major concerns, as Jamie Oliver and his School Dinners campaign keep reminding us.

It is not altogether clear however that poor children necessarily have ‘worse’ diets than better off ones – possibly because even wealthier children eat ‘the wrong things’, albeit from choice (kids of all sorts it seems won’t eat their greens). But perhaps some groups consume ‘nicer’ food than others, even though the direct nutritional value - or not - of food consumed by children may (sometimes) vary independently of income.

So what more if anything needs to be done about family eating patterns, or advertising food to children, on the television and elsewhere? How much value should we put on meals together as a way to promote family well-being and cohesion?

And how important, as a good start, is breast-feeding? Should we as a society do more to encourage it?

Or should we emphasise exercise more than nutrition, to protect children's physical and mental health?


Organic? GM? Nano? Sell-by date? (Is it wholesome?)
Confusion reigns when we look at the science behind modern food production.

Is organicWho says so, and why is it so pricey?) What about free-range? What's a superfood? And do superfoods really exist?

Has the product we're about to eat, or an antecedent of it, been genetically modified? Is that good or bad? – and for whom? consumers, farmers or other people in the developing world? Also, how has it changed the food?

What of new techniques? Are any food nanotechnologies involved? Whatever would they be for? Are they good or dangerous?

Who decides ‘sell-by’ dates? And by what criteria?

Can we trust the Food Standards Agency, the government and European legislation and everybody else involved in food regulation and statutory labelling? What about the consumer organisations and the supermarkets? Who knows best?


Presenting, preserving and not wasting our food (Is tinned OK and who needs packaging?)
How can we tell whether tinned food is as good as frozen or fresh? How much packaging is required for hygiene and how much is, for instance, simply there to make food look good?

What's the relative energy and resource cost of different ways of preserving food?

And, crucially, how can we ensure that food we buy is not wasted? At present one third of food purchased - in restaurants, shops or wherever - in the UK alone is simply thrown away: hence the Love Food Hate Waste campaign. Perhaps even with today's relatively higher prices we are more careful about food if we're locavors, when we know locally who grew or prepared it, and where, than when we don't?


Food miles (Does it cost the earth?)
Food travels the world in strange ways. We (in the UK) get tomatoes and lamb from the other side of the globe, yet we also grow them ourselves.

How to tell people usefully about the food mile cost of what they eat may be a moot point. It’s not just how many miles, or even carbon footprint: it takes some eight units of grain to produce one unit of beef; but some people still reckon that good value - including, no doubt, growing numbers of consumers in China and India, who have a preference for an affluent Western diet.

So sometimes the real cost or value can only be calculated by comparing what would happen if foods of equivalent nutritional or other sort of value were produced in a different way. And how would you put that on a label?


Biofuels (Is growing 'food for cars' acceptable?)
We all know that we're using too much oil, charging around in cars and planes when often we don't need to.

Biofuels seemed for a while to be the perfect way out of this - grow crops to substitute for more usual oils. But now, as the UK's Chief Scientist has said, we know there are costs too; some biofuels are neither sustainable, nor ethical.

And on top of this we must acknowledge that biofuels, like food for people, takes up valuable land space. The question is, what's the 'right' balance - if there is such a thing?


Water used (Will it increase global tensions?)
There is an emerging awareness that food is mainly water, and that water is the also the most precious (and sometimes wasted) commodity in its production.

If the beef-to-grain carbon ratio is high, the equivalent water ratio is many times more so. (Let us pass on the comlex issues around food for domestic animals and pets - there is an important balance to acknowledge here between these animals' functions as sources of security and comfort for people, and their costs to the environment - but who has looked at this balance?)

There are those who believe that water, not oil, will trigger the next global disputes; but as yet few of us have thought how to approach the global issues of water scarcity and food.


Food prices (Can we afford it?)
The cost of food against income has fallen for most of us in the first world over recent years. Now it’s beginning to increase again to more traditional levels – though it will probably stabilise - as global issues such as draught, climate change and biofuels impact on the market.

Food habits have changed from agrarian times, but often seem nonetheless to lag behind the reality of what's available, and may say more about cultural expectations or how a person ate when they were young, than about what's now regarded as 'best' for them (or, indeed, with modern advertising the converse may also be true on occasion).

Perhaps people need to know about less expensive and more nutritious alternative foods, if the ones they’re used to become more expensive, or may now be known to be less 'healthy'? But who can best tell them?


Commercial advantage and competition (Do supermarkets cause ‘food deserts?)
Allied to this is now a fear that supermarkets placed in disadvantaged or poor areas will result in so-called food deserts, where poor people can no longer afford to buy even the basics of a decent diet.

But some observers say that food deserts are really different types of access, or actually an urban myth or 'factoid'. Evidence for these food deserts is to date far inconclusive – indeed, some research indicates that when supermarkets come to poorer areas, both the economy and local people’s diets may improve.

So how can we indicate economic ‘value’ and nutritional benefit in the contexts of where people live, what they expect to eat and how they get access to their food?


Customs, symbols and traditions (What sort of foods for whom?)
Shared food has always been a way of bonding - we cut cakes and 'raise a glass', offer potlatch, drink tea and conduct many other ceremonies across the world to denote belief, position or togetherness.

Then there's the fascinating question of why different people in different places and at different times eat different sorts of food. Sometimes it's easy to explain - 'luxury' and difficult to obtain foods are reserved in almost all cultures and communities for conspicuous consumption on special occasions, for instance - but often there are other styles and patterns to eating too.

And what do we know about 'healthy' diets across the world? Why do people in some places live longer and fitter lives than others? What traditions and customs help us keep our communities intact? And is any of what we might learn about customs and habits of food consumption transposable from one community or culture to another?


Seasonal, allotments and home grown (Should we grow it ourselves?)
Locally produced foodin season' is the new mantra, but it can’t be the whole story. There are many localities which can’t provide the full spectrum of nutritional need. Varied diets often require varied sources.

Nonetheless, an appreciation of the cycles of nature helps us to understand how our food is produced and what makes it special. ‘Seasonal’ recipes draw attention to the possibility of ingredients with a low carbon footprint, just as allotments, smallholdings and local market gardens offer the possibility of learning about how what we eat grows.

Producing and sourcing food locally may not resolve all our problems, but they certainly have their place in the spectrum of things we as consumers can enjoy and need to know. How about allotments for everyone who wants one (there are long waiting lists in some places), and special efforts to grow – and eat - vegetables and fruit in schools and other community locations?


The food economy (How does all this fit into UK plc?)
There are many things to think about here; just ask the politicians, farmers and market gardeners. And that's before we get to talk about European subsidies and farming compensation packages...

That however is not the whole story. Slowly, we are grasping the interconnections between the economic impacts and needs of farmers and growers, and how official policies affect the welfare of the wider rural and urban economies. Never again, hopefully, will problems like foot and mouth be addressed without understanding the fragile complexities of the rural economy as such; and hopefully too in future the wider public will perceive the business and scientific complexities of matters such as animal vaccination.

But let’s understand that not all food needs to be produced in rural areas. There’s plenty of scope also for townspeople to develop opportunities and skills via commercial companies and social enterprises around food, as is evident from the popularity of city-based organic foodstores, local vegetable deliveries and farmers’ markets... not to mention the universal interest in restaurants and cafes in modern day society!


Food, farms and famine (What about the developing world?)
If opportunities for stabilising the food economy remain to be developed efficiently, effectively and well in Western economies, how much more so is this true for those parts of the globe where even the grain supply is critically under-resourced, and where water and food are in desperately short supply. These were the sorts of concerns of the Downing Street Food Summit in early 2008.

Many people would like reassurance that the food they purchase is ethically sourced and gives a fair return to the farmers who produced it. And we need to understand much more about the food supply chain, as Professor Tim Lang of the Centre for Food Policy has been saying for years.

Movements such as Fairtrade are gaining wider recognition – plus a greater share of commercial shelf-space - and are critical to our understanding of food as a global issue.


Sustainability and ‘food security’ (Will there be enough food for everyone?)
There are those who fear we are sleepwalking into a global food disaster. We need to find ways of adjusting our eating habits (and other consumption) without delay.

Currently it’s said that humankind acts a though we had three planets-worth of resources at our disposal, not just one. And that's before we start to look at how population is increasing (in the UK as well as almost everywhere else).

It is also suggested that, in contrast to the current situation, the UK (and doubtless numbers of other nations) could with ease be self-sufficient for food if everyone were vegetarian - even though our lifestyle in the Western world is many times as water and carbon intensive as that of people in developing countries. Veganism, of course, is even more effective as a way of feeding everyone. Becoming 'selfsufficient-ish' (and largely vegetarian-ish?) can be achieved in most, except perhaps the most extreme, locations.

These last few observations offer a rather pointed context for all the other matters discussed above.


Read more about Food
and about Sustainability As If People Mattered.

What questions and views do you have about food?

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