As I read Mark Henderson’s new book “The Geek Manifesto” I found my mood alternating between enormous optimism and nagging pessimism. Perhaps this is spot on for a book that seeks to inspire geeks (and I would count myself within this group) to action; at times it is inspiring, at others the challenge to make a difference seems overwhelming. But while in some senses the book covers familiar ground, it does an excellent job in bringing together material and arguments in a form that is clear and inspiring. As I read, there were some broad issues that I kept returning to. These aren’t criticisms of the book, as such, but areas were I think there is some room for further reflection and debate.

  • Science or evidence? A key thrust of the argument in the book is that policy-making should be better informed by assessment of the evidence, and Henderson is careful to remind us on a number of occasions that this evidence often stretches beyond the boundaries of the natural sciences. The word ‘science’ is often, though, used as a shortcut for ‘evidence’ and there is a risk that some will take this shortcut seriously. Similarly, the importance of factors beyond the evidence in guiding political decision-making are mentioned, but the take-home may again be that science trumps everything else. And there is certainly a strong thrust through the book that the scientific method is centrally important, especially in the guise of randomised trials. While I don’t disagree that there are opportunities to use these approaches more in public policy, it is also important not to discourage other types of analytical approach (qualitative social science, or historical analysis, for example) and to avoid developing a false hierarchy of approaches to evidence.
  • Ethics. This is a book about ethics in the sense that it is concerned very much with ‘doing the right thing’. For me, a strong utilitarian ethic underpins the argument suggesting that we need to formulate policies that are in the interests of the majority. I am sympathetic to this argument, but I think it is important to acknowledge that there is considerable debate about this ethical approach and it is relatively easy to construct scenarios where a strict adherence to utilitarian ethics raises real dilemmas. Alternative ethical approaches, like rights-based ethics, would take a rather different approach to many of the issues covered. For example, should people have the right to choose homeopathic treatment if that’s what they want? I think we need to open up debates like this, which sit uncomfortably with the strict evidence-led approach.
  • Evidence-based science policy. A really important point that Henderson stresses, but that bears repeating, is that it is essential that the geeks are themselves always strictly evidence-led. Nowhere is this more important than in the field of science and innovation policy, where we need to be zealous in demanding the highest quality evidence to inform policy. And implicit in this, is that we need to follow the evidence even if it disagrees with our preconceptions and prejudices. This is, after all, what being evidence-led is all about. I am not convinced that the scientific community is always as open to evidence about its own practice as it ought to be. I also wonder whether the research community would be supportive of randomised trials if, say, the Research Councils were to suggest that a new policy approach would be applied to a random sample of research grant applications to investigate how well it worked. But maybe I am wrong about this.

Overall, I would strongly recommend “The Geek Manifesto“. It’s a good read, very thought-provoking and an excellent contribution to the debate about evidence and policy.

I will be debating these and other points with Mark Henderson, James Wilsdon and others on Tuesday 29 May at the Science Policy Research Unit in Sussex University. Come and join in!

 

There is an understandable focus on the future in science policy discussions. We are often concerned with how investment in science and other research will contribute to future economic growth, health and well-being, and sustainable development. How should we invest now to bring about the future we want to see? What types of science should we support? How should that science be conducted? But the evidence that we draw upon is often about the past. What has been the result of previous investment? What impact did policies or the environment have previously? The science of science policy is largely a historical science.

Too often the analysis of the past that is used in discussions about science policy is flawed, based on anecdote or partial and distorted narratives. These stories are modified to fit present prejudice and don’t always provide the reliable representation of the past that we need for evidence-based policy making for science.

The Haldane Principle is a classic example of a myth about science policy itself. It is held up as the great bastion of UK science policy, but often without a critical analysis of where it comes from or its history. This thorough essay by David Edgerton should be compulsory reading for all researchers and people working in science policy. The result of this lack of historical context is that debates hinge around the adherence, or not, to this mythical principle which casts scientific decision making into an us (scientists) versus them (politicians) framework. Instead we need to replace this with a more nuanced debate about decision making that recognises that there are many other voices to be balanced in the question of who decides on science.

Poor understanding of the historical context also leads to inaccurate notions of how scientific discovery has happened in the past. There is a persistent narrative that science contributes most when scientists are left to pursue their curiosity, unencumbered by considerations of application. But is this really always true?

No. For example, there is an excellent discussion of Maxwell’s work on electromagnetism by Simon Schaffer in Nature from last year. Two quotes sum up the conclusions:

Maxwell’s magnificent work of the 1860s is an excellent example. Rather than a stately progression from abstract theory to solid application, it was the product of a web of markets, technologies, labs and calculators in the workshop of the world.

In sum, On Physical Lines of Force is an odd text to use as example of the unyielding purity of physical science. Maxwell’s formulae did not appear in their most familiar form until almost 25 years after its publication. The four famous equations linking electromagnetic forces and fluxes owe their elegant and economical vector form to a brilliant London telegraphist, Oliver Heaviside. He published them in 1885 in The Electrician, a trade journal for electrical engineers and businessmen.

As Peter Medawar wrote in the 1960s, we need to be careful not to get carried away by an excessively romantic notion of the pursuit of science. His thinking was explained and amplified by Tom Webb recently.

Sound analysis is also important in understanding how innovation has worked in the past. For example challenge prizes for innovation are often mentioned in the context of Harrison and the Longitude Prize. But as the Board of Longitude project shows the story is rather more complicated than is often appreciated, and even that “There was no such thing as the Longitude Prize“.

Historical evidence is important for the development of science policy, but we need to make sure it is the best evidence available. Experts in the history of science have a key role to play in the policy-making process of today.

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