Should scientists be bolder in public?

Is it the role of science to be brave and pick a side, or just to ask the searching questions?

I spoke at the London Climate Forum this weekend. This is a rough sketch of what I said.

Jeremy Grantham is the investor behind the “Grantham Institute” centres for climate change research at Imperial and the LSE. He recently wrote a provocative opinion piece for Nature, arguing:

Overstatement may generally be dangerous in science (it certainly is for careers) but for climate change, uniquely, understatement is even riskier and therefore, arguably, unethical. It is crucial that scientists take more career risks and sound a more realistic, more desperate, note on the global-warming problem. Younger scientists are obsessed by thoughts of tenure, so it is probably up to older, senior and retired scientists to do the heavy lifting. Be arrested if necessary. This is not only the crisis of your lives — it is also the crisis of our species’ existence. I implore you to be brave.

It’s a bold statement. But possibly not a fair one. As Roger Pielke Jr quipped, “how about you go first?“ More to the point, perhaps, many scientists recoiled from the suggestion, not simply because they lacked the courage or conviction of their work, but because they felt that isn’t a productive way to do science in public. People’s ideas of science vary, but to many it is not about boldly delivering anything, but asking questions.

And yet, perhaps Grantham has a point that climate is different. It’s more urgent, and there are more than enough people external to science ready to pounce and amplify your understatement for you. It’s surrounded by a very different political narrative of certainty and doubt than, for example, BSE. It’d be wrong to build a policy of scientific advice for climate based on models constructed in another crisis. Further, one might argue that climate science as a community is a bit too reticent, a bit too quick to hide (at least compared to other actors in the field), perhaps because the scientists who are currently at the most senior levels came into it before it was such a high profile political issue; they didn’t sign up for this.

In many ways, this isn’t a new dilemma. One might even say it’s the basic paucity of scepticism, the evental emptiness of doubt: At some point, you have to believe in something and act, or you do nothing. That doesn’t mean we have to be stuck though, it’s just a matter of deciding when you do choose to put questions to one side and act.

I don’t think we should be prescriptive about what scientists do here. If some would rather focus on uncertainty, fine, but equally I don’t think we should necessarily admonish those who take their work more boldly to the streets either (for one thing, that plays into stories those working against scientific advice would seek to promote: who are we really serving when we do such scolding?). That’s not to say we can’t critique individual actions we disagree with, but I’d like to think science is big and diverse enough to cover a range of approaches to science in society, and that we should be ok with that. If anything, we should celebrate and foster diversity of political attitude and approach. There’s a lot more to scientists in society than simply those who speak out and those who don’t; there are different ways to speak, a range of frames and a diversity of possible audiences. As Pielke Jr argues in his book The Honest Broker, their are various models for scientific advice one might choose, the important thing is scientists do pick one approach, and do so consciously  thinking about which they apply, when and why.

I’m not sure I agree with Grantham’s focus on senior scientists, although they will have to be more accepting of such an approach if younger, less senior ones are to be involved too. This kind of work doesn’t just have to be done scientists either, but other members of the scientific community: educators, public engagement officers, artists, psychologists, sociologists, writers, press officers, storytellers, filmmakers, all sorts. (Yes, these people are part of the scientific community – broadly defined – and many are very skilled too).

We just don’t see enough of this activity applied to climate science. And so, I’d say if Grantham really wants a stronger public discourse on climate science, he should put his money where his mouth is and fund some. There used to be the Grantham Prize for journalism, the funding for which was recently shifted to training journalists, but journalism is only one part of the sort of work needed here. I would like to see a much larger project of investment in a larger range of climate communications. (I think it should be funded by the government, but that’s another fight). I know way too many science communication people who deliberately frame their ideas to have a biomedical theme so they can apply to Wellcome public engagment grants. If Grantham helped put together a climate version, I’m sure many would shift their energies, and that’d probably be a lot more productive in the long run than front page photos of Brian Hoskins occupying an oil rig.

This post first appeared on Alice Bell's blog here.

Climate change protestors in St Andrews. Photograph: Getty Images

Alice Bell is an academic and writer interested in the social side of science. She currently works as a researcher at a university in the south of England, but blogs in a personal capacity here.  She tweets as @alicebell.

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Michael Gove's quiet revolution could transform prisoner education

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate.

Justice Secretary Michael Gove is quietly embarking on the most substantive prison education reform programme for a generation. In September, Gove announced that Dame Sally Coates would chair a review of the provision and quality of education in prisons, the results of which are expected shortly.

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate. In 2014, Ofsted reported that education levels across the British prison system were inadequate, suggesting that “very few prisoners are getting the opportunity to develop the skills and behaviours they need for work.” Between 2011/12 and 2013/14 the number of prisoners achieving a level 1 or 2 qualification in Mathematics fell by a third, and since 2010 the number of prisoners studying for an Open University degree has dropped by 37%.

In light of these damning statistics, Gove’s calls for prisons to become “places of education” is to be welcomed. The most obvious result of improved opportunities for training and education is that upon leaving prison offenders will be more likely to secure employment and less likely to reoffend. Less tangible, but no less important, limited opportunities for education hinder aspiration and prevent the justice system from acting as a conduit to improving society at large. Too often offenders are unable to develop their potential as citizens and contribute accordingly. Education is a powerful force in building offenders’ confidence and helping to engage with their communities upon release: helping to break the cycle of offending.

In tandem with enhanced opportunities for education, skills and training, Gove has promised greater autonomy for prison governors. Currently, the Skills Funding Agency manages the Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) to connect offender education with mainstream provision. Speaking before the APPG on Penal Affairs, Dame Sally suggested that “many governors feel very frustrated by their lack of ability to have any say in the education delivered.  If we want the governors to be accountable, they have to have the autonomy to contract for this for themselves, or employ their own teaching staff.”

The principle of increased flexibility is a good one. A significant minority of prisoners already have qualifications and require opportunity to build upon them. The education pathways available to them will be quite different to those offenders who enter prison with limited numeracy and literacy skills. However, the high-profile failure of private suppliers to deliver even the most basic services, raises questions as to whether major outsourcing firms will be able to provide these.

In 2014, A4E prematurely pulled out of a £17m contract to deliver education and training to prisoners in 12 London prisons on the grounds that it was unable to run the contract at a profit. This was not the first time that A4E had prematurely terminated a prison education contract. In 2008 the firm ended a similar contract to provide education in eight Kent prisons, again citing huge losses.

Recognising such failures, the Prime Minister has argued that his government’s reform program would “allow new providers and new ideas to flourish”, but the steps to achieving this are unclear. Identifying the difficulty smaller providers – particularly those from the third sector – currently have in winning and delivering contracts is a far easier task than redesigning the contracting system to improve their chances.

There are three steps that could act as a starting point. First, a review of commissioning to ensure a plurality of providers, particularly from small and medium-sized organisations should be considered, with payments-by-results the favoured means of remuneration. Second, providers and experts should be empowered to contribute to the reform process that follows the Coates Review’s publication. Third, it is clear that while a universal standard of education must be set, providers and governors should be empowered to experiment and innovate to seek results above this. In sacrificing universality it may be possible to improve methods and achieve better results in future.

Reforming the prison system is not a task that will be easy, nor one that will be quick. To ensure its long-term success it is vital that education and skills providers’ voices are heard and that the government develops forums through which ideas can be shared. For too long talent, resources and time have been wasted through mismanagement and poor provision. Now is the time to reverse this and ensure that the justice system delivers rehabilitation and improved educational outcomes.