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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Overlooking the effect of Brexit on Northern Ireland is dangerous for the whole UK

We voted to remain in the European Union. The tensions caused by the referendum outcome, and ignoring its effect on us, will cause utter carnage in Northern Ireland.

I’ve been from Northern Ireland all my life. Having spent many years living in Dublin, and now London, I’m quite used to that very fact making people uncomfortable. I get it. From a glance at the news, it would seem we fight each other about flags and anthems and are inexcusably proud of throwing glass at people in bowler hats, or daubing on our own homes the worst paintings ever committed to brickwork. Our tiny little protectorate has generated such disproportionate levels of confusing violence, most people are terrified of saying the wrong thing about any of it. We’re the celiac vegans of nationalities; the worry is that almost anything you offer will offend.

Most people avoid such worries by – whisper it – simply never acknowledging that we exist. This reflexive forgetfulness is, of course, a happy state of affairs compared to what went before. I refer, of course, to the period named, with that Ulster-tinged strain of sardonic understatement, the Troubles, when some 3,600 people were killed and ten times that injured. By some estimates, as many as 115,000 people lost a close relative to violence in this time, and many more a good friend, a colleague or an old school pal. Taken as a portion of 1.5m people, this means a startlingly high percentage of Northern Irish citizens have been directly affected by the conflict, certainly a higher percentage than that of, say, the English electorate who have ever voted for Ukip.

Northern Ireland also contains Britain’s only fully open border with the EU. I know because I grew up on it, specifically between Derry and Donegal, where my dad's back fence demarked an invisible boundary, a small hop from the UK to the Republic, and back. From a migration point of view, this poses a problem, so when Brexit was being deliberated, it did seem odd that Northern Ireland was barely mentioned at all, that the one border that exists in the entire country was given such scant reference during the campaign’s interminable duration. A dreaded EU migrant, travelling freely through Ireland toward my father’s house will not be subject to border checks once he has passed it quietly behind him. No machine guns, no "papers please", none of the fortified rigour mandated by the Leave campaign. Implementing such fortifications would, of course, be a practical nightmare, since so many live in Ireland but work in the UK, and vice versa. But the psychological effect of such a move would be infinitely worse.


Much of the Good Friday Agreement was predicated on free movement between north and south, and cross-border bodies that reinforced a soft-union of the two states; just enough to ameliorate nationalists, but nothing so resembling a united Ireland as to antagonise unionists. Making Irish-identifying Northern Irish citizens undergo any form of border checkpoint between the two countries would not just be a bureaucratic hassle, it would massively inhibit the self-determination nearly half of Northern Ireland's population takes from both countries’ status within a wider European state.

The peace that exists rests largely on this status quo, the acceptance of people who reject violent means and see little injustice in being allowed to live their lives within a British state that dignifies their close connection to their southern neighbours. It is hard to overstate how different this situation would be were armed checkpoints to re-emerge. I remember checkpoints as a child. I remember machine guns and dogs and my dad making sure we weren't nervous while he was being interrogated by armed men inspecting his driving license and checking under our car for explosives. This was every day. Rather than some novel development, this will be a direct, unbidden return to something we worked very, very hard to get away from, something we were promised was over, and something for which thousands of very stubborn, dangerous people struck what many considered a highly improbable truce.

It is this effort to which thousands of Northern Irish people now owe their lives, to which tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands more can count among the living and healthy their siblings, their friends, their colleagues. This may not be at the forefront of minds in Carlisle or Cornwall or aboard the statesmanlike grandeur of a battlebus, but it is the lived reality of Northern Irish people. To stoke up these tensions risks sleepwalking out of a peace that was hard-fought and long considered unthinkable. To do so as a side effect of what appears to be, on its face, little more than a tussle for the leadership of a single political party with little-to-no presence in Northern Ireland seems distasteful in the extreme.

Having stating these facts to friends here in London, I’ve been touched by their sorrow for our plight but, for all their sympathy, it might still not have registered that our problems have a tradition of travelling to people in London and Dublin, in Birmingham and in Monaghan. If greater care is not given to the thoughts, aspirations and fears of Northern Irish people, and those still-present agents of chaos who would seek to use such discontent to their own violent ends, we risk losing a lot more than free use of bagpipes or pleasingly bendy bananas.

Westminster must listen to those who would bear the burden of Fortress Britain’s turrets near their homes or else, to borrow a phrase, Brexit will be a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family's security.

Séamas O'Reilly is a writer and musician. He tweets @shockproofbeats. His website is shocko.info.