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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The UK must reflect on its own role in stoking tension over North Korea

World powers should follow the conciliatory approach of South Korea, not its tempestuous neighbour. 

South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in has done something which took enormous bravery. As US and North Korean leaders rattle their respective nuclear sabres at one another, Jae-in called for negotiations and a peaceful resolution, rejecting the kind of nationalist and populist response preferred by Trump and Kim Jong-un.

In making this call, Jae-in has chosen the path of most resistance. It is always much easier to call for one party in a conflict to do X or Y than to sit round a table and thrash through the issues at hand. So far the British response has sided largely with the former approach: Theresa May has called on China to clean up the mess while the foreign secretary Boris Johnson has slammed North Korea as “reckless”.

China undoubtedly has a crucial role to play in any solution to the North and South Korean conflict, and addressing the mounting tensions between Pyongyang and Washington but China cannot do it alone. And whilst North Korea’s actions throughout this crisis have indeed been reckless and hugely provocative, the fact that the US has flown nuclear capable bombers close to the North Korean border must also be condemned. We should also acknowledge and reflect on the UK’s own role in stoking the fires of tension: last year the British government sent four Typhoon fighter jets to take part in joint military exercises in the East and South China seas with Japan. On the scale of provocation, that has to rate pretty highly too.

Without being prepared to roll up our sleeves and get involved in complex multilateral negotiations there will never be an end to these international crises. No longer can the US, Britain, France, and Russia attempt to play world police, carving up nations and creating deals behind closed doors as they please. That might have worked in the Cold War era but it’s anachronistic and ineffective now. Any 21st century foreign policy has to take account of all the actors and interests involved.

Our first priority must be to defuse tension. I urge PM May to pledge that she will not send British armed forces to the region, a move that will only inflame relations. We also need to see her use her influence to press both Trump and Jong-un to stop throwing insults at one another across the Pacific Ocean, heightening tensions on both sides.

For this to happen they will both need to see that serious action - as opposed to just words - is being taken by the international community to reach a peaceful solution. Britain can play a major role in achieving this. As a member of the UN Security Council, it can use its position to push for the recommencing of the six party nuclear disarmament talks involving North and South Korea, the US, China, Russia, and Japan. We must also show moral and practical leadership by signing up to and working to enforce the new UN ban on nuclear weapons, ratified on 7 July this year and voted for by 122 nations, and that has to involve putting our own house in order by committing to the decommissioning of Trident whilst making plans now for a post-Trident defence policy. It’s impossible to argue for world peace sat on top of a pile of nuclear weapons. And we need to talk to activists in North and South Korea and the US who are trying to find a peaceful solution to the current conflict and work with them to achieve that goal.

Just as those who lived through the second half of the 20th century grew accustomed to the threat of a nuclear war between the US and Russia, so those of us living in the 21st know that a nuclear strike from the US, North Korea, Iran, or Russia can never be ruled out. If we want to move away from these cyclical crises we have to think and act differently. President Jae-in’s leadership needs to be now be followed by others in the international community. Failure to do so will leave us trapped, subject to repeating crises that leave us vulnerable to all-out nuclear war: a future that is possible and frightening in equal measure.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.