To be a scientist, you need a well-rounded education

Of late, science has demonstrated why all types of knowledge lead to discoveries.

Science has been demonstrating the value of a broad education. Let’s start with classics. If you’ve read your Herodotus you’ll know that Persian kings insisted on drinking water that was transported in silver containers because they would keep the water fresh. The water supplies on the International Space Station are fed through silver for exactly the same reason.

Now, nearly two and a half thousand years after Hippocrates described the healing properties of silver, we know how it works. A team at Boston University has shown that, when dissolved, silver ions will get inside the bacterium and send its oxygen-generating machinery into overdrive, making the bug self-destruct.

Clearly, dissolved silver ions have been doing a great job throughout history and we can now expect even more. The Boston team showed that silver ions will also lever open the membranes surrounding various microbes, allowing antibiotic medicines to penetrate the bug’s defences. A dose of silver seems to disable many bugs’ resistance to our drugs: there is now talk of the ancients’ antibiotic getting us out of the terrifying growth of antibiotic resistance.

It’s worth sounding a note of caution here. For years, proponents of alternative medicine have been pushing “colloidal silver”, a suspension of microscopic silver particles, as a treatment for everything from cancer to haemorrhoids. However, European regulators and the US Food and Drug Administration have banned any over-the-counter sales because in most scenarios the best it will do is turn your skin a purple-grey as the silver ions accumulate in your body.

As unsightly physical afflictions go, the effects of a silver overdose are right up there with the Black Death, which has also caught the attention of scientists – though this time it’s a history lesson. The bacterium that wiped out half of Europe’s population between 1347 and 1351 is still around. However, it doesn’t seem particularly deadly to modern scientific eyes, which makes the virulence somewhat puzzling. That puzzle is about to be solved: thanks to a newly developed technique, scientists are studying the genomes of the various strains of plague bacterium. The hope is that the insights gained will warn us about which subtle changes to pathogens in our environment could lead to widespread modern-day epidemics.

Thanks to the same new technique, we also now have the complete genome sequence of a leprosy bug carried by a young Danish woman who died 700 years ago. The makeup of the medieval bacterium, published in the 14 June issue of Sciencemagazine, is remarkably similar to what we know of the make-up of modern leprosy bacteria. That means the Danish leper may well help us find new treatments.

Finally, religious studies. The writer of Ecclesiastes said there’s nothing new under the sun, and the US National Institutes of Health has decided that it’s a good piece of advice. The NIH has instigated a programme which suggests that the best way of speeding the discovery of new drugs is to repurpose the old ones. Drugs that passed safety tests but were abandoned for reasons of efficacy or profitability are being tried in previously unexplored applications. So far, the search has unearthed candidates for treating conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, alcohol and nicotine addiction and muscular dystrophy. The drugs will now go into animal studies and clinical trials; researchers hope that some will reach the market in a few years’ time.

Various Roman artefacts, including a metal water container. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At The Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science By Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.