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Monday, November 17, 2008


I previously promised to come back to ex-MP Maria Fyfe's question during Professor McInnes lecture on how to get scientifica literacy among our political leaders & here are some suggestions:


1 - Scientist/engineer only party constituency selection shortlists. Women only shortlists in constituencies selecting new candidates have been very successful in increasing the number of women in Parliament & I would argue that getting people who understand how the modern world runs is of even greater importance. Personally I would prefer, instead of shortlists which are very controlling, having a loading of say 20% of the selection committee vote to anybody qualified (I would also be happy to see a negative 10% loading for lawyers of whom we have more than enough). The Chinese leadership consists disproportionately of engineers as ours does of lawyers & I do not think they are suffering as a result.

2 - Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Alex Salmond etc to say they actively want to recruit scientists & engineers to responsible positions in their parties. A little encouragement goes a long way.

3 - Change the civil service. Since the Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1854 Britain's civil service has been devoted to what is called the "cult of the generalist" which in fact means that those selected for promotion to its leadership, while very bright, must have studied classics at Oxbridge, & on no account have expertise in science, engineering or even accountancy. This is generally seen as being the triumph of the literary side of the British middle classes over those in "trade" &, I suspect not coincidentally, coincides with the start of the decline of the British Empire. This has been recognised for some time:

There was a concern (illustrated in C. P. Snow’s Strangers and Brothers series of novels) that technical and scientific expertise was mushrooming, to a point at which the “good all-rounder” culture of the administrative civil servant with a classics or other arts degree could no longer properly engage with it: as late as 1963, for example, the Treasury had just 19 trained economists....

Lord Fulton’s committee reported in 1968 . He found that administrators were not professional enough, and in particular lacked management skills; that the position of technical and scientific experts needed to be rationalised and enhanced; and that the service was indeed too remote. His 158 recommendations included the introduction of a unified grading system for all categories of staff, a Civil Service College and a central policy planning unit. He also said that control of the service should be taken from the Treasury, and given to a new Department, and that the “fast stream” recruitment process for accessing the upper echelons should be made more flexible, to encourage candidates from less privileged backgrounds.

.... whether through lack of political will, or through passive resistance by a mandarinate which the report had suggested were “amateurs”, Fulton failed.

Changing both recruitment & promotion to bring those with scientific, engineering & accountancy skills to the top would take at least a generation to work through but history suggests the effect would last far longer & we are rather overdue a reform.

4 - Life Peers. We were originally promised a mass of "people's peers" to be appointed to the Lords but in fact they all turned out to be drawn from the same old "great & good" they always had been. I propose instead they should be appointed on the same basis as the Nobels (the real ones not the "peace" one). This would give overdue public credit to science; put some world class brains, independent of party hackery, into the revising chamber of our legislature; & end the who scratched who's back system we have now.

5 - Take the appointment of government science advisers out of political hands. The government's Chief science Advisor is a political appointment & thus goes to a global warming alarmist. It is effectively a vehicle for government to give advice to science rather than the reverse as it should be. At the very least appointments should be made, as Church of England Bishops are, by a relevant committee (drawn from the Royal Society) who send 2 names to the PM for him to choose between (actually for him to recommend the Queen to choose which is why constitutional monarchy has its points).


6 - Appoint science journalists from people who know science rather than who know only journalism. It is perhaps understandable that editors tend to select some eager young journalist & tell him to go & get something printable, since editors themselves are journalists, but it does mean that silliness drives out sense. A sort of Gresham's Law of journalism, except there was no good reporting to be driven out in the first place. I note Roger Harrabin, the BBC's "environmental expert" did his degree in English before becoming a journalist.

7 - Stop using all those dreadful "research reports" produced by asking 50 people to fill in questionnaires on sex or smoking or obesity & then announcing that this proves we are all having more/less sex, food or cigarettes & that in 100 years will all be 25 tons.

8 - Publish an equally prominent correction when proven to have been publishing rubbish (this should apply on other subjects too).

9 - Lets have Tommorrow's World back to at least give us an optimistic outlook.


10 Publicly lobby for the above.

11 - As above but moreso. Professional respect in any field is earned by making an unholy nuisance of yourself when wronged. The Royal Society (I disapprove of their addiction to the warming scam but this will pass & their historical record is second to none) should write to every newspaper that publishes lies or scientific illiteracy & point out the correct facts, complaining to the Press council if the letter doesn't get published. They should be willing to publicly point out when a senior politician says something scientifically illiterate like Michael Meacher saying nuclear is more expensive than windmills. Respect has to be fought for to be earned or retained.

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