Category Archives: Science communication

2008 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures: Professor Chris Bishop

The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, started by Michael Faraday in 1825, are one of the highlights of science communication specifically aimed at young people to be broadcast on national television. I distinctly remember watching the Christmas Lectures when I was young, in particular Richard Dawkins in 1991 and Frank Close in 1993. The 2013 Christmas Lectures — Life Fantastic — have Alison Woollard from the University of Oxford exploring the frontiers of developmental biology and uncovering the remarkable transformation of a single cell into a complex organism.

Unsurprisingly, I am always reminded of the single instance in 2008 of a computer scientist presenting the Christmas Lectures: Hi-tech Trek with Chris Bishop, a Distinguished Scientist at Microsoft Research Cambridge, where he leads the Machine Learning and Perception group:

Christopher Bishop


From the origin of the microprocessor to the development of the internet, the field of computer science has literally changed the way in which we live our lives.

But the world of computers is vast and complicated, ranging from the architecture of microchips to use of quantum mechanics for data encryption – it’s not always easy to know what exactly is going on inside the box. So how do computers work? How is so much information stored within a single hard-drive and how do computers communicate with each other over the internet?

Across five lectures, Professor Chris Bishop sheds light on some of these questions by tracing the evolution of the modern computer. Along the way he explores the many technologies which have developed as a result of the computer revolution; including the interconnected world of the internet, the use of software to control hardware and the challenges involved in creating artificial intelligence.

You can watch all five episodes of the 2008 Lectures on the excellent Ri Channel (as well as extra resources on the microsite):

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BBC Four: The Joy of Logic

Catch The Joy of Logic by Dave Cliff on iPlayer before it disappears! Programme blurb:


A sharp, witty, mind-expanding and exuberant foray into the world of logic with computer scientist Professor Dave Cliff. Following in the footsteps of the award-winning ‘The Joy of Stats’ and its sequel, ‘Tails You Win — The Science of Chance’, this film takes viewers on a new rollercoaster ride through philosophy, maths, science and technology — all of which, under the bonnet, run on logic.

Wielding the same wit and wisdom, animation and gleeful nerdery as its predecessors, this film journeys from Aristotle to Alice in Wonderland, sci-fi to supercomputers to tell the fascinating story of the quest for certainty and the fundamentals of sound reasoning itself.

Dave Cliff, professor of computer science and engineering at Bristol University, is no abstract theoretician. 15 years ago he combined logic and a bit of maths to write one of the first computer programs to outperform humans at trading stocks and shares. Giving away the software for free, he says, was not his most logical move…

With the help of 25 seven-year-olds, Professor Cliff creates, for the first time ever, a computer made entirely of children, running on nothing but logic. We also meet the world’s brainiest whizz-kids, competing at the International Olympiad of Informatics in Brisbane, Australia.

‘The Joy of Logic’ also hails logic’s all-time heroes: George Boole who moved logic beyond philosophy to mathematics; Bertrand Russell, who took 360+ pages but heroically proved that 1 + 1 = 2; Kurt Godel, who brought logic to its knees by demonstrating that some truths are unprovable; and Alan Turing, who, with what Cliff calls an ‘almost exquisite paradox’, was inspired by this huge setback to logic to conceive the computer.

Ultimately, the film asks, can humans really stay ahead? Could today’s generation of logical computing machines be smarter than us? What does that tell us about our own brains, and just how ‘logical’ we really are…?

(you might also like this In Our Time programme on the history of logic from 2010 or this BBC Science Café programme on logic I was a guest on in 2011)

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Winchester Science Festival 2013

Yesterday I spoke at the 2013 Winchester Science Festival, a fantastic weekend of science communication and science education with some excellent speakers. My talk was entitled “Computing: The Science of Nearly Everything” (slides), which attempted to reset the perception of computer science: highlighting the importance of computer science education (in particular the wide utility of programming) and how modern science and engineering increasingly leverages computation.

Précis: We have seen how computational techniques have moved on from assisting scientists in doing science, to transforming both how science is done and what science is done (also see this Royal Society report). Thus, perhaps we should value the increasingly cross-cutting and interdisciplinary field of computer science, as well as computational literacy from school through to postgraduate research skills training.

Dr Tom Crick opening slide

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(you can also see other photos from the 2013 Winchester Science Festival, including me doing silly gestures)

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We’ve sold Computer Science, now we have to sell what it means to be a Computer Scientist…

Last week was an exceptional week for computer science education in the UK: Google donating 15,000 Raspberry Pis to UK schoolchildren, Microsoft calling for computer science to be taught from primary school, the Department for Education including computer science in the EBacc as the “fourth science” and UCAS 2013 entry statistics showing the highest increase in total applications for Computer Sciences (up 12.3%). This follows on from the launch of the CAS Network of Computer Science Teaching Excellence in September, the publication in November of the draft ICT Programme of Study for England and the announcement in January of a review of the ICT curriculum in Wales, reporting back in June.

So it appears we’ve sold the rigorous academic discipline of computer science; but not to simply increase the supply of programmers for the IT industry or to get more people to study computer science at university — the rationale has always been based upon computer science being of wider educational value to everyone, in the same way as we value physics and mathematics. But after a discussion with Pete Yeomans (@ethinking) at the CAS fringe event at Bett 2013 last week, it appears that we are now facing a more subtle and refined challenge:

This is the real (marketing?) challenge: to truly change the wider perception of the discipline, we now have to sell what it really means to be a computer scientist, how to think like a computer scientist and the universal potential of this mindset.

And everyone needs to understand and value this.

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We need a scientifically literate citizenry

Our species needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works.

Carl Sagan (1934-1996)

Brian Cox said something similar (even directly referring to Sagan) during his acceptance speech on receiving the Institute of Physics President’s Medal last night.

The key message is: if you’re scientifically literate the world looks very different to you.

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The successful Welsh Geek Manifesto Pledge

In June, Chris Chambers and I started the Welsh Geek Manifesto Pledge, a declaration to send a copy of Mark Henderson‘s The Geek Manifesto to all 60 Assembly Members of the National Assembly of Wales.

Success! Yesterday, we received the final pledge and are collecting the donations. We are currently planning an event to maximise the impact of the delivery of the 60 copies of The Geek Manifesto to the National Assembly in Cardiff Bay (more details to follow shortly).

N.B. The Welsh Geek Manifesto Pledge followed the original Geek Manifesto Pledge for the 650 MPs in Westminster; there are open pledges in Northern Ireland (“Geekmanifulster”), Scotland (GeekScotland) and Australia (Geek the Vote).

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Cardiff Science Festival 2012

CSF banner

July 2012 marks the return of Cardiff Science Festival (a.k.a. Gŵyl Gwyddoniaeth Caerdydd), after a break of nearly seven years. Science festivals are popping up all over the country, especially with the popularity of Cheltenham Science Festival and the long-running British Science Festival (this year taking place in Aberdeen), so it’s about time Cardiff put itself back on the science map.

So, starting Monday 9th July, Cardiff will play host to a spectacular line-up of scientists and science communicators from across the UK in a range of science-themed events, lectures, exhibitions, music and comedy shows across the city. There are more than forty family and adult events over the week, including a few in which I am taking part:

It’s shaping up to be an excellent week! While the majority of the events are free, many require registration, so please check the CSF website, as well as @CdfScienceFest on Twitter, for the latest news, information and updates.

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BCS Education Bursary projects announced

Today, the BCS Academy of Computing announced the successful applicants of the BCS Education Bursaries, which aim to promote computer science as an academic discipline, in celebration of Alan Turing’s centenary year.

Over 200 schools, colleges and universities applied for the £30,000 fund and I had the pleasure of being on the judging panel, an exceptionally difficult process with so many high quality applications. After several hours of debate, we were able to fund 31 projects across the UK that we believe will enthuse and engage the next generation of technologists about computer science. A brief description of the successful projects can be found here.

I’d like to say a massive congratulations to the successful projects; I’m looking forward to seeing what impact they have over the next year!

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The Welsh Geek Manifesto Pledge

Further to The Geek Manifesto Pledge by Dave Watts, which has successfully pledged to put a copy of The Geek Manifesto on the desks of all 650 Members of Parliament, Chris Chambers and I have made the following pledge for science in Wales:

I will personally deliver 60 copies of The Geek Manifesto to the National Assembly for Wales, but only if 59 other people will help buy the books.

Chris, a psychologist/neuroscientist at Cardiff University, had already sent a copy of the book to our MP, Cardiff Central’s Jenny Willott. We met up for a beer a few weeks ago and resolved to send a copy of the book to all of the 60 Assembly Members in the National Assembly for Wales. We think this is an eminently achievable task and would present a great opportunity to reiterate the importance of science in the formulation of policy in Wales, especially in light of the publication of the Science for Wales strategy in March 2012.

Please sign the pledge and spread the word across Wales! We are currently planning how to maximise the impact of delivering 60 copies of the book to the National Assembly in Cardiff Bay.

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The Geek Manifesto Pledge

I highly recommend Mark Henderson‘s The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters; it is a remarkable book (see reviews here). The use of the sometimes pejorative term “geek” in the title should not trivialise the overriding message of the book: a compelling call for the scientific method to become intimately embedded into the political process (see a useful summary of this in Henderson’s recent CaSE blog post). As Stephen Curry succinctly puts it in his excellent review, while many of its themes are not new, it is difficult to imagine such a book being published as recently as five years ago.

Following an example described in the book, Dave Watts is using the PledgeBank website to send a copy of the book to all 650 MPs. Last week, Henderson confirmed that the publisher of The Geek Manifesto, Transworld Books, will match every individual pledge made. As of today, 242 people (including myself and many other geeks you may have heard of) have already signed up.

The book is currently selling on Amazon for £9.87, so by agreeing to spend a tenner — and spreading the word — you will ensure that a copy lands on the desk of two MPs once enough pledges have been collected. You can pledge to send a book here.

UPDATE: it appears that Chris Chambers, a psychologist at Cardiff University, has already sent a copy of the book to our MP, Cardiff Central’s Jenny Willott (Lib Dem). Perhaps we should consider doing the same thing for the 60 AMs in the National Assembly for Wales?

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Hack To The Future

h2df

I recently had the pleasure of being a keynote speaker at Hack To The Future, organised by Alan O’Donohoe (a.k.a. @teknoteacher) and held at his school, Our Lady’s Catholic High School in Preston.

Hack To The Future was pitched as an unconference to inspire the digital creators of tomorrow, attempting to introduce the wonders of computer science to over 250 children (in many cases, for the first time). Alongside the main keynotes from Samantha Bail (Manchester Girl Geeks), Jon Howard (Development Manager for Games in BBC Children’s Future Media) and an anonymous ethical hacker known only as Freaky Clown, there were a large number of breakout sessions, including: building fun things with Nanodes, creating games in HTML5, building a digital camera with the Microsoft .NET Gadgeteer, programming apps with YOUSRC, 3D printing, non-transitive dice, computer-controlled pyrotechnics and an unofficial peek at the new BBC Micro 2 development platform. In fact, there was great support from the BBC, with representatives from across BBC Learning and BBC R&D, as well as a roving camera crew recording the day’s events.

I had the honour of giving the final closing keynote (slides), attempting to send them away inspired with the possibilities of computer science and technology, but also highlighting the importance of technology curiosity: hacking, playing and having fun. I truly hope I was successful!

For a full run-down of the event, have a look at Alan’s comprehensive blog post; I also highly recommend BBC R&D research engineer Michael Sparks’ thoughts about the day.

 

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2011 Royal Society MP/Scientist Pairing Scheme

I will be spending next week in the House of Commons, as part of the Royal Society‘s 2011 MP/Scientist Pairing Scheme. This scheme aims to build bridges between parliamentarians, civil servants and some of the best research scientists in the UK; participating scientists are paired with either an MP or civil servant and take part in a Week in Westminster and reciprocal visits back to the researcher’s institution. The Royal Society offers this scheme as an easy way to provide MPs with the opportunity to explore the science behind their decisions; by pairing a MP or civil servant with a leading scientist, both gain an understanding of the work behind the fundamental issues involved in each field. Since 2001, over 150 scientists have been paired with MPs and civil servants.

I’m paired with Jenny Willott, the Liberal Democrat MP for Cardiff Central, who has previously taken part in the Scheme. I’ve met with Jenny a couple of times over the past couple of months, so very much looking forward to the Week in Westminster. The scientists have a action-packed schedule, including talks from the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology, the House of Commons and House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committees, the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee (who organise SET for BRITAIN, in which I took part in 2010) and Professor Sir John Beddington, the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor. We will also spend time “shadowing” our MP, as well as attending PMQs on Wednesday! Overall, I hope the Scheme will give me further insight into how science policy is formed, as well as providing an opportunity for building long-term relationships to share knowledge and expertise with the Government.

(N.B. a similar scheme for the National Assembly for Wales, the Universities Pairing Scheme, has recently been announced by the Beacon for Wales)

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The Science (Café) of Logic

Contrariwise, if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.

Through the Looking-Glass
Lewis Carroll (1832-1898)

On Tuesday night I made my second appearance on Science Café, BBC Radio Wales’ flagship weekly science and technology programme, which aims to explore the science and technology stories making the headlines and reveal the latest Welsh scientific research.

The topic of this week’s programme was logic: a two thousand year old system of reasoning and argumentation which (some) humans use every day, as well as being the foundation of computation and modern technology. I was joined on the panel by two distinguished colleagues, Professor John Tucker (Professor of Computer Science at Swansea University) and Professor Christopher Norris (Distinguished Research Professor in Philosophy at Cardiff University).

The discussion was driven by the expertise of the panel: starting from the development of “classical logic” as a formal system of the principles of inference and rational reasoning, all the way back to Aristotle and the classical trivium. Then moving into the mathematical logic of the late 19th century and early 20th century with Hilbert and his program to clarify the foundations of mathematics, how Gödel shattered Hilbert’s dream, and in particular, the significant contributions to philosophy, mathematics and logic of the Welsh-born Bertrand Russell. Logic cuts to the heart of computer science as it emerged as a discipline: Turing‘s work on the Entscheidungsproblem followed from Gödel’s work on the incompleteness theorems, with the notion of computation and general-purpose computers being of fundamental importance to the designers of the computer machinery in the 1940s. This rapidly moved on to a discussion of expressing human knowledge using logic with mathematical notation, developing “intelligent” thinking machines and the problems of artificial intelligence (especially so-called strong AI). This (briefly) touched upon my work using logic programming for real-world declarative problem-solving, particularly for provably optimal code generation and improving the efficiency of microprocessors.

In essence, the key point was made about how logic is pervasive in our modern technological society: in every piece of digital electronics and especially in software — a clear manifestation of logic. This led to an important education question: shouldn’t we be developing these important deductive reasoning, problem-solving and computational thinking skills at school? I certainly think so. Finally, in a move that may come back to haunt me in later years, I was asked to finish with a joke about logic…

The Science Café “Logic” programme is now available on iPlayer (but only for seven days after broadcast). You can also read about my week with the Science Café team in Wrexham in August 2011.

BBC Wales in Swansea

The BBC studio in Swansea, where Dylan Thomas made many of his radio broadcasts.

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SuperLab: Future Chips

Yesterday I travelled up to the University of Bradford for the British Science Festival, one of Europe’s largest science festivals. Each year the Festival travels to a different UK location, with over 250 events, activities, exhibitions and trips taking place over a week to showcase the latest in science, technology and engineering. The theme for the 2011 Festival is “Exploring new worlds“. The British Science Festival is also the culmination of my British Science Association Media Fellowship, after working with BBC Wales (predominantly BBC Radio Wales) for the past six weeks. I will be reporting from the Festival’s press centre throughout the week.

However, I am also here for SuperLab, a joint initiative between the National Higher Education STEM Programme and the British Science Association. The National HE STEM Programme supports higher education institutions in the exploration of new approaches to recruiting students and delivering programmes of study within the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines; I have previously worked with the Welsh HE STEM “spoke” based at Swansea University.

SuperLab consists of a poster-based campaign focusing on the wide range of in-store STEM applications in a modern supermarket, for example, the physics behind barcode scanners. It was originally planned to coincide with National Science and Engineering Week 2012 (every March, NSEW showcases how the sciences and engineering relate to our everyday lives and helps to inspire the next generation of scientists), but was reorganised to be part of this year’s Festival, as part of the Science in Action exhibition.

The topic for my research poster was the microprocessor, entitled “Future Chips“, somewhat subverting the original SuperLab theme. Nevertheless, I would assert that the invention of the microprocessor has had the greatest overall impact on our lives and development — I wanted to try and highlight to a wide audience how reliant we are on the all-pervasive microprocessor (especially its multitude of applications), as well as the ubiquitous nature of technology. In doing this, I wanted to get four main themes across:

  • Swimming in a Sea of Silicon: highlighting our reliance on microprocessors;
  • Limitations of Moore’s Law: how we are hitting the limits of existing architectural models and fabrication technologies;
  • The Future is Multi-Core: the move away from a single high-speed processor to a multi-core methodology — a single computing component with numerous independent processors;
  • The Challenge: Power Efficiency: in our increasingly connected digital world, improving the energy efficiency and power consumption of the billions of devices is paramount.

SuperLab wordle

So, with thanks to the superb work from the professional designers (especially considering some of my inane scribblings), here it is:

SuperLab: Future Chips

For further reading…

If you are interested, here are the references to the research that is (briefly) mentioned in my SuperLab poster (or contact me):

I’m also involved in HiPEAC, the European Network of Excellence on High Performance and Embedded Architecture and Compilation, funded under the European Commission Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). The aim of HiPEAC is to steer and increase European research in the area of high performance and embedded computing systems and stimulate cooperation between academia and industry; for more information about HiPEAC, check out its research and activities.

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A week at the Science Café

As part of my 2011 British Science Association Media Fellowship at BBC Wales (see other posts). I spent a week in Wrexham working on Science Café (@BBCScienceCafe), BBC Radio Wales’ flagship weekly science and technology programme presented by Adam Walton. It aims to explore the science and technology stories making the headlines and reveal the latest Welsh scientific research; in this way it differentiates from BBC Click by focusing more on science and scientists rather than consumer technology.

Science Café is based at the new BBC North East Wales site at the Centre for the Creative Industries, Glyndŵr University. I spent a week working with Jeremy Grange and Alan Daulby, two excellent BBC producers, discussing ideas for future Science Café programmes.

BBC in Wrexham

I had initially planned on pitching programme ideas to raise the perception of computer science research, as well as the importance of computing education and the wider societal impact of technology. However, an idea quickly developed around a “Desert Island Discs for scientists”, to understand what inspired researchers in Wales to become scientists. This very quickly evolved into a programme that was recorded on Thursday 18th August and broadcast on Tuesday 23rd August; I was joined on the programme by two other scientists based in Wales:

  • An astronomer, Dr Edward Gomez, who is Education Director for Las Cumbras Observatory Global Telescope Network in Cardiff University.
  • Dr Anna Croft, a bio-chemist at Bangor University looking at biological interactions and reaction mechanisms.

The 30 minute programme was based around a panel discussion, with each of us describing our main influences and inspiration as scientists, especially what first hooked us as children. My childhood influences possibly adhered to the geek stereotype (although, geek chic is now rather fashionable): the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (passim on this blog), Star Trek (predominantly TNG), Doctor Who, the BBC Micro and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, as well as a couple of inspiring science and maths teachers at my secondary school in Oxford (particularly Steve Drywood, who sadly passed away a few years ago). The scientists who I felt had inspired or influenced me over my formative years were Richard Feynman, Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking (although due to the editing, I only mentioned Professor Steve Furber, who is best known for his work at Acorn, where he was one of the designers of the BBC Micro). We finished with some future gazing, describing our own research and its possible wider impact on society. I did notice some of my idiosyncrasies, particularly a penchant for saying “kind of” when I start to ramble on. However, it was very well edited by Alan, squeezing the best bits of the c.45 minute discussion into the programme.

Overall, a big thanks to Jeremy and Alan for making me feel welcome in Wrexham (especially in the quiet week after the 2011 National Eisteddfod of Wales!) and I look forward to working with Science Café in the future. Keep an eye out for future programmes on logic and computing education…

The “Inspiration” Science Café programme is now available on iPlayer!
(UPDATE: unfortunately the programme is only available on iPlayer for seven days after being broadcast…but I do have my own personal copy if you are desperate to listen to it.)

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2011 British Science Association Media Fellowship

This week I am starting my 2011 British Science Association Media Fellowship with BBC Wales. The Media Fellowships aim to create a greater awareness and understanding of the workings of the media amongst practising scientists, social scientists, clinicians and engineers. The Media Fellows spend 3 to 8 weeks working within the national press, broadcast or internet media to better understand how scientists can interact with the media (increasingly relevant for academics), as well as learning how to produce accurate and relevant pieces about developments in science. The scheme has been running since 1987 and reflects the British Science Association’s wider commitment to working with the media to build greater understanding between science and society. The Media Fellows will also attend the British Science Festival 2011, to be held in Bradford in September, reporting for their hosts.

My six week placement with BBC Wales will be predominantly with BBC Radio Wales in Cardiff, working on Good Morning Wales and Good Evening Wales. I will also be spending a week in Wrexham with Science Cafe, BBC Radio Wales’ weekly science and technology programme, as well as some time on TV with BBC Wales Today (the BBC’s national news programme for Wales) and online with BBC News Wales. BBC Wales do not currently have a dedicated science correspondent, so I hope to try and increase and broaden their science output by highlighting relevant research and policy developments in Wales.

I have already been working on Good Evening Wales for two days last week, taking a news story from inception to broadcast: with the publication of the Bateson report [PDF] on primate research last Wednesday, this raised wider discussions about the effectiveness and importance of animal research in the UK. This was in light of a recent YouGov poll, in which 69% of the British public support the Government taking action to replace and reduce experimentation on animals (albeit with a slightly leading question IMHO). I arranged an interview with the communications and public engagement manager from Understanding Animal Research (with thanks to the Science Media Centre!), which went out live at 5:40pm. It was interesting to see how a story develops from the morning production meeting to going out on air in the evening, as well as how news is prioritised (especially during a busy news week).

I will be blogging throughout my time with BBC Wales, so keep an eye on the Media Fellowship tag. You can also contact me on my swanky BBC email address: dr.tom.crick@bbc.co.uk (N.B. I did not request this! But I appear to be in rather illustrious company).

The ten 2011 Media Fellows are:

  • Ms Leila Battison (Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford), with BBC Radio and BBC News Online.
  • Ms Amy Chesterton (Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Cambridge), with the Naked Scientists.
  • Dr Tom Crick (Senior Lecturer in Computer Science, UWIC), with BBC Wales.
  • Dr Nathan Green (Northwest Institute for BioHealth Informatics, University of Manchester), with the Guardian.
  • Dr Elena Hoika (Lecturer in Developmental Psychology, University of Stirling), with the Scotsman in Edinburgh.
  • Dr Hamish Pritchard (British Antarctic Survey), with BBC Radio and BBC News Online.
  • Dr Amy Strange (Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, University of Oxford) with the Irish Times in Dublin.
  • Dr Lee Sweetlove (Reader in Plant Biochemistry, University of Oxford), with Nature.
  • Mr Richard Walters (Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford), with the Times.
  • Dr Andrew Wright (Reader in Building Engineering Physics, De Montfort University), with the Times Higher Education.
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Libel Reform and Science

In May 2011, I attended my first Science Communication Conference, organised by the British Science Association. This annual two-day conference addresses the key issues facing science communicators in the UK and brings together people involved in public engagement.

SCC2011

This year’s theme was online engagement: exploring innovative uses of online media to engage the public with science, including discussions about social media, podcasting, gaming, virtual worlds and citizen science, including a public engagement activity close to my heart (I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here!). The speakers included Simon Singh discussing libel reform, Tim Radford on his career and experience as former science editor of the Guardian, as well as a panel session with Robert Winston and Kathy Sykes discussing their perspectives on the future of public engagement.

I was lucky enough to receive a bursary from the British Science Association to attend the conference; in return I was asked to write a report of the first day’s Libel Reform and Science session (I’ve added extra links and fixed some of my sloppy typos from the published report):

A Libel Reform and Science session at the 2011 Science Communication Conference? How do the English libel laws affect scientists across the world? Just ask Dr Simon Singh, who’s two-year battle with the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) cost him upwards of £500,000 when they sued for libel regarding an article he wrote in the Guardian in April 2008. Increasingly, individuals and companies are using England’s outdated libel laws to suppress legitimate scientific debate and discovery.

Simon Singh hosted this session with Sile Lane, who coordinates the Keep Libel Laws out of Science campaign led by Sense About Science (a charitable trust that equips people to make sense of scientific and medical claims in public discussion). Simon first presented an overview of libel and the key issues: defamation, protecting reputations, privacy, free speech (including “reckless” free speech, as well as the impact of the Human Rights Act 1988), plus the distinction between slander and libel: it is also possible to get sued for spoken material that is recorded live, such as a radio interview or conference talk. This is obviously an important issue for scientists and researchers. The law as it stands is very much in favour of the claimant: you do not currently need to show proof of damage; in essence there is a reverse burden of proof, you are guilty until you can prove you are correct (innocent!). Furthermore, it is horrendously expensive to defend yourself; in the majority of cases, people tend to settle early because of the prohibitive cost of going to trial. This has created the “chilling effect” of libel: many people are now scared of invoking a libel threat, providing an undesirable form of editorial control.

Simon also clarified that a company or organisation has the right to reputation and can sue to protect it (a primary example being his case with the BCA), which pits the significant resources of organisations against individuals. Legal Aid is theoretically possible for libel cases, but in practice appears hard to access. He cited the now-famous “McLibel” case, a lawsuit filed by the McDonald’s Corporation against two environmental activists over a pamphlet critical of the company. The case lasted ten years, making it the longest-running libel case in English history, and was only a partial libel victory for the “The McLibel Two” (although they later won damages against the UK government in the European Court of Human Rights).

Sile Lane then introduced the Keep Libel Laws out of Science campaign (as part of the wider Libel Reform campaign), which is working with English PEN and Index on Censorship to push libel reform in the UK. More than 60 societies and organisations are members, including scientific bodies, professional institutions, journals and lobby groups. Libel reform became an election issue at the 2010 UK general elections, with all major parties making manifesto pledges. She highlighted some key libel cases: Dr Ben Goldacre‘s three articles [1,2,3] in the Guardian regarding Matthias Rath‘s promotion of vitamin pills for the treatment of AIDS (nearly two years, overall cost £175,000); Professor David Colquhoun, a pharmacologist at UCL who was threatened by herbal and Chinese medicine practitioners due to a blog post; Dr Peter Wilmshurst, a consultant cardiologist who is in the fifth year of being sued by a medical devices company over remarks he made on BBC Radio 4′s Today programme (even though the company have since gone into administration); to the absurd: the parenting community website Mumsnet has had to pull down discussion posts about a certain childcare company due to threats of libel. At this stage, an interesting point of order was raised by a barrister in the audience: you need to be careful with using the terms innocent and guilty, as it is not a criminal case. They continued by agreeing that libel reform is important, but some of the problems discussed are wider problems with the entire English legal system.

Simon then gave an abbreviated history of his case with the BCA (more detailed history), highlighting some of the key issues. The case hinged on the following phrase in his article: “The BCA happily promote bogus therapies…“; did bogus mean deliberately fake? Did happily mean willingly? To Simon, it meant incompetent and dishonest: he cited claims by chiropractors of treating colic, asthma and other chronic illnesses with no scientific evidence to back up these claims. During the preliminary hearing, it appeared that an opinion ruling was easier to defend that a justification of fact or scientific evidence; when Simon’s statement was ruled to be a statement of fact and required Simon to prove dishonesty by the BCA, he seriously considered giving up the case. When the case finally went to appeal (at the third attempt, two years after the article was originally published), they finally agreed with Simon’s defence — it was the opinion of the three judges that if you are criticising a conclusion in a science article, it should be assumed it is a matter of opinion. Unfortunately, this decision was not binding and has yet to be tested, as the existing case law is still fuzzy. While this was a victory for Simon, he lost over a year of his life and financially it was a disaster.

So why is this relevant to all of us? Essentially we have now all become publishers, with this being especially worrying for bloggers. What do you do if you receive a threatening letter? Sense About Science provide an advice guide, but you should always obtain legal advice in the first instance. Due to the prohibitive cost of libel actions (anywhere from £200,000 to £1m) and the difficulty of obtaining Legal Aid, it is sad state of affairs that withdrawing the article from the public domain may be the easiest thing to do.

Simon finished the session by summarising the latest libel reform work with the draft Defamation Bill that was published in March 2011. We need new libel laws, but the balance has to be fair, serving both journalists and the general public. We must ask why the cost of defending a libel case in England is 140 times the European average and why 90% of cases are won by the claimant. The draft Bill is a good start, but needs to go further; there needs to be a stronger public interest defence (especially beyond investigative journalism, to cover blogging, etc), as well as a notion of “substantial and serious” — if you write something that is in the public interest and you are careful but make a genuine mistake, you should not have to receive the ultimate punishment. Libel tourism is an increasingly problem, with individuals and organisations with little apparent ties to the UK using this jurisdiction to silence their critics. The changing mode of publication in the digital age also needs to be considered: as it stands, every single download or viewing of a web article refreshes the one year defamation window. Furthermore, from a scientist’s perspective, it is important that peer reviewed research should come under qualified privilege. We should all be concerned about the libel laws and Simon and Sile finished the session by urging us to feedback during the Bill’s scrutiny period, as well as supporting the Libel Reform campaign and signing the national petition.

Libel reform

The full conference report for the 2011 Science Communication Conference is now available online, as well as a number of the presentations and supplementary resources, including relevant background reading. I attended the following sessions over the two days:

Day 1

Day 2

There were a number of active online discussions on the #SCC2011 hashtag over the two days, as well as the conference Twitter account (@SciCommConf): see the Storify for Day 1 and Day 2, as well as this tag cloud (with thanks to @clivebgs):

scc2011

A big thank you to the British Science Association for providing me with a bursary; I look forward to next year’s event (get involved Allan Pacey!).

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