Archive for the ‘Science policy’ Category
Last month I emailed my local MP, Jenny Willott (Lib Dem, Cardiff Central), regarding the Draft Defamation Bill and the ‘Leveson clause’ using The Libel Reform Campaign‘s Don’t kill the Bill. I received the following response this morning:
Ref: LS/TC/270313/Defamation Bill 2013
8th April 2013
Dear Dr. Crick,
Thank you for your email about the Defamation Bill.
The Defamation Bill is a hugely important piece of legislation that I strongly support. Over recent years, Britain has become a laughing stock as libel tourism has been on the rise and cases have been brought against various high profile scientists and journalists. This has to change, and as my party leader, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, made clear in a speech on civil liberties last year, libel reform is a very real priority for this government.
That’s why I have been disappointed that this Bill has been held up in the House of Lords by the Conservatives after Labour Peers tabled amendments to introduce the Leveson reforms. However, now that the three main party leaders have agreed the way forward to implement the Leveson reforms, the path is clear for the Defamation Bill to proceed.
As part of the deal between the parties, the Prime Minister announced to the House of Commons that the Government’s legislative programme would now be unblocked, including the Defamation Bill. The changes proposed by Leveson and the reforms in the Defamation Bill are badly needed, and I am pleased that we have now been able to agree a way that we can deliver both.
The right to freedom of speech is a cornerstone of our constitution, and the need to reform our 19th century libel laws is great. The proposals in the Defamation Bill will ensure that the threat of libel proceedings is not used to frustrate robust scientific and academic debate, or to impede responsible investigative journalism and valuable work undertaken by non-governmental organisations. Liberal Democrats have been at the forefront of the campaign for reform, and I am looking forward to the Defamation Bill completing its stages in the Commons in the next few weeks and becoming law.
Thank you again for writing, and please do not hesitate to contact me again if you have further concerns about this or any other issue.
MP for Cardiff Central
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).
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.
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?
Scientists, journal editors, community organisations and writers are asking everyone concerned about the impact of the libel laws on open discussions to let their MP know they want to see libel reform in the Queen’s Speech in May 2012.
This is something that I have written about a number of times: all of the undersigned have faced or been threatened with libel actions. Please help by contacting your MP (see TheyWorkForYou), signing the petition and spreading the libel reform message.
We are writing as people who have battled libel threats and actions to ask for your help to make sure reform of the laws gets into next year’s Queen’s Speech, which sets the legislative agenda for 2012.
People are still being threatened by a law that allows the rich and powerful to bully critics and shut down public debate. Libel reform needs urgent action. The campaign and all its supporters have worked hard to persuade the Ministry of Justice to draw up an effective Defamation Bill, but if it is not in the Queen’s Speech in the spring, then libel reform will be delayed for at least another year, which will be a victory for those who want to silence honest criticism. We can’t bear to let this opportunity slip away.
We know we will have to battle against those who want to delay or derail libel reform, and the best way to get our message across is to lobby MPs for support. Please help us by clicking here to send an email to your MP so they know that all we want for Christmas is our MPs to back the inclusion of libel reform in the Queen’s Speech.
Dr Ben Goldacre
Dr Peter Wilmshurst
Dr Fiona Godlee, Editor in Chief, BMJ
Dr Philip Campbell, Editor in Chief, Nature
Justine Roberts, Founder and CEO, Mumsnet
Richard Dunstan, Social Policy Officer, Citizens Advice
David Osler, journalist
Professor David Colquhoun
Professor Francisco Lacerda
Rhys Morgan, blogger
John Gray, blogger
Chwarae Teg, in partnership with the Science Council, are undertaking comparative research in the career paths of men and women across Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) industries in Wales. The survey is intended to be completed by men and women who either live or studied in Wales and hold a post-16 STEM qualification; for most people this will mean education and training undertaken after having completed your O-Levels/GCSEs.
Targeted subjects include: Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Computer Science, Engineering, Biology, Geography, Geology, Forensic Science, Psychology, Sports Science and Archaeological Sciences.
The research will explore why women and girls do not progress into STEM careers in Wales; it forms part of the Agile Nation project run by Chwarae Teg, funded by the European Social Fund and Welsh Government.
Please complete the survey (also available in Welsh) and pass along to your colleagues and networks in Wales. The deadline for the survey is Tuesday 20th December 2011.
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.
This week saw the publication of a hugely important report on libel reform in England and Wales. The report is from the Joint Committee on the Draft Defamation Bill, which has been considering the government’s proposed bill after oral and written evidence from interested parties. The proposed new legislation will be the first wholesale reform of the libel laws of England and Wales since 1843.
But why is this important for scientists? Increasingly, individuals and companies are using England’s outdated libel laws to suppress legitimate scientific debate and discovery. I wrote a report on the Libel Reform and Science session at this year’s Science Communication Conference. The sterling work of Sense About Science‘s Keep Libel Laws out of Science campaign (as part of the wider Libel Reform campaign) has raised the profile of the libel reform movement in the UK, but there is still a long way to go.
Please read this excellent summary of the report by Stephen Curry (who has written about libel reform numerous times before), as well as the press release from the Keep Libel Laws out of Science campaign.
The National Assembly for Wales is the democratically elected body that represents the interests of Wales and its people: it makes laws for Wales and holds the Welsh Government to account. Alongside the day-to-day Assembly business of plenary meetings, Committees and the legislative process, there exists a number of Cross-Party Groups.
A Cross-Party Group is not a formal Assembly grouping (and hence is not bound by any of the Assembly’s Standing Orders) but may be set up by Assembly Members in respect of any subject area relevant to the Assembly. A group must include Members from three political parties represented within the Assembly. Like All-Party Groups in Westminster, they have no formal role in policy development, but they indicate an area or a topic that is of importance to the Assembly or to Wales in general.
During the Third Assembly (2007-2011), there were two Cross-Party Groups in which I held a professional interest:
- Cross-Party Group on Science & Technology: To bring together Assembly Members and others with an interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in Wales, with the aim of raising awareness amongst AMs of important developments in STEM, both technological and educational; and how policy issues impact upon these areas.
- Cross-Party Digital Group: To promote the use of digital and information technology in Wales.
The existence of these two Cross-Party Groups was a hugely positive step by the Assembly, recognising the importance of the STEM agenda and of digital technologies to Wales. However, looking at the Cross-Party Groups that have been registered in this Fourth Assembly, there are no groups that solely focus on any of these crucial areas. While the creation of a Chief Scientific Advisor for Wales in 2010, along with the Science Advisory Council for Wales, are both significant steps forward, there are no legislative Committees that clearly have science within their remit. This is a concern.
The Welsh Government have repeatedly highlighted the importance of the Digital Economy/ICT sector, identified as one of the priority sectors for economic renewal. The significance of the cross-government Delivering a Digital Wales framework is also clear: a wide-ranging strategy to reflect the importance digital technologies now play in our lives, touching upon virtually every strand of public and private sector activity. The strategic importance of the provision of STEM subjects was firmly underlined with the publication of the Enterprise and Learning Committee‘s The STEM Agenda report in January 2011. Furthermore, the imminent publication of Science for Wales: A Strategic Agenda for Science in Wales by the Chief Scientific Advisor (of which I have been part of the stakeholder consultation), further reinforces the importance of science to Wales, from both an economic and educational perspective.
This is an open call to all Assembly Members (though specifically Huw Lewis AM and Bethan Jenkins AM due to their previous involvement in the two Cross-Party Groups named above): please form a new Cross-Party Group to focus on these key areas. It is imperative that the Assembly continues to recognise and highlight the importance of science and technology to Wales, as well as engaging with the wider Welsh science community. I would happily work with this new Cross-Party Group to further advance the STEM and digital agenda in Wales.
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.
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.
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:
- Introduction to Public Engagement with Simon Burall (Involve)
- Keynote address from Tim Radford (listen here)
- Libel Reform and Science with Simon Singh and Sile Lane
- Working with Policymakers (panel session with Alaster Smith (Government Office for Science), Hilary Leevers (Campaign for Science & Engineering) and Chris Tyler (Centre for Science Policy), chaired by Jack Stilgoe)
- The Future of Online (panel session with Shane McCracken (Gallomanor Communications) and Vicky Reeves (Chameleon), chaired by Sue Nelson (Boffin Media))
- The Tyranny of the Web (panel session with Ed Yong, Pippa Hyam (Dialoge by Design) and Jonathan Sanderson (StoryCog Ltd), chaired by Sue Hordijenko (British Science Association))
- The Future of Public Engagement (panel session with Robert Winston, Kathy Sykes and Paul Manner (NCCPE)
- Public Attitudes to Science with Marilyn Booth (BIS) and Ipsos MORI (see the PAS 2011 study, BIS blog post, Storify, plus my first exposure to the term cognitive polyphasia!)
- Bright Club
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):
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!).