Archive for the ‘Science policy’ Category
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!).
Bad science is everywhere. Whether this is homeopaths claiming to be able to cure cancer, universities teaching “alternative” medicine alongside rigorous medical and science degrees, celebrities making misleading claims in the public sphere or even individuals and companies using England’s outdated libel laws to suppress legitimate scientific debate and discovery. While some of this is countered by the admirable work of people such as Ben Goldacre, David Colquhoun and Simon Singh, everyone needs to get involved by tackling misleading science wherever it manifests.
Sense About Science is a charitable trust that equips people to make sense of scientific and medical claims in public discussion. With a database of over 5,000 scientists, from Nobel prize winners to postdocs and PhD students, they work in partnership with scientific bodies, research publishers, policy makers, the public and the media, to change public discussions about science and evidence. Through their award-winning public campaigns and publications, they share the tools of scientific thinking and scrutiny with everyone.
This week, Sense About Science are launching a new campaign to tackle misleading science claims more systematically: the Report Dodgy Science appeal. The aim of this appeal is to encourage people to highlight misleading claim and to take up more situations where the evidence is missing — whether because of distortion, political pressure, or vested interests intimidating people who try to put forward evidence. Sense About Science can then help people who contact them to take things up themselves, providing advice, encouragement and assistance from the specialist databas, as well as using your reports to identify problems that need action from them.
But this costs money. They urgently need the help of supporters to raise an initial fund of £8,000 by 22nd July to get this campaign ready alongside the new website launch. If you feel passionately about how science is reported in the media, the importance of independent scientific advice in the government or how free scientific debate is hindered by the current libel laws, please donate anything you can to this important campaign.
It is free to join Sense About Science (@senseaboutsci), as well as their Voice of Young Science (@voiceofyoungsci) programme, which encourages early-career researchers to play an active role in public debates about science.
Election of representatives to the British Science Association General Committee 2011/2012 is now open.
The General Committee is the principal strategic advisory body of the British Science Association and consists of members of Council, as well as elected members from the three Constituencies: Sections, Members and Branches. Members of the General Committee normally serve a three year term, and can stand for re-election once.
There are ten candidates for the four (available) elected places on the General Committee for 2011/2012, with myself being one of them! I have been nominated by the South Wales Branch and this is my candidate statement:
Dr Tom Crick is a Lecturer in Computer Science at UWIC in Cardiff, having previously completed his PhD and post-doctoral research at the University of Bath. He is the leader in Wales of Computing at School (CAS), a membership association supported by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, to promote and support the teaching of computer science and other computing disciplines in UK schools. He sits on the National Assembly for Wales Cross-Party Group on Science and Technology and has been involved with the British Science Association (through the South Wales Branch) and wider science communication and public engagement activities for a number of years. He is one of the ten 2011 British Science Association Media Fellows, working with BBC Wales.
I feel that my experience of a wide range of science communication and public engagement activities, from national events to local school initiatives, gives me a strong foundation in which to support the aims and objectives of the British Science Association. Furthermore, I have experience of sitting on national committees: I currently sit on BCS Council, the strategic advisory body of BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, as well as the Education Committee of the BCS Academy of Computing, the learned society dedicated to advancing computing as an academic discipline. I am confident that these current roles would support any General Committee role. I am passionate about promoting science communication and engagement on computing and technology themes, so I am hopeful that the Association could further support these aims; perhaps by creating a dedicated Computing Sciences (or similarly named) Section to better engage with the area and interested parties.
I have been invited to speak at Science and the Assembly 2011, an annual event organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry, designed to develop closer links between the scientific community in Wales, the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Assembly Government.
I’m one of six invited speakers from across academia and industry, as well as the WAG Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor John Harries, on themes heralded by the International Year of Chemistry. However, I will be subverting the theme somewhat by discussing the importance of Computing to Wales, highlighting how it underpins modern scientific research and where it sits within the STEM agenda:
Computing: Enabling a Digital Wales
The strategic importance of the provision of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, as well as their contribution to the Welsh and wider UK economy has been frequently discussed, but there appears to be a fundamental misunderstanding with where Computing and related disciplines sit within the STEM portfolio. It should be regarded as the quintessential STEM subject, involving scientific enquiry, engineering design and mathematical foundations, as well as embodying deeper computational thinking, problem-solving and analytical skills.
In December 2010, the Welsh Assembly Government outlined a framework for Delivering a Digital Wales, 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. Hence, being able to innovate with technology will be a crucial part of the future economic strength of Wales. And therein lies the importance and relevance of Computing education: it is imperative that there is a clear strategy for Computing in Wales that distinguishes it from “digital literacy”, recognising it as a core discipline that underpins modern scientific research.
This is a well-timed event considering the recent Assembly elections, so I hope there is a strong turnout from both newly elected Assembly Members and policymakers.
The seventh annual Science and the Assembly takes place in Cardiff Bay on Tuesday 24th May 2011 at the Pierhead Building and the Senedd; registration is online.
The Science Communication Conference is the largest in the UK, addressing the key issues facing science communicators and bringing together people involved in public engagement. This tends to be a diverse group of people from a wide range of backgrounds, including science centres, charities, universities, press offices and policy-makers.
This year’s theme is online engagement: exploring innovative uses of online media to engage the public with science, including discussions about podcasting, gaming, virtual worlds and citizen science, as well as an interactive social media workshop. Some of the speakers include Simon Singh discussing libel reform, Tim Radform 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 am looking forward to meeting (in real life!) a number of science communicators who I regularly interact with on Twitter, as well as blogging throughout the conference. As an academic, I’ve found social media an immensely valuable resource for my research, though especially in supporting my science communication and public engagement activities. The relevance of this year’s theme is clear, highlighting how pervasive and powerful online media can be; I’m also very keen to hear Simon Singh discuss the latest proposed reforms to the libel laws in the UK.
A few weeks ago I was invited to write a blog post for the Campaign for Science & Engineering (CaSE), discussing science policy issues relating to the impending devolved elections in Wales. Since I now have my own blog, I thought I would repost it here and keep an eye on any science policy developments over the next month or so in the lead up to the elections on 5th May:
Computing: Enabling a Digital Wales?
In December 2010, the Welsh Assembly Government outlined a framework for Delivering a Digital Wales, a wide-ranging strategy to reflect the importance digital technologies now play in our lives, touching virtually every strand of public and private sector activity. The WAG Economic Renewal Programme further reinforced the importance of ICT/Digital Economy as one of the six priority sectors for economic renewal.
Deputy Minister for Science, Innovation and Skills, Lesley Griffiths said at the Digital Wales launch:
The growth of our economy and the well-being of our citizens are now inexorably linked to advances in technology. We must be prepared to respond quickly to new opportunities and challenges that rapid technological change will continue to bring.
While substantial inroads in developing the infrastructure for a digital economy in Wales have been made, there is still a long way to go. A third of the adult population in Wales do not use the Internet, less than 40% of Welsh SMEs actually sell online and one in six Welsh employers consider the IT skills of their employees insufficient.
Large-scale ICT infrastructure improvements, including the roll-out of superfast broadband across parts of Wales, the funding of High Performance Computing Wales and even Improving Care through ICT for Health in Wales, have created a strong platform to support the proposed Digital Wales plan, but what about the strategic development of the required technically-skilled workforce? Emphasis has been placed on broadening and deepening the skills base in Wales, but is this being done in the right areas?
The strategic importance of the provision of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects and careers and their contribution to the UK economy has been frequently discussed, but there appears to be a fundamental misunderstanding with where Computing and related disciplines sit within the STEM portfolio. Furthermore, there are a number of questions about how Computing is taught in schools across the UK; in essence, it isn’t. As in England, most schools in Wales teach ICT (Information & Communication Technology) rather than Computing. Unfortunately, ICT invariably consists solely of teaching how to use office productivity software such as word processors and spreadsheets. This is creating a generation of technology consumers (the “PowerPoint generation”), who do not have any deep comprehension of the technologies they are using beyond a superficial application-focused understanding. Futhermore, it is disengaging students who mistakenly believe that this is what Computing as a discipline (or potential career) is actually about.
A part of the Digital Wales agenda is focused on equipping people to become digital citizens; one facet of this is educating children so that by the time they become adults they are capable of making a valuable contribution to the digital society and economy. And therein lies the importance and relevance of Computing education; schools should equip every child with the basic understanding of how computers work and with the technological capabilities to take part in a knowledge-based society and economy. By spectacularly failing to do this, there is a serious problem.
Part of this is perhaps to do with terminology: Computing is not just about computers (as per Edsger W. Dijkstra’s famous quote: “Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.”); it embodies deeper computational thinking, problem-solving and analytical skills. In some ways, it is the quintessential STEM subject, involving scientific enquiry, engineering design and mathematical foundations.
The importance of the creative industries in Wales (including recent funding for West Wales and the Valleys) demonstrates that being able to innovate with technology is a crucial part of the future economic strength of Wales. Not having the skilled workforce or graduates to supply this future demand would be disastrous. However, there are a number of recently announced initiatives that are addressing this lack of strategic focus on Computing education and training.
The announcement in February 2011 of £6m funding over three years for the Technocamps project was a huge step forward; it aims to encourage young people in Wales to follow in the footsteps of successful technologists and entrepreneurs by inspiring them to study Computing-based topics underpinning and aligned with the STEM subjects. Over 2,600 pupils from across the Convergence area of Wales will get the chance to develop their technical skills and gain an insight into the wide range of Computing-related careers open to them.
Technocamps is further supported by the announcement in October 2010 of 13m investment over five years for Software Alliance Wales (SAW), which will boost the growth and competitiveness of the strategically important digital technology sector. One priority of SAW is to increase higher-level ICT skills across all business and industry sectors. Complementary funding was also announced in 2010 for the National Science Academy and STEM Cymru to ensure Wales has a continuous pipeline of people graduating from colleges and universities with the appropriate qualifications and skills.
But there is still significant work to be done; Computing at School (CAS), a membership association formally supported by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, is actively working in Wales in partnership with the Technocamps project to support and promote the teaching of Computing in Wales and stimulate curriculum change. The widely reported Royal Society review into Computing in Schools, along with its importance and implications for the economic and scientific strength of the UK, is due in November 2011. A national debate on subjects in Wales announced in February 2011 by Leighton Andrews, Deputy Minister for Children, Education and Lifelong Learning, to discuss the future of A-level and vocational subjects in Wales, will hopefully recognise the importance of Computing in supporting future economic growth and enabling a Digital Wales. In England, the Department of Education review of the National Curriculum has restarted a similar debate; Scotland has already included Computing as part of its Curriculum of Excellence. It would be extraordinary if Wales did not do the same.
(A related article has been written by Dr Bill Mitchell, Director of the BCS Academy of Computing, the learned society dedicated to advancing computing as an academic discipline: The Collapse of Computing Education in English Schools)