Posts Tagged ‘Science policy’

Michael Mann on TEDx – the scientization of politics

December 7, 2011

Michael Mann (of “hockey stick” fame) has just has a TEDx talk published.

It’s bookended by the things you’d expect – a quick run through of climate science and potential solutions – but the bits in the middle are probably the most interesting.

Climate science is often accused of becoming too politicised (usually because of the role of the  IPCC) but Mann’s argument here is that it happened the other way round: that politics became “scientized” in order to cast doubt over the scientific findings that do not align with paticular political views. At one point he refers to Merchants of Doubt, a book which presents evidence from the last 50 years covering a number of scientific topics that have caused problems for certain industries, and Mann’s case seems to add to those stories.

Does the Today programme have an anti-Climate Science agenda?

May 19, 2010

I was listening to Radio 4′s Today programme yesterday and was quite surprised that they spent nearly 5 minutes reporting from the Heartland Institute’s International Conference on Climate Change (ICCC).  This conference is different to almost all other climate conferences as it is dominated by climate change “sceptics”.

The Today programme is one of the UK’s most influencial news programmes and I’ve never heard a report on this show from any other climate science conference despite there being many, many others every year.  (I’m not including Copenhagen here as that was a climate policy conference, not a science conference.)

So why report from the ICCC?  Well, their angle in the report was that its not just right-wingers that are climate change “sceptics”.  This strikes me a bit lame and not really news.

I’m beginning to think that the Today programme has an anti-Climate Science agenda.

My main other concern with the Today programme and its climate coverage is Justin Webb.  A relatively new host, he seems to think that his views should shape the programme’s stance on climate science.  His most notorious moment was an awful interview with Prof. Ian Plimer (geologist turned climate “sceptic”) where Webb failed to question Plimer on any of the controversial things he was saying.

Reporting the consensus view on climate science is probably getting a bit dull and maybe that is why the media like the contrary view.  I just thought that the Today programme was better than that.

[The relevant piece starts at 2:49:49 of the Today programme from 18th May 2010, which is available here for a limited period on the BBC iPlayer.]

On “the real holes in climate science”

February 10, 2010

[This post is based on a question I got in response to a previous post but thought it deserved a short post on its own as there's a few interesting points.]

There’s been a lot of bad press recently for climate science but a lot of has focused on very minor issues. For example, most of the coverage on the UEA CRU email leak/theft/hack (so-called climategate) has focused on what some of the “skeptic” community wished was in the emails rather than what was really there. The Guardian has gone over some of the issues from the leak in depth in a recent series of articles, although this seems like a lot of focus on old issues. As Prof. Phil Jones himself said in a recent interview in The Sunday Times: “I wish people would read my scientific papers rather than my emails”. Glaciergate was equally blown out of all proportion given that the original claim only appeared in one sentence in a 3000 page report.

In the midst of all this, Nature printed a nice feature looking at the real big gaps in climate science (Schiermeier 2010), but it is behind a paywall, which is a shame because it’s a good piece. So, I thought I’d provide a very quick summary here.

Regional climate prediction

We still don’t have sufficient computing power to run models at high enough resolution to make projections on the scale that would be useful to policy makers. This is clearly required to make big infrastructure decisions.

Precipitation

Projections of precipitation patterns are really hard to make as they depend on temperature changes, circulation changes, radiative balance changes and pollution (and, therefore, cloud condensation nuclei) changes. Yet precipitation changes will probably have the biggest impact on society.

Aerosols

The effect of aerosols (i.e. small solid particles or liquid droplets suspended in the atmosphere) is a big unknown. Different types do different things and its not really certain whether they have a generally cooling effect – by reflecting away solar radiation – or a warming effect – by promoting more cloud growth and trapping more terrestrial heat. That said, any cooling effect would be very unlikely to reverse the warming impact of greenhouse gases.

The tree-ring controversy

This relates mostly to the “hockey stick” graph and the reliability of the palaeoclimate data we use to put our current climate into perspective. It’s important that we learn from past climate changes as we only have one atmosphere and can’t do experiments with it. But it is not easy to get palaeoclimate data (tree rings, ice cores, sediment cores) or to interpret them properly.

So what is the “consensus”?

In a certain sense, when people talk about the “scientific consensus about climate change” they really mean little more than our understanding of the greenhouse effect, our impact on it and that things are very likely to get messy in the future. All the details are still very much under investigation.

Reference:

ResearchBlogging.orgSchiermeier, Q. (2010). The real holes in climate science Nature, 463 (7279), 284-287 DOI: 10.1038/463284a

Make science an issue

January 14, 2010

The Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK (CaSE) last night hosted a debate between the science spokesmen of the three main parties: Lord Drayson (Lab), Adam Afriyie MP (Con) and Dr Evan Harris MP (LibDem).  Firstly, what a great development this is for science policy in this election year – science and engineering have a massive impact in the UK and any effort to “Make science an issue” has to be applauded.  The debate can still be viewed here.

Ok, what about the debate?  Well, the opening statements from Drayson and Afriyie did not fill me with confidence.  Afriyie wants to “get Britain working again” – to me, this sounded like he thinks science in this country is broken.  He probably didn’t mean that and was just mindlessly spouting a party slogan but it’s not how I would have kicked off if I was in his position.  Drayson started off by saying that there “have been no cuts” in the science budget.  I’m sure that most people relying on STFC funding (a topic that was brushed under the carpet in this debate) might find that like a kick in the teeth.  In this company, it was not hard for Harris to tower above his opponents on the scientific, as well as general political, issues at hand.

Given the topic of my previous blog post, I was keen to hear the panel’s views on the “Impact” agenda.  However, as seemed to be a problem with the debate format, the question (“What impact do you expect from government funded research?”) was a bit vague and the initial answer from Drayson was very fluffy.  Harris was negative with respect to the Impact Plan, espousing the merits of blue sky research with unknown impact.  Afriyie picked up the ball and gave more of an opinion on the impact debate and mirrored my own (and the research council’s) views that getting scientists to think about impact at the proposal stage is no bad thing but it should not be used to determine funding decisions.  However, when a question on private/public funding of science came up, Afriyie then seemed all for more applied research to close the “innovation gap” between top quality research and industrial output.

Afriyie later well and truly dropped the ball on the subject of Prof. Nutt.  His view seemed to be that ministers should be free to sack any “advisor” they have for any reason at all!  (This also missed the point, made by @SmallCasserole on the Twitter #scidebate feed, that Prof. Nutt was not a personal advisor; he was the head of a statutory body.)  Afriyie’s opinion seemed even more ridiculous as, in response to a previous question on scientific knowledge within the House of Commons, he had described his passion for evidence based policy.  This evidence can, presumably, be cherry picked from whichever advisor suits your opinion.

Libel reform also got a lot of support from all on the panel.  However, given that the question (as well as most of the momentum behind the libel reform campaign) came from Sense About Science, Afriyie’s assertion that he was making the libel reform case “very loudly within the Conservative Party” rang a little hollow after Zac Goldsmith’s pathetic hatchet job of Sense About Science in the Guardian’s CiF.

So, my conclusion from all this is that Drayson was keen to keep his head down; Harris is clearly a massive bonus for parliament even if his chances of becoming the next Science Minister are relatively slim; and that Afriyie veered from good (repaying student loans for graduates going into teaching, compulsory “science lessons” for all Conservative MPs) to catastrophic (Prof. Nutt, David Cameron’s “zeitgeist” being enough to increase donations to medical research charities).  But I am excited about this interaction between science and politics and really hope that this is widespread and continues all the way to the general election this year.


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