Wednesday, 17 December 2008

December 2008 - Overselling their models, or underselling our values?

As the UN climate change negotiations kicked off in Poznan, the New Scientist ran an attention grabbing headline asking whether climate scientists were “over-selling their models”. In an interview with the weekly science magazine, Lenny Smith, a statistician at the London School of Economics claimed that some climate scientists were too hasty in making firm and detailed predictions about the precise nature of the future climate (

While clearly designed to be provocative, a thorough reading of the interview reveals not a climate change sceptic, but a statistician extolling that most cherished of scientific values: conservatism and caution in the face of uncertainty. In expressing his concern that climate scientists should not over-sell their data, Smith was careful not to over-sell his own claim, suggesting that the picture that climate models paint is a broadly accurate one. But while over-interpreting data can never be a sensible path for a scientist to take, is it really true that scientists too often get ahead of themselves?

A consideration of the rather timid relationship between science and policy in the UK would suggest otherwise. The standard approach to maintaining scientific integrity is loosely based on the legal concept of a ‘separation of powers’ – where judges don’t legislate and legislators do not judge. In theory, scientists do not get embroiled in policy making, and policy makers don’t meddle in the science. The intended benefits of this split are clear: scientific data are not moulded by partisan interests, and the credibility of independent research is ensured.

In practice, however, this scientific separation of powers is a somewhat one-way affair. Research councils, the primary providers of University research funding, are public sector bodies. The projects the research councils fund (and perhaps more importantly, the ones that they don’t) inevitably reflect the prevailing political winds – and rightly so, given that university academics are ultimately providing a public service. While some climate sceptics have insinuated that climate change has been cooked up by researchers eager to cash in on a wave of climate change research grants, figures from the reform group Scientists for Global Responsibility tell a different story. In the industrialised nations, the budget for government-funded military research is twice that for health and environmental issues combined, and nearly 100 times bigger than the budget for research into renewable energy. If climate scientists are over-selling their research with a view to being awarded extra funding, then it clearly isn’t working.

Of course, science can be immensely profitable – its just that it typically isn’t the scientists that pick up the big bucks. And, perhaps more importantly, the trajectory of scientific innovation is often guided primarily by commercial profit. New scientific findings are funnelled into a socio-economic system that is radically skewed in favour of acute concentrations of corporate wealth, where the interests of the rich and the powerful are inevitably privileged over the needs of the poor and the weak.

The emerging discipline of nanotechnology, where scientists are able to manufacture tiny particles with novel physical and chemical properties, provides a good example. Sun creams containing ultra-fine nanoparticles that are transparent but block ultraviolet light are profitable. Mass water purification programmes using nano-filters, for rural communities in central Africa are not. No prizes for guessing which application has been commercially realised, and which has been left to gather dust in the pages of academic journals. Nanoscience may be the study of the very small, but nanotechnology is already big business.

In fact, the powerful influence of commercialisation, and the institutionalised reluctance of scientists to ‘speak out’ about the applications of their research risks creating what ethicist Geoffrey Hunt refers to as a ‘nano-divide’ between the scientific ‘haves’ and the scientific ‘have-nots’. Rather than saving the world, the transformational power of this new technology could simply buttress existing socioeconomic inequality.

But from the researchers at the frontier of this leading-edge science there is a deafening silence – a silence that is replicated across scientific disciplines. Save for medically oriented NGOs such as Medicins Sans Frontieres, or the reform group Scientists for Global Responsibility, practising scientists keep a fairly low profile about what happens to their research once it has left the ivory tower. Why? Because scientists are discouraged from stepping outside of their remit as value-neutral, apolitical, knowledge gatherers. With values safely banned from the scientific arena, and few incentives for becoming involved in public engagement work, scientists must watch from the sidelines as sun cream becomes ever more translucent.

It is patents and profit margins, not a lack of medical expertise, which prevents essential medical treatments from reaching the people who need them most. Similarly, it is political feasibility, rather than scientific reality that dominates climate policy.

Climate scientists are likely to be concerned about climate change as much if not more than other people – hardly surprising given that they are on the frontline of climate change research. It’s scary stuff. Should they be prevented from expressing their worries in public?

Lenny Smith is right that scientists shouldn’t over-interpret their data. Science occupies its privileged position in the world precisely because of its softly-softly approach to fact finding. But while over-selling models might be a scientific sin, the underselling of ethical values in the application of science is a far greater concern.


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