Friday 21 December 2012

The 'geek movement' is a straw man

I’ve been told I have a thick skin, but a recent post attacking the ‘geek movement’ pissed me off in a way that I generally reserve for articles by James Delingpole. It annoyed me not because it attacked me directly (and I wouldn’t care if it did) but because it has the potential to dissuade scientists – especially junior ones – from engaging proactively with politicians and society.

I won’t go into a detailed critique of the post here, but suffice to say that it spectacularly misrepresents everything and everyone it seeks to attack. The comments below the post from Brian Cox, Mark Henderson, David Colquhoun and Shane McKee say it all. Both the insulting tone and patronising rhetoric of the post suggests that this misrepresentation was a deliberate tactic to garner attention. Perhaps not the attention it expected, mind you.

Angry posts decrying a non-existent ‘geek movement’ do nothing to champion science or science communication. They also don’t challenge us in any meaningful or intelligent way. As far as I can tell, such articles serve only to generate faux dissent and ego-boosting publicity for those who author them. We need intelligent and nuanced discussion about the role of science in politics – not cheap shots.

So, to any scientists (especially junior ones) who happened to read the above post, please don’t be put off from engaging. Society needs you. Inspired by the Geek Manifesto, we’ve already seen fantastic campaigns to link scientists with politicians by Shane McKee and Dave Watts. We have also completed our own modest campaign to send the Geek Manifesto and personal letters to each member of the National Assembly for Wales, and we are also in the process of setting up a new evidence information service for MPs.

I say all this to accentuate the positive because in the last 24 hours my Twitter feed has become fairly unpleasant and acrimonious place. Intelligent discussions about the role of science in politics are vital and we mustn't allow this dialogue to be hijacked by trolling.

Friday 7 December 2012

A manifesto for reform

Today saw the successful completion of the Welsh Geek Manifesto campaign. At midday we delivered 60 copies of Mark Henderson’s book to the National Assembly building in Cardiff Bay. I'm happy to say even the Sun made an appearance (the fireball, not the newspaper).

The Geek Manifesto is an important book because it not only lays out in stark detail the evidence crisis facing British politics - it also shows how the scientific community is an integral part of the solution. It is this call for action and self-reflection that makes the book unique.

From left: Petroc Sumner, Fred Boy, me, Gabi Jiga-Boy, and John Evans

Well, we are acting – and this is just the beginning. In addition to providing one copy of the book for each Assembly member we are also attempting to set up an evidence information service for politicians and civil servants that capitalises on the enormous untapped 'hive mind' of the UK STEM community. I’ll provide updates on this initiative as we proceed. For now I can say that we look forward to continuing our discussions with the Government Office for Science, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, and the National Assembly for Wales.

Together with each copy of the Geek Manifesto we also sent each Assembly member (AM) a personal letter that explains why s/he should read the book, providing some personal context based on the AM’s track record on science and health issues. The full archive of these letters can be downloaded here. I must say that, overall, I was actually rather impressed with the level of engagement on science issues by the Assembly. Almost all AMs had a recent track record of involvement in a STEM subject such as climate change, energy policy, or public health.
One of the 60 letters provided to each Assembly member.

I want to thank all the people who made this campaign possible. First, my gratitude and congratulations to Mark Henderson for penning such an important book at such a key time in British politics. I also want to thank the members of the organising group, including Tom Crick (who conceived the idea for this campaign), John Evans for painstakingly translating each of the 60 letters into Welsh, our intern Laura Smith for conducting the critical research on each AM’s scientific track record, Fred Boy for coordinating media coverage of the delivery event through Swansea University, and Gabi Jiga-Boy, Simon Dymond, and Leah Maizey for their support.

Finally, and most importantly, I want to thank the 60 donors who purchased the books. This is no small gesture in such tough economic times, and I hope the AMs will appreciate both your generosity and your sense of purpose.