Last updated: May 26, 2012 12:11 am

Political science

Why it is time for PhDs to exert a greater influence in government and policy-making

The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters, by Mark Henderson, Bantam Press, RRP £18.99, 336 pages

 

Communists can always fall back on Marx and Engels. Feminists may draw inspiration from Valerie Solanas. Even the digerati have the banalities of the “Cluetrain”. Now the geeks have a manifesto to call their own.

Mark Henderson’s book opens with the “quacklash” that followed the British Chiropractic Association’s decision in 2008 to sue the science writer Simon Singh for libel, after he accused it of promoting “bogus treatments”. The court case that followed highlighted how legal bullying was being used to undermine free speech and evidence-based argument, and prompted a groundswell of support for Singh. Almost 10,000 people joined a Facebook group, and 20,000 signed a petition to “Keep Libel Laws Out of Science”. Singh eventually won his case on appeal, and the campaign he mobilised was an important catalyst for reforms that are now set to become law.

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Henderson, a former science editor of The Times and now director of communications at the Wellcome Trust, one of the world’s largest funders of science research, sees this as a movement on the march. In politics, in the media and particularly in the blogosphere, geeks are more visible and vocal than ever before. They include scientists and engineers within their ranks but also, under Henderson’s broad and welcoming definition, anyone who values evidence and the application of scientific methods. Henderson’s aim is to convert this enthusiasm into a force for social change: “geeks have a historic opportunity to embed critical thinking more deeply in the political process.”

There are many barriers still to be overcome. Of the UK’s 650 MPs, three have science PhDs, and only one has worked as a research scientist. This compares to dozens of representatives with backgrounds in law, consultancy or financial services. And across Whitehall, despite the appointment of chief scientific advisers in every government department, the voice of science is too often ignored. Ministers have a nasty habit of favouring policy-based evidence at the expense of evidence-based policy, and the systematic use of methods such as randomised controlled trials to test out new approaches in education, health or criminal justice policy is still depressingly rare.

The geeks have scored some notable successes. A longstanding campaign to end the public funding of homeopathy via the National Health Service finally appears to be gaining momentum. And arguments following the 2010 general election that research budgets should be protected as a vital contributor to economic growth won over the hard-headed economists in the Treasury, even as public spending was being slashed elsewhere.

The book is not without flaws. Henderson clearly feels a need to extend his argument beyond the UK, and so includes a few brief references to the US. Yet there is little of the rich detail here that he brings to UK debates. China is mentioned in passing, and then only as an opportunity to praise the number of scientists and engineers within its leadership. His historical lens is similarly narrow, and one wonders what earlier generations of politically engaged scientists, such as John Bernal and Joseph Rotblat, would make of a movement that sees Ben Goldacre, the medic and journalist, as its founding father.

I enjoyed the book immensely but wished that Henderson had relied a little less on his Twitter feed and pile of recent media clippings, and drawn instead on the wealth of material from the history, philosophy and sociology of science that could have enriched and complicated his arguments, particularly in relation to controversial issues such as climate change, genetically modified crops and nuclear power.

None of this should detract from Henderson’s achievements. The Geek Manifesto is the most compelling, engaging and entertaining account I’ve read of the relationship between science and politics. Henderson ends with a rallying cry for a political culture “that appreciates the power of science as a problem-solving tool and that seeks to exploit its methods of inquiry to resolve the great questions of the day”. Geek or non-geek, this is a manifesto we should all feel able to endorse.

James Wilsdon is professor of science and democracy at the University of Sussex

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