Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Memorandum 31

Submission from Dr Paul Marchant, Leeds Metropolitan University


    —  Science should most certainly be at the heart of Government policy.—  A Department for Science could be useful in promoting science.—  Science needs to be rigorous rather than just look "scientific".

  1.  I fully support the proposition that science should be at the heart of government policy. A Department for Science promoting science could be useful in encouraging a scientific outlook in society at large. (A Department for Science should not try to firmly control the country's scientific activity however.)

  2.  Throughout my writing I use "science" to mean rigorous scientific thinking based on well collected data (rather than any particular set of facts derived from scientific investigations).

  3.  The key point is that the scientific process needs to be rigorous. There is an ever present danger that the language of science is utilised for "spin" (ie PR, advertising, lobbying) when in fact the underpinning reasoning and/or data is flawed. That is the "the science brand" can be invoked to push a particular cause even when the underpinning is unscientific. Statistical reasoning needs to be thorough and conflicts of interest need to be minimised. In addition to good quality research we also need transparency about how research is commissioned and undertaken, and by whom.

  4.  I made a submission to a forerunner of the present DIUS committee, the Science and Technology Select Committee, in 2003 in its investigation on Light Pollution and Astronomy. I was pleased that the Committee agreed with my sceptical view on the claim that lighting is required to reduce crime. The Committee's Report stated "the correlation between lighting and crime is not conclusive" (Para 74 p27 of HC747-1) by looking at the data and reasoning behind the claim promoted by industry.

  5.  The issue of the relationship between lighting and crime illustrates the nature of scientific evidence. Assertions on this subject tend to have been made on a poor scientific basis. I submitted evidence to the Science Review of the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, by the Government Office for Science, on experiencing weaknesses. See my written evidence www.berr.gov.uk/files/file44678.doc . (It is worrying however that the lighting claim is still made by proponents in spite of poor method and data.)

  6.  My piece (Chapter 7) in the Proceedings of the 6th European Dark-Skies Symposium http://www.britastro.org/dark-skies/cfds2006/proceedings.pdf also gives some points on how conclusions of research can be made more secure and threats to the integrity of science may be reduced.

  7.  It has been alleged that some of the key work claiming that lighting reduces crime was undertaken and also commissioned by the wife of the director, major shareholder and CEO of a major street lighting company and that the perceived conflict of interest was hidden, even when she was working on the issue as a civil servant (Private Eye, "Conflicts of Interest: Let there be light", Issue No. 1142, p28, 30th September 2005.) Clearly activity such as this, if it occurs, undermines science and confidence in it.

  8.  I use lighting and crime as an example as it is an area which I have investigated and something which some members of the DIUS Committee have previously looked at, but the general point about the importance of rigorous scientific work to establish trustworthy outcomes will apply to all areas of policy formation and implementation.

  9.  Major consequences and large sums of money can hang on the outcomes of research so we need to be sure that we have proper science and not material which merely looks scientific, at the detriment of society at large. Hopefully a Department for Science would press for sound science being employed throughout all policy areas.

  10.  I have not written explicitly about engineering as my main point is to encourage the rigour of sound scientific thinking. I do however support encouragement for engineering, as the practise of the discipline involves scientific thinking. Also making "things that work" is worthwhile in itself.

January 2009

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 23 July 2009