#ScienceDay at the Department for Communities and Local Government

Summary

What happens when Eric Pickles pays for the train fare of a dragon fairy.

I thought for transparency’s sake I’d get that out up front first. Richard Harries, who I briefly worked with during my time in Whitehall, invited me and Puffles to DCLG’s “Science Day”. Although the Department covered my train ticket, I was there voluntarily, posting on Twitter throughout the day completely independently. Thus what appears on Puffles’ Twitterfeed is definitely NOT (and never has been) the views of HM Government – although they are more than welcome to adopt a few of Puffles’ suggestions from time to time. Just not the ones about jellybellies, pistachio nuts and rioja. That wouldn’t do.

All of the papers and presentations from #ScienceDay can be found here. If you’d like them emailed to you, contact Richard Harries at DCLG at:

Richard.Harries [at] communities.gsi.gov.uk.

“Ooooh! Science day! That sounds like complicated stuff! I don’t do science because it’s for boffins!”

This is one of the stereotypes that several of us – myself included – want to break. Science is not just for scientists; it’s for all of us.

Being a scientist is not the same as bringing a scientific approach to policy-making. One of the most recent high-profile cases around bringing a scientific approach to policy-making was around climate change – Jill Rutter’s blogpost here citing a speech from Margaret Thatcher to the United Nations in November 1989 – around the time I first became aware of the environment because of…Blue Peter.

Actually, there was a specific aspect of climate change policy that was science-driven and led to a global consensus that was actually delivered in relatively quick time. Anyone remember CFCs in the 1980s? Hairspray and refrigeration? I’m old enough to remember spray cans stamped with the label “CFC-free” before they were prohibited. Where did the policy stem from? Anecdotally my memory tells me it was policy-makers explaining the chemical reactions that happened high up in the atmosphere where CFCs converted ozone into oxygen that we rely on to survive. (Have a look at this from GCSE bitesize – we didn’t have fancy things in my day – just books and Captain Planet).

“So Pooffles, what did the boffins and the mad professors have to tell us?”

They’re not ‘boffins’ or mad professors – can we ditch the negative stereotypes please?

The first session was  on waste and recycling

“You mean to say that the first session was all rubbish?”

No, it was about what many people think as ‘rubbish’ but is in fact anything but. What was demonstrated was just how crazy our current system of living is – where we have linear product cycles. We mine raw materials, we expend huge amounts of energy processing them and turning them into (“disposable”) products, then throw them away assuming we can forget about them.

“But Pooffles, having to dispose of products responsibly will hit my economic profit! And products have to be disposable otherwise no one will by replacements!”

First of all the former is not necessarily true. Take mobile phones and this article from 2007. We were – and still are disposing of electronic goods at an alarming rate. They are being made in a manner where we are constantly being encouraged to upgrade to the next big thing. But what value the waste?

Actually, it’s worth more than a bit. Let’s look at the gold content of mobile phones as an example, and compare it to the gold content of metal ores mined from the ground. There is about 5g of gold for every tonne of ores mined. That’s 5g for every 1,000,000g of raw material mined. Think of the amount of energy required to extract that 5g for every 1,000,000. Then think of what happens to the remaining 999,995g of excess processed material. Yeah, gold doesn’t look so bling anymore. Then consider that, per tonne of mobile phones discarded, there is 350g of gold – to say nothing of the other precious metals contained within the products.

“And we throw this stuff away???”

Yep.

You want to help kick start the economy, urban mining’s where it’s at. Rather than digging around deep underground looking for the 5g in every 1,000,000, wouldn’t it make more sense to start mining our rubbish dumps for the electronic waste – remembering that circuit boards have about 250g of gold per tonne in them too.

“That, Puffles is astonishing.”

“And England’s gonna throw it away, gonna blow it away, but I know they can play…”

“So…what’s the policy response?”

My suggestion was this abstract theoretical concept called an industrial strategy. You know, one where you cannot simply leave it to the market. But this means the bringing together of a whole series of government departments to make something like this work. Transport, DCLG, BIS, DECC, Defra…exactly. As I’ve argued before, my view is that we need fewer departments of state, a smaller cabinet and more empowered cross-cutting ministers of state that have the authority and resources to handle such complex policy areas. (See Is the Cabinet too big?)

“What was next?”

Social care – and innovations within.

Much of the detail I’m sad to say passed me by. It’s not one of those areas that lights my fire – in part because of my general squeamishness with the human body and also because the whole thing is such a massive policy area that I don’t really know where to start. Also, having lived with my late grandmother in her final years suffering from dementia, emotionally the best way I’m able to deal with it is to stick my head in the sand and hope that someone else can find both cures and policy solutions.

Here, the two big things that stood out for me were the challenges around dementia, and moving away from the model of ‘dumping’ the elderly in care homes – which is what it can feel like all too often. Dignity in old age and supported living. Again, it’s a difficult one for me to really talk about because despite the best efforts of all around my late grandmother, the life of someone suffering from dementia who is also completely immobile can be anything but dignified. There’s also nothing wrong in people – carers & families saying that they do not know how to deal with it either. One option that leaves me deeply uneasy is this one from Germany – exporting the ‘problem’ because the financial burdens are seen as too great.

Smart cities and urban design

There were a number of very good presentations in this session – including a textbook example of how to use PowerPoint effectively when presenting a complex topic by Tim Stonor. A series of graphics and visuals woven together along the lines of: “We have a problem – it looks like this. Analysis of it is shown at “A”, and our options were “B” and “C”. We chose “B” because of X, Y and Z. Now have a look at what this looks like? Better? Good!” You don’t need reams and reams of text. (That said, his blogpost Life by a thousand connections is worth a read!)

There were also a number of things that we tend not to think about but that, when explained seem like common sense. For example, long roads with wide pavements make for better locations for shops than shorter roads with narrow pavements and lots of heavy busy traffic. There were a number of points made about the evolution of towns up to the industrial revolution vs the very quick expansion of cities in recent times. The former didn’t really need a ‘scientific’ approach due to the slow incremental growth of towns. But as they grew rapidly, so the need came for towns and cities to be managed. This session looked at how.

The problem here is that you have science on one side and big vested interests who, in the grand scheme of things couldn’t care less about the science or liveability of a city so long as their development makes them money. This, for example is an insult to Londoners trying to find somewhere to live. This is yet another example that, for all the calls for evidence-based (and science-based) policy-making, lobbying, political pressure and big money all too often skews things against those with the least power & influence. (How too, could you make something like Simon Hughes MP’s suggestion here, work in a city as globalised as London.)

On energy efficient cities, one of the things that struck me about Dr Ruchi Choudary‘s presentation was the need for combinations of policies from hyper-local to national level to have an impact. There is no one ‘silver bullet’. Greening roofs, solar panels everywhere, proper insulation…different combinations will work in different places. How you deliver that at a policy level just goes to show how the current structure of Whitehall isn’t really fit for that purpose. It requires too many ministers and too many officials from different departments getting round tables to agree stuff. Hence in part the pressure to devolve more powers – including spending powers, to city authorities.

Living with climate change

This was the final policy-related session – and it wasn’t all gloom and doom, though I did take issue with Professor Robert Mair on fracking, saying that there is a massive policy inconsistency within Whitehall saying that it wants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions with one voice while encouraging the exploitation of shale gas (which is a fossil fuel) with the other. His point was that this was a medium term solution to the UK’s energy needs, and that we either get it from exploiting UK shale gas reserves, or import it.

Dr Hugh Hunt had some interesting things to say about geo-engineering as an option to tackle climate change, but compared it to painful medical procedures. ie It’s best not to get into the situation where you need treatment in the first place if you can avoid it. He introduced the SPICE Project – an acronym (Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering) rather than a 90s music revival. As geoengineering goes, I quite like Africa’s Great Green Wall.

Ben Page knows what you’re looking at!

Ben Page of Ipsos Mori, who is one of the go-to people in Westminster when the media want to talk about long term society trends gave another interesting presentation on all things mobile. As with people who are good at these things, he looked at the data, analysed it and told a compelling story. This one was about uptake of all things mobile communications (vs desktops), looking at things from which companies are picking up which data, to the number of people coming out of Oxford Circus tube station in a given time period whose phones took them straight to the sort of website you wouldn’t want to be looking at if your mum was watching at the same time. Yes, that number was quite high.

Natasa Milic-Frayling from Microsoft highlighted the massive privacy issues – ones which are far greater than I had even anticipated – with how we use the internet. Basically the mosaic effect (of taking little bits of information to build a very accurate picture) of the internet & data collection is huge. It’s one of the reasons why women in their late 20s & 30s find themselves on the receiving end for adverts for wedding dresses. Their browsing & social media posting habits are analysed and if something comes back as saying ‘in a relationship but not married’…exactly. Yet on the other hand, such analysis can improve the service you get from a shop or outlet that you already use – eg giving you vouchers for money off the things that you already buy regularly for example.

The big issue here is about informed and educated consent.

Being informed and educated about science

This is where we have massive room for improvement. I tried to tease this out of the panel but they misunderstood the question, confusing “public engagement with science” with “educating the public about science”. Events such as #ScienceDay are about the former, not the latter. The former is more about “This is the really exciting stuff you can do with science” while the latter is more about “This is how you do the really exciting stuff in science”. The latter requires a much longer period of time & a greater level of investment.

Outside of an exams context, where are the regular evening classes and programmes of Saturday workshops for science? (I had a big moan here). I want to re-engage with science, & learn about lots of the big things that have happened/have been discovered since I last studied science at school in the mid 1990s. I just don’t want to take an exam at the end of it. The challenge here is for the scientists and the scientific institutions. Because for that, you really do need scientists to do the teaching.

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