Thinking about science at #ThinkCon Cambridge


When Suzi Gage came to town – and Dr Rupert Read of The Green Party coming back again

The MusicNet East conference left me emotionally exhausted but with a buzzing head – meaning that without medication I’d have not got any sleep. It’s one of the ways I have to manage my internal demons because lack of sleep makes me mentally unstable – as does too much caffeine, processed sugar and alcohol.

Lou Woodley tipped me off about ThinkCon, and finding out that epidemiologist and long-time dragon-fairy-watcher Suzi Gage was coming to Cambridge for this, I signed up. I’d not met Suzi before but we’ve been following each other for over a year on Twitter, so it’s always nice to meet people face-to-face at these things.

Puffles with Suzi in 'the green room' at #ThinkCon
Puffles with Suzi in ‘the green room’ at #ThinkCon

Suzi’s presentation reminded me of was that of Professor David Nutt when the latter came to speak about drugs policy to the Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange. (I touched on it in this blogpost). She’s working in and on one of those areas that is ever so politically sensitive. It’s one of the reasons why Professor Nutt got sacked by former Home Secretary Alan Johnson because the scientific advice on drugs was not politically palatable. i.e. just before a general election you couldn’t run with the policies scientific advice indicated lest the tabloids have a field day with headlines such as:

“Minister: I back drugs!”

To which Suzi and the scientists (and anyone with more than a very basic level of scientific awareness) would respond that caffeine and alcohol are drugs. Brian (now Lord) Paddick when he was a senior police officer in Brixton was one of the first users of social media, using it to engage with his local community on the Urban 75 message boards (see here for the history). That was in 2001. Both Paddick – and Mike who created and has run the boards for the past decade and a half were ***years*** ahead of their time. But the tabloids didn’t like it, and he was hounded out of his job in an horrifically homophobic campaign.

Challenging those in power

This was the awkward question I put to Suzi in the Q&A session. Just as Penny Homer told me at the music conference the day before that music and musicians have historically challenged the powerful, so too must science and scientists. Part of the problem is that scientists are (understandably) reluctant to engage in politics – in particular party politics – in the current climate. If Professor Nutt can be treated the way he was by a Home Secretary, why would anyone else want to put themselves in the firing line? I’ll repeat the line again:

“How can you have evidence-based policy with prejudice-based politics?”

How do you combine a dispassionate analysis of the evidence with passion for a cause or policy?

This was an open question Suzi put to all of us. Her point was that – as with the civil service, you’ve got to be objective about the research, evidence and analysis that you do. To become too much of an advocate of that in a political arena could put at risk your impartiality. Hence her observation that there needs to be a ‘something’ that can be an intermediary.

Helping society becoming more scientifically literate

This for me is a big theme. The problem I find is that the scientific and educational communities have not come up with a suitable approach for adults. As I said to Kat Arney in the pub later on, how do you bridge the gap between scientific experts and policy advisers that might have last formally studied science at GCSE? It’s great having things like the Cambridge Science Festival (on now (March-April 2014)), but where are the opportunities for enjoyable, inspiring and structured learning for adults where you are building on previous learning?

Cambridge: When are we going to get those weekly evening classes on science for adults that don’t involve exams at the end?

Because we have come a hell of a long way since I last studied science in anywhere near a lab setting – and that was in the mid-1990s in a mobile classroom. The institutions are here, the people are here, the wealth and resources are here, and the buildings are here. Let’s use them.


And…what about Rupert?

Two of the Green Party’s East Anglia European Parliament candidates were in Cambridge earlier on – Rupert Read and Fiona Radic. They hosted a talk on how to make the ‘great transition’ from where we are now to where we want to be as a sustainable economy & society in a Cambridge & East Anglia context. (See here). Former Friends of the Earth chief Tony Juniper was also there – he stood for the Greens in 2010 for Parliament, pulling in an unprecedented 3,804 votes. There were about 40 people there on what was otherwise a gorgeous sunny afternoon in the city.

Kings College Chapel - the view greeting me as I headed from the Greens' gathering to #ThinkCon
Kings College Chapel – the view greeting me as I headed from the Greens’ gathering to #ThinkCon



There was a strong scientific focus on what they all said too – even though according to some of their critics, science is an achilles heel for the movement. For me, part of the reason is that for some in the environmental movement, ‘big’ science (of the large organisations) doesn’t always sit easily with the small-scale living that some promote and live by. Whether it’s GM crops to planning squabbles with wind turbines, even to homeopathy and ‘alternative healing’ (a few examples here), it’s not an easy balance to strike. Green Party leader Natalie Bennett at her recent talk in Cambridge (see here) described her party as being the political wing of a much wider diverse environmental movement. With diversity inevitably brings disagreements.

Giving people hope

This was something I pressed the three speakers on – using an example from the days when I was a climate change policy adviser in central government. For the first half of my time, people in and lobbyists for industry were constantly questioning the ‘why?’ – remember this was just after Lord Stern had published his epic report The Economics of Climate ChangeAs an economics graduate that focused on environmental economics, I was particularly interested in this report – and was delighted to find that one of my fellow students who by a country mile was the outstanding scholar in our cohort, was part of the team that wrote it. (Step forward Hannah Ryder). I knew Hannah quite well at university and had a huge regard for her knowledge and penetrating analysis of the subject. She doesn’t know this but it was knowing that she was on the report’s team that made me trust it a damn sight more in the context of public platforms when sparring with people critical of the policy responses. I also never forgot in the run up to our finals when we were discussing a paper on the economics of development when she paid me a huge compliment on my own intellect, saying that I should be getting a first for my degree. That was when I told her the impact of my mental health problems and how I was never able to really sink my teeth into the growing field of ecological and environmental economics, as well as that of the interface between economics and human psychology. But my point is that somehow, Hannah gave me hope.

And that’s what Tony said the Greens needed to do. Because in the second half of my time as a climate change policy adviser, a building firm went and built some new commercially viable highly sustainable homes. And got ***lots*** of positive publicity with it. Almost overnight, the conversation in the policy area switched away from ‘why’ to ‘how?’

‘Our message must be more “I have a dream” rather than “We have a nightmare”‘

Not just on climate change issues, but on much more besides – paraphrasing Tony’s words. Because if politicians focus on the negative as all too often in recent times they have done, it’s not surprising that people risk becoming paralysed by fear rather than inspired to take action. With that in mind, in the run up to the 2014 local government and European elections, and for the 2015 elections, I would like to see politicians showing us some positive case studies of what works, why it works and how they plan to expand this to benefit more people. In this digital and social media age, will we be seeing more short digital video clips of good things rather than doom-laden sound-bite-bitten party election broadcasts? Hopefully


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