Mark Walport is nothing more than an industry stooge on the lookout for a peerage. After just four weeks in the job, this was the charge levelled against the new Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA) by journalist George Monbiot.
Walport had argued that the EU’s plan for a two year ban on neonicotinoid pesticides is a mistake. There is clear evidence that ‘neonics’, as they’re called, harm bees in lab studies. But the GCSA says there is “no measurable harm to bee colonies” if the pesticides are applied “on farms following official guidelines”.
The issues here are complex and the science disputed. Even with sufficient evidentiary backup, scientific ‘facts’ alone are not enough to settle a policy decision. Not enforcing the ban may harm bees. But the opposite action could lead farmers to revert to pyrethroid pesticides, which are thought to be more environmentally damaging than neonics. So competing interests are inevitably involved. Instead of joining the mud-slinging, we could consider Walport’s actions in an alternative light.
Science and government
In his book Science and Government, C. P. Snow recounts the tale of Henry Tizard and Frederick Lindeman. These men, once friends, both became scientific advisors to the government during the Second World War. But after a series of disagreements they spent most of their lives in enmity.
The two figures offer a stark contrast in personality. Snow paints Tizard as a personable man who valued friendship and could get on with anyone. Lindeman, on the other hand, was a rich, secretive aristocrat of uncertain lineage. He was uneasy in company and never drank, ate meat or married.
Snow makes it pretty clear which man we are to prefer. Tizard headed a committee that was responsible for the development of radar and Snow credits him with securing a UK victory in the Battle of Britain. In contrast Lindeman championed the idea of carpet-bombing German cities. He ignored Tizard’s warnings, which were later proved correct, that the strategy would be six times less effective than Lindeman estimated.
Snow draws out the point that Tizard was able to communicate effectively across traditional social boundaries. He had been a practising scientist; rector of Imperial College; a government administrator; and his father was a Naval officer. All this, together with his agreeable personality, meant that Tizard could carry people from disparate branches of state machinery with him. This ensured his management of radar development was exceptionally smooth.
So when we see that Walport, the new GCSA, bears in mind the interests of different groups perhaps we should be pleased. It may show that he recognises the lessons Snow wanted to teach; that good communication with all the relevant stakeholders is necessary to effect a change.
Here’s a worked example. Monbiot makes the point that ‘integrated pest management’ could be used instead of neonicotinoids. Interestingly the very man who invented this approach – Gordon Conway, the Chief Scientific Advisor to DFID until 2005 – epitomises this ability to speak to communicate with anyone. Conway spent much of his career channelling investment into GM technology and was instrumental in developing ‘golden rice’. Although he may not have agreed with the actions of multinationals, he worked with them, rather than against them. In 1999, when agrichemical company Monsanto invited him to give them a lecture, he used his influence positively and persuaded the company not to commercialise its ‘terminator’ seeds.
The integrated pest management scheme that Monbiot favours still requires chemicals. The approach often involves applying animal sex hormones to crops. These encourage pest predators to move into an area and reduce the pest problem. But pheromones are still chemicals and someone has to produce them. Because Walport has not dismissed the interests of industry or farmers he retains personal capital with these groups. In future he may have an opportunity to use that status to influence agricultural practice for the better.
So should we be more forgiving to Walport than Monbiot? We have a tendency to cling to the notion that science is, and must be, apolitical. Though Walport is a scientist representing scientists and their views, his role is a political one. It is easy to criticise such decisions and we may feel Walport was wrong. But the history has shown that GCSA’s can’t simply to present science to politicians as a series of facts. They also march the political minefields of Whitehall, where allegiances are key. Alienating particular factions of society, may lose future battles before they are started.
Josh Howgego is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College.