Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Science funding and Channel 4 film on the green movement

It was great to learn from science minister David Willetts that those of us who spent the Saturday afternoon before the Spending Review outside the Treasury forcing the words 'science is vital' into the verses of Pink Floyd classics did not waste our time. Danny Alexander greeted Willets on the following Monday by jokingly accusing him of dispatching the 2000 white-coated scientists to disturb his last minute preparations.

Of course it was not Willetts who set up the grassroots group Science is Vital, and nor did the scientific community need any encouragement from the new science minister to raise their voice about the importance of protecting the science budget. Groups like CASE did a great job of arming scientists with the facts to demonstrate that cutting science would undermine economic growth, and that case was delivered eloquently and passionately by influential scientists like Martin Rees, Colin Blakemore, John Krebs and a host of Vice-Chancellors.

But while many believe that the surprise decision to protect the science budget can be credited wholly to the scientific community, I think we are neglecting the role of the media. Not only did science reporters succeed in getting science a decent slice of the coverage, even compared to coverage of defence, education and health, but it was striking that some of the best arguments for the science budget were made by the science reporters themselves.

Mark Henderson’s success at persuading editors at the Times that the science spend was an exceptional case was evident in front page splashes, extended coverage and excellent leader articles. Science and education specialists at the Guardian also obliged after mounting a search operation for scientists considering a move out of the UK in the event of a savage cut in their research grants – they were not hard to find and the story was splashed across the front pages while decisions were still being made. And veteran science reporters like Mike Hanlon on the Mail and Roger Highfield at New Scientist penned powerful comment pieces on why science should be seen as special case. Meanwhile over at Research Fortnight the journalist who probably knows more about science funding than anyone in the Treasury, William Cullerne Bown, was characteristically blunt: "Trying to slim down public spending by cutting science is like trying to lose weight by blowing your brains out."

So maybe those who struggle to acknowledge that the media often does science a great service should be more gracious right now – the media they so often despair of may well have just helped rescue them from savage cuts. And before others shout 'going native' let me assure you that it will be these same specialist reporters who will now hold the government to account when the finer details start to emerge. Within hours of the good news that the science budget had not been slashed it was science reporters who grilled Willetts on the real terms cut and the confounding factors around the capital spend. In a first for the SMC, William Cullerne Bown presented Willetts with a massive bunch of flowers at the post-review press conference thanking him for 'making our day'. But the new science minister would be foolish to think that William or any of the other science journalists will not now scrutinize every aspect of the science spend. The beauty of specialist journalists is that they care about science but they also know and understand science enough to do what journalism is meant to do – speak truth to power.

Channel 4 film

It was our good friend Prof Howard Atkinson, the plant scientist from Leeds, who alerted me to last week’s Channel Four film 'What the Green Movement Got Wrong' after letting me know he was due to take part in the live studio debate straight after. Howard has more reasons than most to take an interest in this subject after his publically funded field trial of genetically modified nematode resistant bananas was destroyed by anti-GM activists a couple of years ago.

When I first read the publicity blurb alarm bells started to ring – with strong echoes of the kind of deliberately provocative film that got Channel 4 into so much trouble with the Great Global Warming Swindle. But having settled in for the night to watch the film and the studio debate that followed I was pleasantly surprised. What was so wrong about GGWS was that it mixed legitimate opinion with seriously distorted and inaccurate science. Unlike GGWS this programme didn’t even claim to be about science and there were mercifully few graphs or pie charts. Instead it told the story of the personal journeys of four or five prominent environmentalists who have changed their minds about issues like nuclear power and GM crops – primarily it seems because of the greater threat posed by climate change. There were odd bits – I thought the clips about Chernobyl and DDT were unnecessary and over-stated, and nor do four or five talking heads signify any kind of revolution in green thinking. But it was hard not to be fascinated by someone like Mark Lynas explaining how he has gone from ripping up GM trials in the middle of the night to now supporting their use.

Not surprisingly the representatives from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth who appeared in the studio debate straight after the film after were far from happy, accusing the film of caricaturing them as anti-science and ideological. I’m sure this film was not easy to watch, and if the shoe had been on the other foot I’m sure I would be shouting about lack of balance. It is also true, and not disputed in the film, that effective campaigning by these groups has put many issues on the political agenda and achieved benefits for the environment. But that effectiveness has given green groups an enviably high media profile and significant influence on public and political opinion. Programmes raising questions about their approach are relatively rare, despite the fact that in my 8 years in science I have heard hundreds of wonderful environmental scientists saying many of the things repeated in this film by Tim Flannery and others.

One of the first big stories the Science Media Centre got involved with was the media launch of the Farm Scale Evaluations on GM crops, commissioned by the then environment minister Michael Meacher to assess the impact of GM on biodiversity. The four year field experiment was conducted on the ground, largely by idealistic young ecologists working for world class environmental science institutions – almost all of whom started out as members of either Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, or both. By the end, however, many had handed back their membership cards in protest at the trashing of their trials and the constant condemnation and misinformation by green groups. The environmentalists in the film are pretty opinionated, self assured, senior guys, and the filmmakers had fun presenting them as having turned on the movement that spawned them. But actually another film could easily be made about the silent majority of mild-mannered environmental scientists who have also come to despair of the way in which campaign groups have misused science.

In the Guardian environment blog the next day my old friend Andrew Simms said, 'The curious unsettling question left unanswered is why do GM food and nuclear power get disproportionate attention?', echoing another contribution from Craig Bennett from FOE saying that GM and nuclear are actually 'distractions'. But scientists have often posed precisely that question to green campaigners, even arguing that by separating out GM and shining a light on this one technology, environmentalists have allowed other new farming techniques with potentially greater impacts to avoid scrutiny or regulation. In eight years of running science press briefings on agriculture, climate change and energy I have never heard scientists making an isolated case for GM or nuclear. Most engineers and energy experts invariably agree that we must have both nuclear and renewables to cope with growing energy demands and climate change, and plant scientists involved in plant breeding believe that both conventional and genetic approaches are needed and should be researched.

I thought the film was thought-provoking television, and the debate that followed was robust and informative. And as someone rightly noted, it was also three hours on prime time television where everyone agreed on one thing – climate change is a real and pressing challenge and we need a proper grown up debate about how best to handle it!

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