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Interview with James Wilsdon

James Wilsdon is the Director of the Science Policy Centre at the Royal Society; he coordinates the Society’s UK and international policy work.

Tell us about your current role at the Royal Society...

I am Director of the Science Policy Centre at the Royal Society. This is a relatively new development in the Royal Society, launched as part of its 350th anniversary. Its aim is to strengthen the voice of science in public policy in the UK, Europe and the wider world. We play a crucial role in bringing scientists into more active dialogue with policy makers on the pressing issues of the day. We draw on the expertise of the Fellows of the Society and others and have a team of about 25 people inside the Royal Society facilitating that, so it’s quite a significant strand of what the Royal Society does.

The Royal Society has long worked on science policy, but the new Centre represents a scaling up of what we do and the ambition with which we do it. We are also increasingly trying to approach issues from an international perspective, by producing reports that include recommendations for policy makers in Westminster and Whitehall, but also in Brussels or international bodies of varying types.

In the last decade you’ve authored a series of influential think pieces like See-through Science. What do you think have been the major developments in science and innovation policy over this period?

I think the headline story of the past decade has been the increased investment we have had in science and research, and the increased quality, effectiveness and productivity of British science as a result. The Royal Society explores this issue in a big report we published in March called ‘The Scientific Century’. The report tries to take stock of what has happened in British science over the past decade and where things might go next.

In terms of debates around science and society, I think the story again is largely positive. Arguments in favour of mainstreaming public dialogue have largely been won, and we’ve seen a shift towards a more conversational and two-way relationship between scientists and the public. There is a lot of good practice to point to. Look, for example, at all the work that has been undertaken by the research councils, who have led creative experiments in public dialogue around subjects such as synthetic biology, nanotechnology and geoengineering. Sciencewise has also played an influential and important role in catalysing those and other experiments. So I think the story is a positive one.

Do you think the nature of the way the public engage, and are engaged, in science and innovation might change as a result of changes to the economy over the coming years?

As I mentioned, we have seen a period of growth in investment in science across the board, a small subset of which has enabled more resources to be channelled towards science communication and public engagement. Of course, there’s a very real danger that the science budget is going to be squeezed in the forthcoming spending review. This would affect all areas of the research system. It will be a tragedy if we see a rapid and irreversible drop in investment, with all sorts of worrying consequences. As a subset of this, it would also be a mistake to reverse the advances that have been made in mainstreaming public engagement and investing fairly modest sums to good effect.

The public spending environment we’re now in, clearly brings to the fore the need for a different sort of public conversation around science. Yes, we need to carry on engaging in dialogue about novel, disruptive and at times controversial areas of technological innovation. We need to continue to ensure that there’s a flow of social intelligence into those innovation processes. But in this climate, we also need to be having a broader public conversation about the value of science and research to our economy and society more generally.

The Prime Minister and the Chancellor have encouraged a public debate about the role and the limits of government, and the way in which cuts should be enacted. Within the scientific community, we need to reach out to the broader public to encourage a more vigorous debate about the importance of scientific research and the quality of our university system. I worry that perhaps this isn’t happening as loudly as it should, given the pressures on all areas of public spending.

If you look back at the recent general election, there was a bit more attention paid to science and research than usual. Certainly there were more references in the party manifestos. But it is still an issue that languishes fairly low down the political batting order, and that is a source of real concern.

Another related worry is that we’ve lost from Parliament a number of the most vocal champions of science who were there previously. And while a few new MPs have shown an early and very encouraging interest in this area, we as a scientific community need to be engaging with and mobilising a broader constituency of MPs who can speak up for science. As Martin Rees said in his recent Reith Lectures on Radio 4, we don’t need uncritical cheerleaders, we need engaged and thoughtful politicians who understand the nature of scientific research, and understand the huge contribution that science and technology make to our prosperity and our social wellbeing. They also need to help steer and guide broader public discussion in areas where scientific research raises difficult dilemmas, where we may need to proceed with care and caution. I think that there is a very important role for Parliament in helping to lead and shape that public discussion, together with scientific bodies, NGOs, the media and other players.

Public dialogue is now an established feature of the UK’s science and innovation landscape. What would you do differently in relation to public dialogue if you could start again at the beginning?

Ten years ago, we were in the throes of the GM crops debate, which stands as an example of how not to conduct these sorts of public conversations about science and technology. And it still remains an unresolved issue. One worry in any revisiting of that debate is that people quickly fall back into established tramlines and positions. We need to be able to look afresh at the balance of evidence, analysis and uncertainty and make sensible decisions on that basis. To take the specific issue of food security and crop technologies, the Royal Society published a big report in November 2009 called ‘Reaping the Benefits’. The report certainly is supportive of the contribution that GM technologies can make, but it also recognises that they are part of a wider portfolio of scientific, technological and non technological solutions that we will need to draw on in creating a sustainable and equitable food system for the world 10, 30 years from now. So if a body like the Royal Society can revisit the issue and come up with what I think is a very thoughtful and balanced contribution to the next phase of the debate, we now need others to do the same.

On 28 June you chaired the Royal Society’s Annual Debate titled ‘The experimental society:  What happens when evidence, uncertainty and politics collide?’ – can you explain what inspired the title and how you might answer the question yourself?

The Royal Society played a pivotal role in its early years in the development of the scientific method, with early Fellows like Hooke, Boyle and Pepys meeting weekly to conduct experiments. The Society has always seen its role as promoting empirical inquiry and experimentation as a way of understanding and making sense of the world.

So in holding a debate with that title, we wanted to reflect on the extent to which that way of uncovering truth, that way of thinking about the world, can be extended from the realm of science to politics and public life more generally. Whether in the wake of controversies such as ‘Climategate’ and the sacking of Professor David Nutt (who was one of the panellists at that event), we could strengthen the experimental, evidence-based approach to the development of policy in various areas.

At the debate, as well as hearing from David Nutt about his experiences at the ACMD, we had reflections from Lord Krebs, who was very involved in food issues in his time as chairman of the FSA, and also Michael Hulme from the University of East Anglia. We were trying to draw lessons from these specific instances that could help to inform a more robust model of grappling with knotty and difficult interactions between science, politics and the public where they arise.

Issues like climate change challenge society and politicians because the evidence is uncertain and the solutions will require most people to be involved. Can engagement deal with uncertain evidence?

I think the next phase of public dialogue needs to bring uncertainties to the fore and work with the public to navigate those uncertainties. This will be a great challenge but it’s also an area of experimentation and opportunity.

There are important lessons to be learnt from engagement activities that have worked well. If we can show how to do this stuff on a small scale, that will generate useful lessons and insights that we can apply more broadly to debates through the media and elsewhere, in order to make sensible and informed policy choices.