Science and the General Election 2010

The third in the series of debates about Science and the General Election 2010, the panelists were Lord Paul Drayson (Labour), Dr. Adam Afriyie (Conservatives) and Dr. Evan Harris (Liberal Democrats) and was chaired by Susan Watts, editor of BBC Newsnight.

All three of the panelists came at the debate from a different angle. Although they are all vying for our vote, Labour has a recent track record and a corner to defend, The Conservatives are ‘the opposition’ and Liberal Democrats were in the enviable position of being able to make what appeared to be clear and specific policy.

Lord Paul Drayson kicked off the introductions by stressing the importance that Labour feel science plays in the future prosperity of our country. Since coming into power the have doubled the science budget and British citizens have received more Nobel prizes than any other country, outside the USA. Lord Drayson said he would like to see the ‘transformation’ of jobs in science, but also claims Gordon Brown ‘gets’ science and has the ability to look at the big and the small and, together with his predecossor, Blair, they have all presided in a ‘renaissance’ in British Science.

Dr. Adam Afriyie was the next to outline his Party’s position: fixing the economy… After a drawn out few minutes discussing various Labour failings in the economy (including the relevant facts of STFC cutting research grants by £1bn and withdrawal from 26 projects) Afriyie moved onto science by linking it into the new economic mode proposed by the Conservatives. We heard from him a 3 point plan: 1. Education – curriculum and incentives. 2. Stable Funding – ring fencing and a multi-year science budget and 3. Delivering the right conditions for innovation – ensuring strong jobs for science.

Dr. Evan Harris was the final panelist to deliever his introduction. After a bit of light banter with the crowd he started by informing us of some statistics rebuking Labour’s claim of a 50% increase in the science budget- citing a corresponding growth in GDP which results proportionally in less growth in real terms than Labour is claming, but still more than ever happened under the Conservatives. Not to mention many other items coming under the umbrella of the science budget than previously had done. Harris commented that we are above only Italy in the G7 countries in science budget and compared out stimulus of a VAT cut to that of Germany, France and USA, all of whom have invested in science and technology. He then moved onto their proposals, which centered heavily around education: cutting tuition fees; cutting graduate debt, looking after postgraduates, post doctorates and science teachers; ensuring that science is a feasible career for women to continue to work in and ensuring that universities use our tax money to fill their science places before inventing more media degrees to fill. He then discussed libel law and how they are being used to silence scientists… and then he ran out of time!

The debate quickly moved onto a few questions from Susan Watts of newsnight, including, predictably, one about a hung Parliament in which the panelists were largely in agreement with one another that this would not necessarily be a disaster for science – it is a unusual area for policy in that respect. Watts followed this up with a question aimed specifically at Afriyie, attempting him to specify whether cuts would be made in attempt to ‘shore up’ the economy. All three panelists ha a chance to speak, but it unhelpfully became a series of ‘he said-she said’ – although by this point it was become increasingly clear that, in many ways, Labour and Lib Dems are on the same side of the [ring] fence on this issue.

We saw questions from the floor, including from a first time voter about investments into space programs (at which point it was revealed that Dyson manufactures his vacuum cleaners in Malaysia, unlike the satellite manufacturers who have prospered under Drayson, who have factories in the UK); a question about students loans; a question from Sense about Science asking whether the panelists support proposals being embedded into ministerial code (which was followed by political bickering when Afriyie said he ‘would love to see this’ and was accused being non-commital); a question asking whether panelists would approve of a science advisor in the Treasury (Afriyie claimed that he had been lobbying for a ‘evidence based policy approach instead of policy based evidence’ and that he would like to see new MPs being given ‘science induction lessons’ – to which Harris suggested starting with current MPs and cited the recent Chris Grayling knife crime statistical fail as an example. He then used the opportunity to enter into a soliloquy chastising the recent use of statistics to distort facts and, conversely, the ignorance of statistics that have resulted in the recent dismissal of Professor Nutt on drug policy. Harris received the only spontaneous applause of the night.); following that was a question about women in science, which warranted almost typical answers in all panelists (Drayson suggested picking out women as ‘one to watch’ and ensuring the money follows them and they are presented as role models, Harris gave a thoughtful answer suggesting target them young, breaking stereotypes and finding where the discrepancies between women going into science and women continuing it for years arises and Afriyie suggested career advice and diverged away from women almost immediately going back to his self-promotion on his lobbying, suggesting studies on what policy actually affects peoples’ decisions.) we then heard a question from Martin Taylor of the Royal Society who asked about ‘long term maintenance’ of science, (which promted Afriyie to suck up to Martin Taylor and the other 2 to shoot Afriyie down; bickering ensued. This was halted by Watts who turned back to Taylor to ask him if he had a clear enough answer or if he would like clarificaton! He said he would like it, but I fear did not get it!)

Having spoken to some ladies who worked for Cancer Research UK and having looked at the various comments on twitter, it seems that funding is a specific area that needs some serious work yet wasn’t given the address it deserved, and so desperately needs, by panelists on the night, but, as we were reminded by all three panelists, (and a fair point it is, too) it isn’t for politicians to decide where the funding goes. Perhaps a debate for another day?

By the time their summary came round, I was able to form an opinion based on what I had seen from the candidates.

Lord Paul Drayson for labour had to toe the party line and defend his corner. He has only been in the role for 18 months and, while I’m sure the sentiment is not unanimous, from where I am standing he hasn’t done that bad a job in that short time. It was clear that he would like to be given the chance to continue on the role. As Harris pointed out, there were examples of fudging statistics in the claim that science spending had gone up by 50%. Nothing new there.

Dr. Evan Harris was clear, passionate, made specific suggestions about specific questions and I don’t think I heard once ounce of rhetoric from him. Of course, Lib Dems are in the position to be able to be seen to be making these promises having been in perpetual third place, but science is something they obviously hold in high regard, which is where it should be.

Contrasting with Harris, Dr. Adam Afriyie for Conservatives can barely talk the talk, let alone walk the walk. He carries himself well and is a good orator, generally speaking, but as we all know, science is not an area where being ‘general’ is accepted. He avoided answering questions directly, was non-committal without acknowledging that he was being non-committal (quelle surprise for a politician, I know!) and seemed, in actual fact, out of his depth talking about science issues.

In my eyes, Dr. Evan Harris won that debate. I think he engaged with the audience, was specific, passionate and was clearly a scientist first and politician second. The problem is, as we know, that scientists sometimes have problems interacting with the general public, and there might be a chance that Afriyie will charm the masses – which will result in the science budget being cut, of course, unlike with either of the other 2 parties.

However, the election is not just about science, and is not to be fought between just the three main parties (as I must keep reminding myself, we are in a democracy!) so the quest continues!


“Calculus of Risk”

Calculus (n) Latin ~ Small stone used for counting.


1. (Mathematics) a branch of mathematics, developed independently by Newton and Leibniz. Both differential calculus and integral calculus are concerned with the effect on a function of an infinitesimal change in the independent variable as it tends to zero.
2. (Mathematics) any mathematical system of calculation involving the use of symbols
3. (Philosophy / Logic) Logic an uninterpreted formal system
4. (Medicine / Pathology) pl -li [-ˌlaɪ] Pathol a stonelike concretion of minerals and salts found in ducts or hollow organs of the body

So which definition does Blair mean when he uses his new phrase ‘Calculus of risk’?

1. (Mathematics) a branch of mathematics, developed independently by Newton and Leibniz. Both differential calculus and integral calculus are concerned with the effect on a function of an infinitesimal change in the independent variable as it tends to zero.
2. (Mathematics) any mathematical system of calculation involving the use of symbols

Calculus is a branch of mathematics concerned with change. You can look into differential calculus and discover rate of change. For example given a speed-time graph you can find the acceleration using the method of differentiation – the gradient of the speed curve = acceleration. Alternatively, looking at integral calculus, the same speed-time graph can be used to find the total distance traveled, which is the area under the graph.  A good way to look at it is changing between dimensions: differentiation – down a dimension and integration – up a dimension.

Both methods can be explained by studying increasingly smaller changes in the variable x (time in the speed-time graph) so that, conceptually, the difference between one input ‘x’ and the next is infinitesimally small.

Trying to put this into context of Blair’s usage and attempting to turn it into an equation, I can only speculate that he means quantifiable risk measuring the output ‘reward’ plotted on the axis of evil.

To differentiate the ‘equation’ might result in a rate of change, but I am more interested in what he though the integral effects of any war waged would be. The sum of all risk-reward options as the change in risk tends towards zero.

Now, I’m not privy to Blair’s idiosyncratic equation measuring reward against risk,  I suppose that’s part of the Chilcot Inquiry – to discover whether his equation makes sense, is well defined and it reporting sensible answers. But it seems, to my humble self, that Blair has manipulated the change in risk by attempting to ensure that people were behind him, rather than behind his strategy or logic. One of his repetitive justifications is that he was doing what he thought was the right thing, perhaps in the hope that that the ‘change in risk’ of public opinion turning sour tends towards zero for each increment along the scale of actions and their relative extremities. Using this assumption for his approximation he has appeared to have used methods of calculus to enter into a higher dimension (which is a discovery of mathematics I’m sure he favours, given his new phrase). But are his methods of seeking support sound? Well we’ve heard rumours of fabrication, ignoring advice and sexing up anything they could get their hands on. Of course it’s not for me to opine politically, but if we’re talking maths here, then its no matter for debate that the incorrect input can result in the incorrect output.

Of course he could mean the philosophical definition:

3. (Philosophy / Logic) Logic an uninterpreted formal system

Closely related to the 2nd mathematical definition above, the logical calculus in which the expressions include predicate letters and variables, as well as the expressions for truth-functions and the propositional variables of the propositional calculus. Hmmm… truth function. I’m sure he likes the sound of that, too.

So, for example, IF Saddam Hussain has wmd THEN he must be removed.

Or, perhaps: IF Saddam has wmd THEN we have an excuse for regime change.

Of course, it doesn’t tell you what to do if your predicate turns out to be incorrect – you have the relationship between predicate and subject wrong? For most it’s back to the drawing board, but for some perhaps they enlist the help of the aforementioned ‘higher dimensions’..

But by his own admission, this calculus of risk changed after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, an emotive and terrifying event, but what did his predicate change from? And what to? Will we ever find out?

Of course there is the medical definition:

4. (Medicine / Pathology) pl -li [-ˌlaɪ] Pathol a stonelike concretion of minerals and salts found in ducts or hollow organs of the body

While I do think this definition has more to do with the original Latin meaning of the word, it certainly gives me a stone in the pit of my stomach.