Discover Dialogue: Lord Robert May

The best science performers are countries which make sure young people are set free to pursue their own agenda and express their creativity.

By Jocelyn Selim|Thursday, November 25, 2004

Lord Robert May planted the seeds of chaos theory, and his work modeling ecosystems and infectious diseases mathematically has translated into global conservation efforts and insights into AIDS. As the United Kingdom’s former chief scientific adviser and the country’s highest authority on science during the mad cow years, he instituted a set of protocols by which scientific advice is decided and presented to the public. In 2000 he was appointed president of the Royal Society, one of the most esteemed positions in the world of science, where he continues to work closely with governments to develop policies on scientific issues at the national and international level.

What should governments do to help science?

M: The way science is taught to the next generation needs improvement. We need to increase the levels of spending on basic science, creating new knowledge, and make certain that the money is maximized, both in the direct costs of funding research and the indirect costs of the infrastructure, such as buildings and equipment. In the United Kingdom, we’d like to capture more of the spirit of entrepreneurship that ultimately carries ideas to the market in the way that it does so well in the United States.

Why does the U.S. system work better?

M: I think it’s the risk-embracing culture. It’s the willingness to take a risk, to chuck in my job and take the thing that I did in the lab and now try to take it to the market. The instinct in the United Kingdom would be to try to keep my job so that I’ve got something to fall back on and part-time try to take it to the market. That’s slowly changing.

Is that based on the economic climate that people are living in?

M: It’s more about willingness. If you think about it, in Britain and Europe, where most university education is essentially free, people emerge with no sense that they’re obliged to anyone or anything for it. In the United States, people, particularly at the private universities, often pay huge sums and emerge with an indebted sense that it didn’t cover the real costs and benefits.

Is there a successful formula for doing good science?

M: I do not believe in any philosophies of how science is done. It’s essentially an almost existential process of asking questions about how the world works. There are different styles. Some people will be hugely useful, as well as hugely happy, spending their lives going down a narrow channel, learning more and more and more about something. Others with a shorter attention span, you might say, will be happy at hopping around and are more interested in the earlier stages of something: what are the essentials of this, and then leaving the elaboration of that to people of a different kind. That kind of personality is not necessarily the person who would flourish on a large team that’s going to spend 10 years on a problem. You need both. And I belong to the short attention span set.

What do you make of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ criticism of President Bush?

M: I’m going to choose the words carefully. The union has a number of very accomplished and very distinguished members. The Bush administration is perceived to pick and choose science advice to fit ideological conclusions arrived at on other grounds, as if they were presenting a case in a courtroom rather than dispassionately resolving uncertainties. And it is perceived to be removed from committees of voices that don’t agree with an ideological agenda. So you have this great protest there that’s rather unique and not the sort of thing that there’s been in Europe. A very large fraction of the science community in the United Kingdom finds persuasive the statement made by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Why haven’t there been similar problems in Europe?

M: Well, in the United Kingdom we have a process, established partly in the aftermath of mad cow disease. And it is based on the understanding that you need a scientific governing body that doesn’t change with the administration, right at the top level. We created an Office of Science and Technology with a permanent secretary head, who is a distinguished scientist. And there are guidelines for science advice and policymaking. So there’s a definite set of protocols for handling hot topics like foot-and-mouth disease or stem cell research.

What are those protocols?

M: They say you should solicit opinion widely, deliberately seeking out dissenting opinion, and you should make clear what is clearly known and what is uncertain, and you should publish that openly. It’s a lot easier to run the decision-making process if you can just get a bunch of people in a smoke-filled room and come out and say, “Here’s the conclusion.” But science isn’t this binary thing—one day we’re uncertain, the next day we’re certain. It’s a landscape of opinion over which, guided by experiment, clusters of dominant opinion will emerge over time, and eventually you’ll have one big spike and people will agree on the inverse square laws explaining the motion of the planets, as it were. In the long run, you want public confidence, and you build confidence by exposing the arguments openly.

Why are Europeans so upset about genetically modified foods?

M: Mad cow disease is a good example where too certain a statement was made: Mad cow disease won’t affect humans. In fact, what should have been said was, “It’s very unlikely because it’s a bit like scrapie in sheep, and scrapie in sheep doesn’t seem to do any harm, so it’s probably OK, but we don’t know, and you have to decide.” And so in the aftermath of a food scare like that, you have certain lobbying groups saying we need to worry about genetically modified foods; you have the government saying it’s all OK. The argument is dominated by clamorous voices at either extreme of a spectrum, but the public isn’t motivated to get involved. As time goes on and we have products that are beneficial—foods like nuts that are allergy-free or a golden apple that will make you thin and witty—then people will engage in the debate.

What about government regulation of controversial science like stem cell research?

M: In Britain we had three years of debate over stem cells, building on earlier debates such as in vitro fertilization. If you did public polls, you found people two to one or more in favor of the more permissive legislation we have, and that was reflected in Parliament. Dialogues ask which doors we will open and which doors we want to keep closed. And a political process that responds to that dialogue is the most important part of government. Creating new knowledge and then carrying the new knowledge to the people will work only if society as a whole is happy with this application of the knowledge.

Which countries are better at science?

M: If you look just at who is the world’s leader by sheer volume, the United States of course is the leader, whether you’re counting papers, citations, anything. But that’s to confuse size with quality. I mean, after all, the Americans win more medals at the Olympic Games. But in relation to population size, medals per citizen, the United States isn’t even in the top 20. In science, if you count citations in relation to population or gross domestic product, Switzerland is number one. But the United States is exceptionally strong. And if you look at the world’s top 1 percent of the most highly cited papers, then the United States, in relation to population size, is slightly behind the United Kingdom but well ahead of the European Union. Interestingly, the EU has shown marked improvement, and if you projected it forward, then in another couple of decades, who can say? And India and China are demonstrating huge, rapid growth.

What does it take to be productive in science besides money?

M: Overall, there are major differences in performance in relation to money spent, and the correlation tends to be that the best performers are countries which, in effect, make sure that young people are set free to pursue their own agenda and express their creativity, and that systems that entrench the young too long in training or in hierarchical structures of apprenticeship and deference to their elders don’t get the same value for their money. If you take the big three science spenders in Europe—France, Germany, and Britain—they all have superb people, but much of the best science in Germany and France is done in dedicated institutes rather than in universities or university-like settings infested with irreverent young. So that might be why Britain has heightened productivity.

So irreverence is good?

M: Science is about asking questions. The trouble with science as it’s too often seen, whether it’s on a multiple-choice test or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is that it’s presented as trivial facts with certain answers. But the excitement of science is at the frontiers, where often there’s real uncertainty—for example, stem cells. Science is as much about sharpening the questions as giving the answers, and we don’t succeed in capturing that excitement and that liveliness in too much of the way we teach science. It’s the people who are happily questioning what they’re told without too much respect, and those who sort of don’t know what they’re supposed to be thinking, who are important. You won’t necessarily get that in its fullest flowering, even in a flourishing democracy, and it’s extremely hard to get it if you don’t have a system in which general freedom of expression is encouraged.

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