Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Labour Scientists Fail to Declare an Interest

Tune in to LBC 97.3 from 10am - 1pm to hear me co-present
LBC's Saturday morning phone-in with Ken Livingstone

I’ve had a look at the 22 “leading scientists”, who signed the lead letter in the Indie yesterday criticising Conservative science policy. This is a stunt Labour have pulled in previous years, with distinguished scientists like Lord Winston and Stephen Hawking signing similar letters in 2001 and 2005.

It seems like this year’s eminent scientists have all forgotten the importance of scientists declaring any conflicting interests when submitting material for publication: 21 are members of Scientists for Labour, an affiliated organisation of the Labour Party, whose first objective, according to their constitution is ‘To work for the return and maintenance of a Labour government’ – ahead of its objective of ‘To work to ensure that the government of the day maintains a clear commitment to science in the United Kingdom’.

One is even the Labour candidate for Gosport!

And while some are undoubtedly leading scientists, at least two are hardly ‘emminent’ – one is a student, and one, who gives his job as ‘scientific editor’ is, as far as I can see, editor of only ‘Science Matters’ – the journal of Scientists for Labour.

Oh, and S4L seems to be sponsored by Unite – their newsletter bears the Unite logo. It seems tha hand if Unite is to be found in virtually every part of the Labour Party nowadays. So here are the scientists...

David Caplin, Socialist Societies representative, Scientists for Labour
Paul Connell, Secretary, Scientists for Labour
Frances Downey, member and Executive Council member of Scientists for Labour (a third year PhD student)
Matthew Freeman, member, Scientists for Labour
Graham Giles, Labour PPC for Gosport
Stephen Keevil, Vice-Chair, Scientists for Labour
Saiful Islam, member, Scientists for Labour
Ian McGrath, member, Scientists for Labour
Sean Munro, member, Scientists for Labour
Alan Nichols, member, Scientists for Labour
Bobbie Nichols, member and Executive Council member of Scientists for Labour. He is described on the Independent letter as ‘scientific editor’ – he is the editor of Science Matters, the journal of Scientists for Labour
Paul Nurse, Patron, Scientists for Labour
Ken Pounds
Willie Russell, member and Webmaster, Scientists for Labour
Jonathan Seville, member, Scientists for Labour
Peter Stern, member and Executive Council member, Scientists for Labour
David Taplin, member and Executive Council member, Scientists for Labour
Nigel Titchen, member and Executive Council member, Scientists for Labour
John Unsworth, Chair of Scientists for Labour
Martin Yuille, member and Executive Council member, Scientists for Labour
Robin Weiss, member, Scientists for Labour

So, yesterday it was the Independent which fell for this stunt. Five years ago it was Michael White of The Guardian...

Election 2005: Science policies win over experts
BYLINE: Michael White, Political editor
SECTION: Guardian Home Pages, Pg. 8
LENGTH: 241 words

More than 30 senior British scientists have signed a letter endorsing Labour - because eight years in office have generated "a new spirit of optimism" among their younger colleagues.
The letter to the Guardian, which matches yesterday's letter to the Times from business leaders, notes that British universities are undergoing "a cultural change" that will give a competitive advantage to research-based enterprise.

"Since 1997, the Labour government has more than doubled the budget of the Office of Science and Technology from £1.3bn to £2.8bn today. This has involved investing £3bn in new scientific facilities to start repairing the chronic underfunding of the 1980s and early 1990s," they write.
The letter's signatories are led by Sir Tom Blundell, a former scientific adviser in Whitehall. They include Professor Stephen Hawking, Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge, Lord Winston, the test tube embryo innovator, and Dame Julia Polak, who pioneered new methods of cell research. Labour's manifesto has 28 references to science and engineering, against one in the Tory document and 15 from the Liberal Democrats. Today's letter also contrasts the cautious commitments of rival parties not to cut budgets with Labour's 10-year science and innovation strategy, driven by Gordon Brown's preoccupation with the "China challenge" as well as US dominance of pure and applied science.


DespairingLiberal said...

I feel sceptical that Michael White "fell for" anything - he surely knew what he was dealing with. Just like the Tories know what they are dealing with when they present panels of Tory-supporting company directors to say how marvellous their tax policies are. I wonder what those same businesspeople will think when the Tories stick VAT up to 25%?

Anonymous said...

"DespairingLiberal said...

I wonder what those same businesspeople will think when the Tories stick VAT up to 25%?"

Relieved that they didn't have to suffer Labour's VAT rise to 30%

Barnacle Bill said...

I think they will be even more pissed off when NuLabor have to put it up to 30%!

Anonymous said...

@DL talks nonsense, wants Brown's masochistic treatment for 5 more years. The only name of any significance in that list is
Paul Nurse, the Nobel Prize winner, and he should know better. He coolly migrated to USA, now employed in Rockefeller University as its President- a private university funded by private companies' profits with Rockefeller Trust His emigration was in Bush period and enjoys all the perks of a CEO of a business. Typical Champagne Socialist. Listen to him, which I did recently at Imperial 15-20 days ago, talks like Mandelson. As for Stephen Keevil, a lowly physicist in Guys hospital not known for much in anything ( I would not call him a scientist) keeps on about low NHS funding,but had privilege education, reminding Harriet Harman.

Libertarian said...


You obviously missed the fact that a lot of those businessmen have actually been supporting labour.

You haven't got a clue, as a non tory running a business I can tell you that tory tax policy on NI alone isn't good enough, it should go much further. Labour has left us with £800 billion of debt and still utter crap public services and worst of all 8 million people without a full time job.

Once again socialist keynesian economics has been demonstrated to have failed big time.

DespairingLiberal said...

I was already going off M&S, but now they directly support the extremist Tory Party, that wants to ally with far-right forces across Europe, I will no longer be shopping there.

Norfolk Blogger said...

But still we are supposed to get ecxited about tory businessmen backing the Tories ?

In another shock revelation, I hear the unions might come and and back Labour.

DaveA said...

The Labour Party's dodgy document, on smoking was the Scientific Committee On Tobacco and Health which lead to the smoking ban in 2007.

It had 16 members. 2 were members of ASH, 7 were members of the Labour Party, 2 the World Health Organization and 9 had received payments from pharmaceutical companies. Only 4 were "clean."

The epitome of biased science and scientists.

Grand_Inquisitor said...

I wonder what the said scientists have to say about the data manipulating lot from the CRU at the University of East Anglia?

No doubt, since Ed Milliband is so supportive of the distorted data, they turn a blind eye to the fiddling.

gimpy said...

Iain, I think that this should be of considerable concern for the Conservative Party. There are some very eminent, very respected scientists signing that letter, they will be listened to by the scientific community. This may be a political act from Labour supporting scientists but the inability of the Conservatives to have similar big names support them is a stark illustration of how little concern they have for the science vote.

If the Conservatives want to dismiss this letter as election spin then they will further discredit themselves in the eyes of researchers. They would be well advised to engage with scientists themselves.

Roger Thornhill said...

"Scientists for Labour", that sounds like "Kosher Butchers for Bacon". Facts, proof, evidence...and Social/Statist/Authoritiarian thinking. Non-sequitur.

Better to have VAT at 25% than yet more employment taxes, as VAT falls on imports and domestic production equally. Employment taxes apply regardless of if we export goods or not. If employment taxes are too high (they are!) our domestic production is disadvantaged.

p.s. on VAT, remember that no party can lower it below 15% without EU "permission".

The Swiss VAT rate is 7.6%.

Q said...

Clearly none of these "scientists" work in higher education or they wouldn't be quite so sanguine about the effects of Labour's policies.

Material is dumbed down to fit the abilities of students who cannot do the work but can pay our fees. Teaching has been reduced so we can focus on pseudo-research (actually meaningless busy work) because that's how funding is calculated. Time is taken away from actual academic work so it can be spent pimping our universities in the US and Far East purely so we can fill up on foreign students paying non-EU fees (and don't worry if they don't speak English or haven't the ability to do the work - take their money, give them a gentleman's pass and send them on their way). This is to say nothing of the bureaucratisation of universities through endless pointless committees, most of which exist simply to allow the payment of honoraria to participants and to facilitate the avoidance of actual decision-making.

gimpy said...

I have just noticed that Scientists for Labour have hosted the letter on their website.

They did not attempt to deceive. Perhaps Iain Dale should correct his blogpost to reflect this?

Ian C. L said...

In Friday night's BBC news they were reporting from Labour Party HQ in Glasgow about the "sacked" candidate ( sacked before he could resign) and there was a large Unite plaque on the wall.

Quite handy having your paymaster in the same building or perhaps they have communal offices

Clive said...

Let's see, VAT was introduced in 1973, to replace purchase tax, as a condition of entry into the EEC. So that'd be Ted Heath's Conservative Government. Initially Britain had 3 rates, 0%, 8% and 12.5%.

This lasted until 1979 when Geoffrey Howe (Conservative) harmonised the higher rates and raised them to 15%. This was partially to offset cuts in Income Tax rates.

Then Norman Lamont (Conservative) raised it to 17.5% in order to fund the Community Charge Reduction Scheme. A scheme introduction to help reduce the local government funding shortfall that was a consequence of people defaulting on the ever popular "Poll Tax".

If I remember correctly, both Lamont and Clarke proposed phased increases in VAT on domestic fuel.

So, draw your own conclusions.

Boo said...

Given how tight the next round of grants will be, I'm suprised that there are any scientists willing to stand up for Labour

John East said...

It's so easy to support socialism when one is a scientist. Usually enjoying a relatively secure job, probably funded by the state, and wary of the rather messy and empirical world of business and markets, holds little appeal for those who prefer fixed laws and simple cause and effect relationships.

It's so much more appealing to work from the marxist rule book with its black and white world view.

I should know having spent thirty years in the job. Many of my colleagues lived up to the stereotype of woolly minded sociopaths who would have been incapable of surviving in a world without nanny.

I guess I was lucky. Towards the end of my career I switched to being an engineer, a much more right of centre calling.

Alex said...

The letter in the Times is from a much broader range of very senior scientists, and makes a similar point about the lack of a Tory science policy: Don’t experiment with a vision-free UK zone

Bird said...

"Labour Scientists"
Does anyone else find the phrase sinister? Creepy?

Michael Heaver said...

Unite are getting their fingers in more and more pies.

iCowboy said...

This is bad, partly because science funding under Labour has pretty much gone into a flat line and we are about to pull out of major international collaborations to save money.

I'm not sure if the Conservatives have anything so bold as a science agenda or even if they have any MPs with a science background. I certainly can't remember any announcements from them about how important science is to a modern economy. Actually, I can't remember them speaking about science ever.

They do have a worrying number of - let's call them anti-science MPs - who don't seem to have heard of the Enlightenment. the likes of David Treddinick (bought astrology software on expenses, pro homeopathy) and Nadine Dorries (young Earth, doesn't believe in evolution), spring readily to mind.

Jimmy said...

"This is a stunt Labour have pulled in previous years,"

And only Labour, right?

Joe Public said...

After Climategate, the public now has about as much respect for scientists as for politicians.

Jimmy said...

Oh dear...

JoeF said...

These scientists clearly forget the mass of closures of University science departments over the last 13 years.

50 Calibre said...

Let's just see which paper regurgitates this rubbish tomorrow...

Anonymous said...

JoeF: "These scientists clearly forget the mass of closures of University science departments over the last 13 years". Yes, people like Paul Nurse who worked in Sussex university science faculty conveniently forget that the Chemistry department of that university was closed under Labour. This department produced the Nobel-prize winning research - Harry Croto. Life sciences departments in UCL and King's are shrunk. These carry out world class research. The problem with these scientists is that for them any such closures are under Labour and hence not serious, and sadistically enjoyable as the pain is inflicted by Labour! Why should Paul Nurse care- he is comfortable in USA thanks to those greedy businessmen who support Rockefeller university of which he is the president.

gimpy said...

@John East

It's so easy to support socialism when one is a scientist.Usually enjoying a relatively secure job, probably funded by the state, and wary of the rather messy and empirical world of business and markets, holds little appeal for those who prefer fixed laws and simple cause and effect relationships.

Contrary to popular perception for the first 10-15 years of a scientific career (this is after spending 7-8 years in education) it is almost impossible to get a contract for longer than 3 years. Those with more permanent contracts tend to be at a senior level. The Conservative plans to cut money will disproportionally affect young scientists (anyone under 40) who are the future of science in the UK.
Also your perception that science is all about fixed laws is out of date by several hundred years. Scientists have to deal with complexity and stochastic processes on a daily basis.

Finally, those who imagine that science and business are separate fields of endeavour are wrong. Universites and other funding bodies do encourage commercial spin-offs of basic research and there is, as there always has been, much crossflow between the private and public sector in science. Basic science, of the kind that will suffer if spending cuts are too pronounced, is very much the bedrock of commercial innovation.

John East said...

gimpy, I worked in the very area you cite, funding and joint collaborations between business (my company) and universities/government research institutes.

I stand by what I said in my post- When it comes to entrepreneurship or business acumen the average scientist sucks. Sure you can cite some notable exceptions, but these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

happyuk said...

With the notable exception of Paul Nurse, what's the big deal about this bunch of guys?

Remember these days anybody can call themselves anything. I have an electronics degree and and engineering PhD, so I guess I could reasonably be considered a scientist too.

Gimpy, the environment you describe about academia is accurate, but there are other factors that propagate this that I think have little to do whether Labour / Tories are in power:

Acaedmics are true stick-in-the-muds in adopting modern practices. Spin-off companies are a classic example. Many think having the good idea is where its at, but are clueless when it comes to dealing with money, pragmatics, dealing with angry customers, buying and selling etc.

I have developed software in academic environments and I can tell you that short term thinking and lack of formal training are the main problems, not who is in power.

Scientists are considered to be clever people and there is a feeling that standard engineering practices, especially in software don't apply to them, and that they can 'just make it work'.

Writing code that works isn't the hard part; maintaining and extending it efficiently and safely is. This is why much scientific code (eg CRU) is trash, and causes no amount of grief.

The point I'm making is that the problem within academia is endemic within the system itself, a function of the resources available and the type of work that is rewarded.

The culture is deeply embedded throughout academia. I don't see any easy way of changing that culture.

It's the system itself that needs to change, so that we don't get those sorry situations like CRU again: reward people for writing decent code, place increased scrutiny on the correctness of results produced, to recognise the importance of training and formal processes, and (my favourite) to hold supervisors responsible for wasting the time of the members of their research groups.

Unsworth said...

@ Despairing Libel


Any real evidence for this assertion? Or do you believe that a letter signed by a number of people which supports a stance taken by the Tories on one issue is clear enough indication that they are all 'Tory-supporting'?

Probably you do.

As to VAT @ 25%, what's your source for this?

Craig Ranapia said...

I assume many of these folks would be screaming bloody murder (and rightly so) if 22 "leading scientists" signed a letter in support of a policy position without disclosing their financial links to companies that stood to benefit from said policy?

Also rather a shame The Guardian didn't apply the same sceptical fact-checking I'm sure will be applied to anyone who comes out and endorses the Tories...

Martin said...

Hey Guido: you've got the wrong headline. It should read "Tories fail to declare an interest... in a vision for science". But do you care - do you have any interest in it either?