11 December 2012

S4M-05154 Role of Science in Public Policy

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-05154, in the name of Alasdair Allan, on the role of scientific evidence in advice on public policy. ...

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I declare an interest, as I am an associate member of the Institution of Engineering and Technology.

I also want to put on record my thanks to my dentist, who, just before the debate, managed to replace a filling—science has a practical application as well. Now, suitably equipped, let me get my teeth into this debate.

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics—the STEM subjects—underpin our economy. In each of those areas, Scotland has a proud record. In science, we have Alexander Fleming and the discovery and development of penicillin. In technology, we have Wolfson Microelectronics, one of our university spin-outs, and the digital/analogue signal processing chip that allowed Apple’s iPod to be developed. In engineering, we have the fax machine and the first electricity-generating wind turbine in Marykirk in 1887. In mathematics, as has already been mentioned, we have John Napier, the inventor of logarithms and also of the slide rule—a device that is still in use today, in circular form, on my watch.

Napier might be thought to be a model for offering advice to Government. In his dedication of “A Plaine Discovery of the Whole Revelation of St John” to James VI in 1594—when Scotland was independent, which means that Napier was a scientist who worked successfully in an independent Scotland—Napier counselled the king to

“reform the universal enormities of his country, and first to begin at his own house, family, and court.”

It is not clear whether the calls of this respected mathematician were heeded.

What are we doing today to create the ability to learn, innovate, deliver and—crucially, for this debate—inform Government in future? Without a well-informed Government, excellent outcomes become a matter of mere chance.

Perhaps too often in the consultations that we conduct, we are looking for public opinion rather than searching for facts to inform. The collision of a convenient policy with an inconvenient fact is not something that many ministers of any political persuasion wish to contemplate very often.

In my time as a minister, it was our climate change legislation that, in its fundamentals, was most driven by scientific fact. In relation to our decision about our 2020 target for the reduction in greenhouse gases, scientific advice gave us two choices—good scientific advice informs and guides; it does not command. We were offered a 34 per cent reduction or a 42 per cent reduction. We debated a 40 per cent reduction, which came from another source, but that appeared to be politically based. I am glad that we chose the scientifically derived number because it means that we can hold fast to science underpinning that area of policy. I am proud that we chose that option.

We have good examples of debates being informed by science. Fiona McLeod referred to the alcohol debate. Four hundred years ago, James VI talked about attending post-mortem examinations of smokers and seeing the evil tar in their lungs. In the past, monarchs and rulers have looked to science to help to inform and guide.

There is a ladder of knowledge that we must try to promote to people. One of the books on the shelf in my office here is about the psychology of mathematics. Maths is something that people find difficult and yet they use it a lot. Anybody who gambles is thinking about the odds and about numbers. Anybody who fills in their tax form is dealing with numbers. Indeed, my mathematics teacher at school, a wonderful Lancastrian called Doc Inglis, used to do his tax form with the sixth year class, either to tell us how little he got paid for putting up with us or to show us that there was a practical application to maths. In the first year, he took us around the school searching for infinity. Is that not the kind of inspiring teaching that we want?

My time as environment minister touched with science on a number of occasions. One of the best ones was an engineering and science experiment in the north-west of Scotland, in which all the fish coming down a river were caught and tagged. As they went up and down thereafter, they were recorded. The seals in the bay were tagged, and when one of the seals ate one of the fish, the device on the seal recorded the tag on the fish that it had just eaten. In real time, in a little hut on the side of the loch, we had all this information telling us what each individual fish and each individual seal was doing. I was enthused, and it helped me to understand the way in which the science that I was using as a minister was delivering something for us.

Scientists are not always good communicators. My professor of natural philosophy when I was at university was RV Jones—great scientist; absolutely crap lecturer. I was told only this week that Professor Higgs—

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): Watch your language, please.

Stewart Stevenson: Is that word not allowed, Presiding Officer?

The Deputy Presiding Officer: No, it is not.

Stewart Stevenson: He was a less than perfect lecturer. Apparently, Professor Higgs is tarred with the same brush by some.

At university, I returned to mathematics because my first-year lecturer Mr Morrison—not even a PhD—was so inspiring that I got 97 per cent in the term exam. He never lectured me again and I never returned to those dizzy heights. We have talked about error. It is worth saying that every success is preceded by generations of failure.

We have to change. To conform is to sustain the status quo; to rebel is to create the new. Let us listen to the scientists and find out useful ways of rebelling.


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