Boffin hits out at Govt ignorance on technology

An eminent British scientist has hit out at the lack of understanding of science and technology demonstrated by UK politicians.

The comments were made by Professor Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society, Astronomer Royal, and Master of Trinity College Cambridge, as he delivered the first of four 2010 BBC Reith lectures, entitled 'The Scientific Citizen'.

Rees wants society as a whole to become more scientifically literate.

"Science isn't just for scientists," said the top boffin. "As citizens, we all need a feel for how much confidence can be placed in science's claims.

"Some changes happen with staggering speed," he said. "Everyday life has been transformed in less than two decades by mobile phones and the Internet."

Such progress, Rees argued, begged profound questions: "How much should computers invade our privacy? Should we build nuclear power stations or windmills if we want to keep the lights on?"

"[These] questions didn't feature much in the recent election campaign here in the UK," lamented Rees.

The professor compared the UK to the United States, where President Obama filled key posts in his administration with what Rees called a "dream team" of leading scientists. Rees applauded Obama's opinion that their advice should be heeded, "even when it is inconvenient - indeed especially when it is inconvenient."

Turning to the new coalition, Rees went on: "The UK has 'chief science advisors' in most Government departments. Not yet, however, in the Treasury - though I can't help thinking this would be worthwhile, even at the sacrifice of one economist."

The media came in for some stick too. Rees said: "When reporting a particular viewpoint, journalists should clarify whether it is widely supported, or whether it is contested by 99 per cent of specialists. Noisy controversy need not signify evenly-balanced arguments."

"Campaigners and bloggers enrich the debate," Rees said. "But professionals have special obligations to engage."

One member of the audience was Professor David Nutt, himself a controversial figure after being sacked as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs by the previous Labour administration, for expressing diasagreement over the dangers of taking ecstasy and smoking pot. Nutt agreed with Rees's concerns, saying: "We have very few MPs who seem to understand evidence or science."

You can listen to the full lecture on BBC iPlayer here.