Friday, 1 June 2012

Join me in pledging to send a copy of #GeekManifesto to every MP

I just sent this note to friends and colleagues - please feel free to do so yourself, and spread the word.
Dear Friend,

I’m writing to ask for your support – wait, no money needs to change hands! – in getting our members of Parliament to take science more seriously.

Former Times science correspondent Mark Henderson has written an excellent book called The Geek Manifesto, which outlines the ways in which science matters to politics – and how it matters to various other fields, such as journalism, the environmental movement and so on. The overriding message of the book is that, as demonstrated by several embarrassing episodes that you’ll no doubt be familiar with, most politicians neither understand scientific evidence, nor do they appreciate the value of the scientific methods deployed to arrive at said evidence. Hence, says Mark (and I concur!), policy-making suffers from a vacuum of evidence. I heartily recommend reading the book itself of course (, but we want to go further.

There is a movement to get every MP to read the book, to emphasise that as geeks we want our politicians to respect science and to better understand how it works. I’ve signed a pledge stating that I’ll buy a copy of the book to send to an MP – if 325 people sign (there are around 200 so far), the publisher has promised to match our pledge so that all 650 MPs will receive a copy.

Please sign the pledge below, so that we can achieve this target – it’s vital that every politician realises that there is a likely electoral cost to ignoring scientific evidence when making policy.

Please spread the word too – the bigger the show of support we can muster the better!

Many thanks in anticipation of your support.



Saturday, 26 May 2012

Green Party support for anti-science activism is troubling - don't destroy research

Mark Henderson's outstanding book The Geek Manifesto urges professional scientists and those who want to promote a scientific approach to public policy to unite and to make our presence felt in medicine, in journalism, in the environmental movement and above all in politics. The risks of not doing so have been laid bare all to clearly in the ongoing battle to defend a scientific experiment from thoughtless vandalism in the form of an anti-GM protest.

'Take the flour back' is a protest that aims to (in their words) 'decontaminate' a field trial this coming weekend that is planted with genetically modified wheat. More troubling than the protest itself is the apparent support for such an approach from political figures such as Jenny Jones from the Green Party. The Telegraph's excellent blogger Tom Chiver picks up the story, saying that Jones' support for the protests - an act of 'ugly, idiotic Luddism,' means that we shouldn't vote Green until they drop the anti-science zealotry:

How can a serious political party back acts of vandalism against scientific research? Until Jenny Jones and the rest of the Green Party drop this awful, damaging, stupid behaviour, no serious environmentalist should be able to vote for them.
Interestingly, Jones asked for the right of reply and Chivers obliged - a lesson for those who resort all to often to bullying libel claims to silence their critics - but Jones' reply is an object lesson in the art of cognitive dissonance.

Extolling the virtues of 'non-violent protest' (and comparing the anti-GM cause to protests against unjust war or in favour of universal suffrage) whilst disowning damage to property, Jones fails to justify her support for a movement that has as its specific aim the destruction of property.

Furthermore, she claims that the Green Party "think more research is needed [into GM crops] and are happy to see research go ahead where it is safe." So happy, in fact, that a leading member - recently laying claim to the Mayoralty of London - lends credibility to the violation of precisely the kind of research they're supposedly in favour of. Quite strange positions to hold to say the least.

Here and now is neither the place nor the time to rehearse the arguments in favour or against the genetic modification of crops, but it is appropriate to explain why it's important to defend the scientific method through which the merits or otherwise of GM technology can be decided.

Sense about Science has as usual been at the forefront of that defence, with a well-supported petition and plenty of work debunking the myths peddled by anti-GM vandals. Mark Henderson also reminded us of how the anti-GM movement is full of anti-science rubbish on his Geek Manifesto blog - and a group of scientists is meeting near where the trial is due to be destroyed to make a stance defending the advancement of knowledge against the forces of darkness.

All this may not change the hearts and minds of those who are planning to tear up the Rothamstead experiment - but it does show that they cannot, no matter how hard they try or how many politicians offer their ill-judged support, tear up the scientific approach. 

Friday, 2 March 2012


[Note: the title of this post is to be read in the style of a classic 1980s science fiction movie]

[warning - this post contains self-indulgent reflection...]

I started a new job yesterday (as my handful of Twitter followers will recall) - here are a few thoughts.

I spent nine mostly successful and hugely fulfilling years as a research scientist in a world-class academic institute, completing a PhD and a programme of post-doctoral research in a laboratory whose focus is on developing gene therapy for disorders that cause blindness.

When my funding came to an end towards the end of last year, I joined the legions of scientists who face a difficult choice at similar stages in their careers: as fellowships are hard to come by, we can either scrabble around for the few positions that are available on short-term contracts, or we can leave the world of scientific research for pastures new.

I chose the latter, with regret and not a little trepidation, in the hope that a break from lab life (and from the daily commute) would help me decide how to put my experience and what little knowledge I have to good use. I also wanted to take the opportunity to pursue other interests of mine for a while, not least in policy and politics.

Shortly (very shortly, in fact!) after I left, however, an opportunity arose for me to return to my old group but in a very different capacity.

I will be responsible for public engagement - which means everything from ensuring our website is full of helpful and interesting content about the lab's research, to delivering patient engagement days, patient newsletters and a more rounded online communication strategy through various social media. In other words...


[more details in due course - for now I have to tell my 'new employees' which year I was born in, which is apparently not a straightforward task...]

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Campaigners to tell Parliament "Now is the time to reform our libel law" as further evidence of the law's chilling effect emerges

Campaigners seeking to refine the Government's Defamation Bill will tell MPs and Peers why English and Welsh libel laws are in urgent need of reform - on the day that yet more evidence of the law's chilling effect is revealed and a separate case reaches the High Court. Having cautiously welcomed the draft Defamation Bill, and backed the recommendations of Parliament's Joint Scrutiny Committee that called for key clauses to be strengthened, the libel reform campaign will once again press upon key Parliamentarians the need for radical changes to the law to protect free debate.

They will be joined by many victims of the chill that our illiberal and outdated libel laws, including representatives of the Citizens Advice Bureaux who will share their experience of libel threats - discussed for the first time today, the what the CAB has had to endure illustrates how voluntary organisations can be silenced from discussing information that is in the public interest by powerful interests.

Citizens Advice has produced two reports into the practices of agents, some of them law firms, who chase those accused of shoplifting for compensation through so-called 'civil recovery demands' and threaten civil litigation in the event they don't pay. The two reports published to date have been incomplete because of threats of legal action against Citizens Advice, and in 2009 the CAB spent its entire campaign and research contingency budget on libel-proofing their limited reports leaving no money to investigate other matters.

Given that over 750,000 civil recovery demands have been issued and the Law Commission believes that in many instances consumer rights may have been violated by the practices of the agents involved, there is a clear public interest in reports such as those written by Citizens Advice containing full disclosure. If the public is to be kept informed about the bullying, possibly illegal activities of those pursuing alleged (not always proven) shoplifters, it is vital that those wishing to discuss this matter can do so without fear of libel action. This isn't the first instance of consumer advice being subject to threats of libel action by powerful vested interests, as Which? magazine's editor will tell MPs tonight - but it is yet another reason that a robust public interest defence must be incorporated into the Defamation Bill as the campaign has long stipulated.

Today also sees the scientific journal Nature defending itself in the High Court against a libel claim by the editor of a journal that they criticised. Nature reported that the editor of the journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals had retired and highlighted controversies during his tenure. Nature has been preparing for this case for two years meaning hundreds of hours of staff time have gone into this instead of carrying out other investigations. Andrew Caldecott QC described the case last week as a “fundamental issue of freedom of scientific expression.” This case demonstrates the need for another one of the libel reform campaign's key demands - that genuinely peer reviewed scientific publications, and hence discussions about such publications, be subject to qualified privilege and thus ineligible for libel action.

The meeting in Parliament tonight, which will take place at 18.00, will see many more scientists, journalists, writers, bloggers, website hosts and NGOs demonstrate the importance of reforming our libel laws.

The timing of this meeting is designed to impress upon Parliamentarians that a re-drafted and strengthened Defamation Bill should be included in the next Queen's Speech and form a key part of the legislative platform of the next Parliamentary session. Failing to achieve this will kick this vital set of reforms into the long grass and see an excellent opportunity to defend free expression missed - those present will set out how crucial it is that the Bill isn't just improved upon but is brought before Parliament as soon as possible.

*I'll update this post with more info on the meeting tomorrow.*

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Libel reform campaign welcomes Parliament's call to strengthendraft Defamation Bill, calls for Bill to be in Queen's Speech

A Joint Scrutiny Committee of both Houses of Parliament has reviewed the Government's draft Defamation Bill and recommended it be strengthened in key areas to provide a more robust defence of free speech. Campaigners seeking to reform the illiberal English and Welsh libel laws have welcomed the Joint Committee's findings as the changes they put forward would bring the Bill's provisions further into lines with the aims of the Libel Reform Campaign. The Campaign previously welcomed the draft Bill as 'a step in the right direction;' in welcoming the Joint Committee's report is as a significant positive development en route to new laws to protect free speech being passed, the Campaign has called on the Government to bring forward a revised Bill for inclusion in the next Queen's Speech, set to take place in Spring 2012.

The Joint Committee considered several ways in which the draft Bill could be improved, echoing many of the submissions made to the Ministry of Justice during the Bill's consultation:

  • On corporations' ability to sue for libel, the committee accepted the Libel Reform Campaign’s concerns over the imbalance of resources between individuals and well-resourced corporations in libel and the “chilling effect” that libel claims from companies have on free speech. The Committee's proposals aim to introduce a new hurdle making it more difficult for companies to use their financial muscle and the threat of court action to silence critics, which the Campaign says may reduce the problem. Tracey Brown, Managing Director of Sense about Science, welcomed measures that would redress the "equality of arms in the courtroom," particularly important when "scientists are being dragged through the courts for discussing evidence. This report adds to the case that our libel laws are stifling open science."
  • On the need for claimants to show serious and substantial harm had been caused, the Committee accepted that by revising Clause 1 of the Draft Bill the Government would: “ensure that trivial cases are weeded out at an early stage by introducing a stricter test for determining whether a case is serious enough to go to court.” The provision of an early strikeout clause would give authors more confidence that bullying libel threats would be dismissed before they incurred unmanageable costs.
  • On the need for a separate and robust public interest defence, the Committee noted there was “universal support” for a dedicated defence. The proposals tabled would go some way to strengthening the draft Bill's provisions on a public interest defence, but campaigners said there was more work to be done in this area. In particular, Dr Evan Harris, free speech activist and advisor to the Hacked Off campaign, said, “The lack of proper public interest defence in the draft bill and this report, is a real barrier to necessary reform. All sides in the Leveson Inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal have accepted that a new public interest defence for investigative and other public interest publications is needed to nurture the best of British journalism, but the draft bill merely codifies the existing inadequate defence and the Joint Committee recommends complicating it further.”
  • On the need for fairer procedures to deal with libel claims against online comments, a variant of the Court-based system of take-down notices proposed by the Libel Reform Coalition, aimed at  preventing extra-judicial censorship by threats to ISPs and web hosts, was adopted by the Committee. Regarding libel claims against online comments, Justine Roberts, CEO of Mumsnet, said, "Websites and hosts of user-generated comment risk becoming tactical targets for those who wish to clamp down on criticism or investigation of their activities. For the health of public debate in this country, it’s crucial that the government continues to pursue this issue actively, rather than kicking it into the long grass. We hope that the committee’s report will provide an opportunity for the serious attention that this issue deserves.”
The Libel Reform Campaign is keen to stress that to protect the freedom of speech in this country, the Government should act urgently to pass a revised Defamation Bill, reflecting the Joint Committee's recommendations, in the next Parliamentary session. According to John Kampfner, Chief Executive of Index on Censorship: “In the last decade, journalists have been hampered from exposing those with power because of our restrictive libel laws. With media reform high on the agenda, the government must include the defamation bill in the next Queen’s speech.” Simon Singh, science writer and defendant in BCA v Singh, added, “Many doctors, scientists, academics and journalists (like myself) have suffered at the hands of English libel law. The Government not only needs to heed the Joint Committee report, but it also needs to act urgently and pass an effective defamation bill at the first available opportunity, as promised in their manifestos. We urgently need a libel law that balances the right to reputation with the right to free speech.”

The Coalition Agreement committed the Government to reforming our libel laws, and following the Joint Scrutiny Committee's findings the Bill is almost ready to present to Parliament - the sooner it gets implemented the sooner scientists, journalists, authors and web hosts can rest assured that their freedom to engage in genuine debate in the public interest is assured.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Lib Dems affirm that drug law reform should be based on reliable, independent scientific evidence

Cowardice has prevented successive governments from reforming the UK's illiberal and malfunctioning drugs laws - this was the theme of Ewan Hoyle's outstanding speech to the Liberal Democrat conference last Sunday, in which he moved a motion committing the party to an independent review of current drugs law and policy. Ewan's speech and entire debate - conducted in a heart-warming and mature manner without hysteria and hyperbole - is available here and is well worth watching.

Ewan's motion (full text here) exemplified the sort of calm and rational approach to the harms cause by drugs that is required if any government is to even consider reforming its stance. Usually the national discourse on the matter is far more polarised and nasty; pro-prohibitionists argue for ever-tougher punishments for those who use drugs, painting those who back a more evidence-based approach as crazy crack-pushing pot-smoking lunatics.

Citing evidence from well-regarded international studies on drug harms, Ewan's motion began by dispelling the widely-held belief that push for decriminalisation is a mechanism to extend the availability of currently illicit drugs as they are 'a good thing.' On the contrary, by stating clearly that drug use is in itself harmful to both the individual user and the community they live in, the motion sets up a welcome premise - that it is precisely because of the harms that drugs cause that far-reaching policy reform is required.

This is because alongside the incontrovertible evidence that drug use causes health-related, economic and societal harms, there is also robust evidence that the very policies and laws in place to tackle these harms are themselves harmful. This is the argument I began my own speech with, in moving an amendment to the motion that sought to emphasise the importance of independent scientific advice when formulating drugs policy (you can see my speech, following on from Adam Corlett's contribution, here and read the text here).

The disgraceful sacking of Prof. David Nutt as head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) by the previous Labour government marked the nadir in the relationship between that administration and its scientific advisers in relation to drugs policy. Labour, and the Conservatives before them, had for decades summarily ignored robust scientific evidence on drug harms in favour of populist appeasement of tabloid headline-writers. They also systematically ignored evidence of the harms that the failed prohibitionist 'War on Drugs' was causing, including the needless fostering of a gang culture that manifested itself so violently on British streets this summer. This has lead to the absurd situation where drugs are classified according to the arbitrary whims of Ministers, not to mention those of the fear-mongering press that continues to moralise about the harms of drugs whilst undermining any evidence-based attempts at curbing those same harms.

My amendment called for the restoration of the link between government drugs policy and clinical, scientific and social scientific evidence of the harms caused by drugs and by current drugs policy. This should be achieved, I argued, by ensuring that the ACMD
retain a majority of independent scientific and social scientific experts in its membership and no changes to drug laws be made without receiving its advice as per the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. 
A simple enough call, but one that previous administrations failed to uphold, with frankly disastrous consequences. It is a damning indictment of the way that drugs have been discussed in our society over the past 30 years or so that Ewan's call for a full impact assessment of current policy, coupled with an insistence on a solid evidence base, could be considered radical at all - and yet here we are, the first and possibly only party of government to commit to such.

It's crucial that if we are to leave behind the failed drugs policies of the past we must learn from established examples abroad and from clear-cut scientific studies - and there's little doubt that both are only feasible if they're assessed and implemented using reliable and independent advice from those who 'know their onions,' so to speak. For any clinician, scientist or social scientist to be confident that their advice will be taken seriously, that policy will be based on their recommendations and that they won't be silenced, sidelined or sacked for communicating inconvenient truths, it's vital that the Coalition agrees to the evidence-based review of drugs law that this motion as amended calls for - the debate the Lib Dems had is a huge step along the way, here's hoping we see such a review sooner rather than later.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Legal threats against carer-support forum shows need for #libelreform and dangers of outsourcing public services

Index on Censorship reports that an internet forum for providers of care has been forced to shut down following a threat of legal action from a healthcare company. Although it now appears that the dispute has been resolved, this episode clearly demonstrates the need for wide-ranging reforms to English and Welsh libel law, as well as some of the dangers inherent to outsourcing and/or privatisation of public services.

The forum in question, CarerWatch, was suspended by its hosting company after they - the hosting company that is, not the owners of the forum - were sent a letter threatening legal action relating to an allegedly defamatory posting. The letter was sent on behalf of Atos Healthcare, a private company that is contracted to the Government's Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to carry out work capability assessments. This is the latest in a series of similar incidents, where supposedly defamed individuals and corporations sue, or threaten to sue, internet hosting companies for libel. Rather than simply asking the author of the offending post to retract the content that is objected to, libel-happy lawyers target website hosts by threatening to hold them responsible for the content on their servers. Facing potentially ruinous costs of defending their clients, hosts feel they have little choice but to suspend the blog, forum or site under attack - thereby extending the chill cast over free expression by bullying legal threats of this nature.

As it happens, on this occasion, the company concerned did contact the forum owners with details of the offending post, albeit after the threat of legal action had forced the closure of the site. The forum owners then consented to removing the post in question, even though it wasn't defamatory in itself but rather linked to an external website that was deemed libellous. The forum has now been reinstated. So if a simple email exchange was sufficient for the allegedly defamatory content to be removed, why did Atos, a multi-billion corporation with a £100 million contract with the UK Government, resort to sending legal threats? I'd suggest that it's because of the ease with which such threats can chill free debate - knowing the pro-plaintiff bias in English libel law, and the extortionate cost that comes with even successfully defending a libel case, recipients of such threats nearly always back down and shut up rather than risk being ruined.

The Atos threat illustrates the need for many of the vital reforms that the libel reform campaign has sought for nearly two years now. Firstly, at a time when internet hosts give a home to billions of comments and opinions, it is vital that the law regarding their liability is updated. It's unsustainable for the likes of CarerWatch's hosts, or any other Internet Service Providers, to be held responsible for the ocean of content they host. The Government acknowledged that ISPs' legal status in libel law needed looking at, but short of including a clause addressing the problem in their draft Defamation Bill, they chose to kick the issue into the long grass via a consultation; as we await the Government's response to the consultation, it's vital we keep up the pressure to amend the law with respect to ISPs and bring defamation law into the 21st century.

In addition, those seeking redress should be required to approach the authors of the allegedly offending material directly and have the matter resolved without recourse to heavy-handed threats of legal action. It's been proposed that for a libel action to proceed plaintiffs should prove that all reasonable steps had been taken to resolve the matter, including asking for the allegedly defamatory material to be removed by the authors. Had this requirement been in place, CarerWatch's hosts could have safely ignored the threat knowing that this hadn't occurred.

Finally, the fact that a multi-billion pound corporation was able to issue such a threat to a small voluntary organisation at all is a great concern, not least as the company in question provides a public service for which it ought to be held accountable. Activists within the libel reform coalition have called for the law to be changed, such that non-natural persons are no longer able to sue for libel. This stems from the fact that  Articles 8 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, relating to privacy and free expression, should only apply to actual individuals and not to corporations who in other respects are regarded as persons under the ECHR. A technical legal argument it may be, but it's crucial here. Libel is intended as a form of redress for those whose reputation has been damaged - the libel reform movement's contention is that corporate bodies don't enjoy a reputation in the same way as natural persons do, and hence should be prevented from suing in libel. Should their financial position be damaged they could always sue for malicious falsehood, but libel should be out-of-bounds for corporations.

Here is where we see a real danger in the outsourcing of previously public functions to private entities.

Public bodies cannot sue for libel following a ruling in Derbyshire County Council vs The Times in 1993. The reasoning behind this ruling was that public bodies carrying out public functions should remain accountable at all levels and should not be able to wield libel law as a tool to silence criticism. A grey area opens up, however, when private companies are contracted to carry out governmental functions. Not only is criticism of said function now subject to silencing through the libel system, the remit of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 also suggests that these companies are immune from FoI requests as to their actions. As I reported in January this year, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg acknowledges that if more and more public functions are carried out by private companies, we may need to extend the FoI Act to ensure that these companies can be held to account.

Until and unless both the libel laws and FoI legislation of this country are radically reformed, we will continue to see unaccountable private corporations effectively silencing free debate; an overhaul of both is crucial if we are to prevent further episodes like Atos vs CarerWatch and countless other instances where free expression is suppressed.