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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 October 2007, 10:46 GMT 11:46 UK
History of the science in spin
By Chris Bowlby
Presenter, The Science Behind The Throne

John Cleese [Photo: Monty Python Pictures Ltd]
The Ministry of Silly Walks was a satirical swipe at the technologists
It's a politician's nightmare - a tricky decision about a scientific issue which needs to be made quickly and decisively.

Winston Churchill had one answer - a personal scientific adviser, Frederick Lindemann.

He was a physicist who had been educated in Germany but became an Oxford professor and a trusted member of Churchill's inner circle in the 1930s, just as he was realising that scientific knowledge would be a key to any nation's future power and prosperity.

Throughout the war, Lindemann - constantly at Churchill's side - summarised for him some complex science and recommended action on a single sheet of paper.

Adrian Fort, Lindemann's biographer, describes such a memo proposing the production of a controversial new weapon, the "sticky bomb", a type of grenade that could be attached to the underside of an enemy tank. Churchill read the memo and wrote on it simply: "Make one million."

Lindemann's influence over issues such as bombing policy was controversial. And once war was over, an individual was never likely to wield such influence; but science was still a high political priority.

As the Cold War intensified, defence research was seen as an important contributor to national status, and both politicians and public hoped state-run science could improve life rapidly for everyone.

But making new technology socially and economically useful wasn't always easy. Projects were constantly cancelled.

'Atoms for peace'

Harold Wilson, who became prime minister in the 1960s, praised the technological revolution but feared that its automation would cause severe unemployment.

If you don't appear to be independent you'll get no trust at all
Sir William Stewart
Tony Benn, who was Minister of Technology in the 1960s Labour government, recalls his enthusiasm for civil nuclear power - "atoms for peace", as President Eisenhower had called it. From the 1950s, Britain had the most ambitious programme in the world.

But Benn complains now that his official advisers did not tell him the whole truth, such as the use of British reactors to supply plutonium for US nuclear weapons.

Benn's constituents wrote complaining that such breakthroughs as space exploration weren't improving "bus services in Bristol".

Space would in time bring its spin-offs, such as satellite technology; but in the short term, politicians and the public became more sceptical about scientists' claims.

'Baggy trousers'

In a mid-1960s broadcast, the influential author Anthony Sampson described scientists as men "in baggy trousers" who "couldn't express themselves properly" and demanded millions in funding without properly accounting for it.

Monty Python's famous Ministry of Silly Walks was, beyond the slapstick, a satire on the Ministry of Technology.

Concorde: A technological marvel but a commercial flop
In the sketch, people whose walks weren't silly enough were sent to work on an Anglo-French project, "la marche futile", a thinly veiled reference to Concorde.

And Concorde, the beautifully designed but commercially hopeless airliner, was to haunt politicians' thinking on science and technology for some time to come.

The Thatcher government of the 1980s, although headed by a trained scientist, disapproved of state-run "big science" and believed the market should decide much more which science was truly useful. But new kinds of scientific challenges were emerging.

Health and food scares, for example - fuelled by new levels of media and public interest - demanded a kind of rapid scientific response from government.

Media scares

Eileen Rubery was for many years a senior civil servant specialising in health issues such as BSE and the scare involving salmonella and eggs.

She told me that the sheer pace of events in such crises "does increase the risk that there will be bits of advice that are either incorrect or not wisely phrased, so that they start off media scares".

BSE in Britain peaked in 1992, with 36,680 cases
There was always a difficult balance to be struck, she says, between protecting the public while there is doubt about a product and being fair to the food industry.

Temporary official action against a product, which may turn out to be safe, can affect consumer behaviour permanently.

Sir William Stewart, who was chief scientific adviser to prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major, says at such times it's the adviser's job to "stand back", and identify what is the "big issue". At the same time, he told me, "you had to tell it as it was".

He saw things go wrong in his time in Whitehall, he added, "because advisers told ministers and prime ministers what they wanted to hear, rather than give them the facts".

Public trust

Trust, he concludes, is the basis of good advice: "If you don't appear to be independent, you'll get no trust at all."

That goes for the public as well as politicians, as official advisers become more public figures in an attempt to communicate government thinking.

And real independence seems scarcer than ever, given the increase in commercially sponsored research and pressure group activity, as well as political parties and Whitehall departments with their own scientific priorities.

Those taking tricky scientific decisions at the top in politics must look back with some envy at Winston Churchill's solution: a trusted expert by your side, summarising the science and telling you what to do, all on a single sheet of paper.

The Science Behind the Throne was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, 11 October, and Thursday, 18 October, at 2100 BST.

Windscale: A nuclear disaster
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Politics and science: Chalk and cheese?
15 Feb 07 |  Science/Nature
Tony Benn's Concorde memories
21 Oct 03 |  UK Politics

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