Periodically incorrect

Science has a problem. It just doesn’t seem to ‘fit’ in society. The bad, or simply absent, coverage of science through the media; the lack of scientific knowledge in our policy making; and our inability to stand up to big business all mean that the impact that science has on society isn’t anywhere near what it could be. In an age when we rely more and more on scientific discovery, our perceptions of science undermine its importance and its contribution to our everyday lives.

One of the biggest issues is the lack of science in policy making. If we look at our political leaders, the people with knowledge seem to be less connected than ever to the people with power. The proportion of policy makers who understand science are few and far between: of the 462 MPs with degrees, just 27 (roughly 6%) have science or technology degrees, and just one is a scientist with a research background (Julian Huppert, in case you were wondering). Since Dr Liam Fox left Cabinet, science representation is even bleaker: there isn’t a single cabinet minister with a science degree.

Nonetheless it’s a two-way problem. Just as there is a lack of scientific knowledge amongst our politicians, equally the majority of scientists seem unwilling or unable to engage in the political process. Partly owing to a lack of trust in the political system, or often simply a lack of understanding of how policy is made, most scientists don’t want to get involved. 

Turning our attention to the meida, it’s pretty obvious that science is also misrepresented at this level too. Ben Goldacre, one of the few outspoken critics of science coverage in the media, claimed almost seven years ago that science stories usually fall into three categories: wacky stories, scare stories and ‘breakthrough’ stories. Not much has changed since. We still see the headline-grabbing articles with a tendency to overstate a claim based on questionable data stemming from just one source. This is what the public wants to read – it’s exciting, it’s interesting, but it’s also just plain wrong. If the media can’t stop falling over themselves to publish these sensationalist stories, then not only will the public continue to be scarily misinformed, but the real stories, the ones with real evidence and years of meticulous research that may actually make a difference, will largely be ignored.

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Finally there’s the question of the relationship between science and money. Pharmaceutical companies make billions – fact. However the power that this wealth brings is accompanied by huge problems, chiefly an unwillingness to bring these companies to account. Again it’s Goldacre’s voice that stands out in the crowd in his criticism of large pharmaceutical corporations. Recently he claimed that “half of all the clinical trials ever conducted and completed on the treatments in use today have never been published in academic journals.” I don’t doubt him for a second; the lack of transparency of these companies is astonishing, and yet time and time again they get away with it.

A stark reminder of how powerful drug companies are comes in the form of a small, naturally occurring ion – lithium. Lithium has been used to treat bipolar disorder for over half a century, and despite millions put into research, no other substance has been shown to be as effective as lithium. There are of course downsides, and the unwanted side effects are well documented, but the fact remains that lithium is a wonder-drug for millions of bipolar sufferers the world over. And yet, the press coverage and availability of this drug is extremely limited. Doctors sometimes prescribe a whole host of different drugs before they get to lithium. Why? Well, as with everything the issue is a complicated one, but one of the strongest arguments lies in the fact that lithium cannot be patented. The consequence of this is simply that no money can be made from selling it.

There is simply no defence for withholding effective treatments on account of money. This is a simple right versus wrong issue, and yet every day, sufferers are denied such a simple life-changing solution. The same applies to antiretroviral drugs in Africa, and many more besides. Drug companies are simply too powerful, and there aren’t enough Goldacres of this world who are pointing this fact out.

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We need more figures in the media, politics and business with the knowledge and the courage to make sure that science gets its voice heard for its own sake. Only then can we appreciate the benefits that good science can bring.