Why Monbiot’s attack on Walport misses the mark | Science | guardian.co.uk

I’ve just finished reading Roger Pielke, Jr. and James Wilsdon on the bee question and the buzz generated by George Monbiot’s attack on UK Science Chief Sir Mark Walport.

Why Monbiot’s attack on Walport misses the mark | Science | guardian.co.uk.

Pielke and Wilsdon are quick to defend Walport against what they take to be Monbiot’s unfair characterization of Walport as a corporate shill.  But they don’t excuse Walport of making a cardinal error when it comes to serving as scientific advisor.

The real problem Pielke and Wilsdon identifies with Walport’s move is the slip into ‘advocacy’. Instead of advocating a particular course of action, Walport should’ve stuck with honest brokering. But what is it that’s wrong with advocacy? It’s that it leads to selective reading of the evidence (that is, cherry picking). But must it? Well, science cannot speak for itself, nor can it make political decisions. All science can do is present the facts (or evidence). So all scientific advising can do is evaluate the evidence, lay out the facts, and outline the options available to policy makers. Anything else, and it’s gone beyond the science.

Here’s the way they put it in the article:

Where Walport actually erred was in advocating how values trade-offs should be made in the case of bees and pesticides: “The European Commission has proposed a temporary ban on the use of certain agricultural pesticides. It should drop this idea.” Here Walport has stepped well beyond evaluating evidence, or clarifying options, and slipped into the role of a political advocate, who seeks to secure one particular outcome. Not coincidentally, it is the outcome preferred by the government for which he works.

This strikes me as artificial. Pielke (and here I think it is fair to pin this on him, not on Wilsdon) has developed a theoretical framework, and it’s one that allows him to critique science policy advice giving. But, come on, is there nothing that falls outside his theory? Is there no way that scientific evidence can be used honestly as part of an argument that advocates a particular outcome?!

To put the question differently, has Pielke reduced all advocacy to what he calls in his book “Stealth Issue Advocacy?” Is even honest advocacy dishonest? The reasons Walport gives for advocating his position appeal to the precautionary principle (albeit in a way that Monbiot objects to). Is that not honest advocacy?

Re: your REF impact request | Features | Times Higher Education

This is quite funny. But it’s not by chance that it’s written by someone no longer at the university.

Re: your REF impact request | Features | Times Higher Education.

Obama Promises to Protect Peer Review in Salute to NAS – ScienceInsider

ScienceInsider‘s take on Obama’s speech at the National Academy of Sciences:

Obama Promises to Protect Peer Review in Salute to NAS – ScienceInsider.

4 ways open access enhances academic freedom | Impact of Social Sciences

There could be a conflict between a requirement to publish in open access journals and academic freedom.

4 ways open access enhances academic freedom | Impact of Social Sciences.

What sense of freedom — or autonomy — is operative here?

Autonomy and accountability — old and new thinking


Academics have tended to view autonomy as freedom from constraint by the state. We want to be able to go wherever our thoughts lead us, without ‘outside’ interference. This interpretation of autonomy as freedom from constraint is a negative definition, appealing to what is absent. It says, ‘Hands off!’

Politicians have tended to view accountability only in economic terms — that is, accountability has been reduced to accounting and conceived narrowly as something like return on investment (ROI).

Under such ‘old thinking’, autonomy is opposed to accountability, since accountability conceived as demonstrable ROI puts constraints on the autonomy of researchers conceived as freedom from such demands.


Autonomy means self-legislation, rather than freedom from constraint. Under this ‘new thinking’ on autonomy, the point is not for academics to be free from all constraint (the negative definition rooted in old thinking), but rather for academics to give themselves whatever constraints they are subject to.

Accountability means being able to give an account, in the Socratic sense of the term. This is by no means limited to a notion of ROI, though such may be included in the account one is expected to give.

Under this ‘new thinking’ on autonomy and accountability, the accountability demand is expressed as the formal demand that one give an account. There is no reduction of that account to economic concepts. One is free to offer whatever justification one sees fit. In other words, one is able to exercise one’s autonomy to respond to the generic accountability demand: account for yourself! Under this ‘new thinking’, then, accountability and autonomy are compatible.

Someone may be quick to point out that these are not really new definitions of the terms. So much the better!

Obama calls for peer-review autonomy : Nature News Blog

Obama calls for peer-review autonomy : Nature News Blog.

Here’s Obama’s take on autonomy, accountability, and peer review.

U.S. Lawmaker Proposes New Criteria for Choosing NSF Grants – ScienceInsider

U.S. Lawmaker Proposes New Criteria for Choosing NSF Grants

via U.S. Lawmaker Proposes New Criteria for Choosing NSF Grants – ScienceInsider.

This is just the latest in a long saga. Most of the articles on NSF’s efforts to deal with such accountability demands by means of its Broader Impacts Merit Review Criterion are available here.