Mark Henderson is Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health by supporting the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. His latest book, The Geek Manifesto, contains his personal views, not those of the Wellcome Trust.
Before joining the Trust in January 2012, Mark was Science Editor of The Times, where he built a reputation as one of Britain’s foremost science journalists and commentators.
I came to science late. I did humanities A-levels and a history degree, and embarked on a career in journalism fully expecting to become a foreign correspondent or political reporter. But then something serendipitious happened – rather as so often happens in science – that took me off in an entirely new direction. Ben Preston, then my acting editor at The Times, asked / told me to become the science correspondent. I knew it would be interesting, but never expected to do the job for more than a couple of years, before moving on to something bigger and (I thought back then) better. But I never did.
What happened when I started to write about science for a living was that I started to appreciate it as never before. I started to grasp properly for really the first time the wonderful dictum of Carl Sagan that “science is more than a body of knowledge. It’s a way of thinking.” I began to develop a great respect for the rigorous approach that scientists take to problem solving, the way they understand that they’re human beings prone to all the errors of thought that affect us, and attempt to put mechanisms in place to guard against that. Science a process, the best way we have yet developed of developing better approximations of how the world really works, and of generating reliable knowledge. It’s also provisional, comfortable with changing its mind in the light of better evidence.
As I spent 11 years covering science for The Times, I began to develop more and more of a passion for science, until I couldn’t imagine working in another field.
Why this book?
It really grew out of the personal development that I’ve outlined above. As I started to appreciate scientific approaches to knowledge more deeply, I wasn’t the only person without a background in science who hadn’t fully appreciated what they have to offer. And I also began to become more and more convinced that scientific thinking could play a much bigger part than it could in politics and public life.
I covered all sorts of topics at the interface of science and politics: climate change, developments in embryology and human reproduction, the regulation of research, science funding, drugs policy and the like. And every time, I was struck by how badly these issues were often handled by ministers and MPs whose understanding wasn’t what it could be. I also began to see how scientific approaches – randomised controlled trials and so forth – might profitably be applied to policy questions to which we don’t really know the answers, such as sentencing young offenders or teaching children to read.
Over the past five years, I’ve also been witness to what you might call an emerging geek consciousness, as people who care about science, skepticism and critical thinking have started to become more vocal about their passion. You can see it in the success of Brian Cox’s television programmes, Ben Goldacre’s book and columns, and the comedy of Robin Ince and Tim Minchin. You can also see it in the support given to Simon Singh during his libel case, the campaign to protect science funding in the 2010 spending review, and the backlash that followed the sacking of David Nutt.
The Geek Manifesto is the synthesis of all these trends. It’s about how politicians mishandle science and fail to make the most of it, not because they’re hostile to science (for the most part), but because they have little experience of it, and haven’t paused to consider how it might contribute to better policy making. It’s also about how geeks – people who have an affinity for science, and who care deeply about it – might become still more active as citizens to create a political cost to handling science badly. It’s an optimistic book – I genuinely believe that it’s in our power to improve this.
The big challenge now is to mobilise the geeks as I propose in the book. And in particular, we need to take advantage of events, to ensure that our voices are heard in contemporary debates that are happening anyway. There was a great example a couple of weeks ago with the “Take the Flour Back” threat to rip up a trial of GM wheat at Rothamsted Research. Rather than just accept this, the scientists involved started a shrewd media campaign to explain what they were doing and why — and why it was much less risky than the critics suggested. They also pleaded with protestors not to damage the crop, and a group of geeks staged a small counter-protest on the day. The result? The trial survived (though a lone protestor caused some damage), and there was much positive media coverage both of the rationale for GM crops and the scientists’ constructive engagement.
One of the big issues ahead is next year’s Comprehensive Spending Review. Science did quite well last time, securing a freeze rather than a cut in funding. But we need to make a clear and compelling case if we’re to do as well or better again. We need to start getting our ducks in a row now, and employ all the tactics I talk about in the book — especially lobbying our MPs.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
There are a few other issues coming up that excite me. There’s the campaign for open access scientific journals, in which I’m heavily involved in my day job at the Wellcome Trust. It’s absurd that taxpayers and charities fund so much research, the results of which are then locked up behind paywalls.
There are also two important public consultations planned this autumn to which I hope geeks will contribute fully. The first is on mitochondrial disease: scientists at Newcastle University are developing an IVF technique that transplants mitochondria so families affected by these inherited disorders can have healthy children. It’s not yet legal to use this in the clinic, but the fertility watchdog is consulting on whether this ought to be allowed. It’s important for people who care about science to get involved. Disclosure: the Newcastle team is funded by the Wellcome Trust.
Then there’s the consultation on changing the NHS constitution so that patients have to opt out of having medical records used in research, instead of opting in as at present. This is a terrific opportunity to drive forward research into all kinds of health issues, but the proposal is easily misunderstood. Again, we need geeks to contribute in numbers.