June 18, 2012

An Open Letter to David Rutley MP on the Geek Manifesto

The Geek Manifesto by Mark Henderson

Mr David Rutley MP
House of Commons

Dear David,

The “Geek Manifesto” and the importance of science in politics

Please find enclosed a copy of a new book by Mark Henderson, titled “The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters”. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.

According to the Financial Times:

The Geek Manifesto is the most compelling, engaging and entertaining account I’ve read of the relationship between science and politics. ” —James Wilsdon

The book laments the undervalued role of science in politics on pressing issues such as the global economy, healthcare, education, justice and the environment. For many politicians, science is a tool to be exploited when it supports an existing policy position, and an inconvenience to be discarded when it does not. As Henderson puts it, the cynical quest for policy-based evidence has trumped the desperate need for evidence-based policy. This is not surprising since only 1 in 650 British MPs has a Science qualification and his name is Julian Huppert. Your conservative colleague Adam Afriyie is proposing compulsory science literacy lessons for MPs in order to tackle this serious problem, but there is still a long way to go before science becomes integral to political decision making.

As well as the serious issues the book raises, it is also very positive and inspiring. The state of affairs it describes can not be blamed politicians alone. It is also the fault of people who value science and evidence based decision making – the “geeks”. We geeks must engage in the political process, not stand on the sidelines and moan – this is the geek manifesto.

This thinking led me to join a campaign for people to buy a copy of this book and send it to every MP in the UK set up by Dave Watts. The book you now have is a direct result of this campaign, which you and 649 other members of parliament now have a copy of. Despite the recession and challenging economic circumstances, over 300 ordinary voters like me have spent their own time and money in order to send you these books.

Please take the time to read your copy of the book. If politicians can learn from geeks, and geeks can learn from politicians, we will all get wiser and decision making can only improve. I would be especially interested to hear if and how this book has changed your decision making and will post any of your replies here on my blog.

Yours Sincerely

Dr. Duncan Hull

School of Computer Science
University of Manchester

P.S. A copy of this letter has been sent by post accompanied by a hardback copy of the Geek Manifesto. Another copy of this letter has been emailed to david.rutley.mp@parliament.uk. Some of the content of this post has been adapted from letters authored by Dave Watts and Chris Chambers.

Update, David Rutley sent a written reply (below) dated the 22nd June 2012, which didn’t reach me until the middle of July:

Dear Dr. Hull

Re: The Geek Manifesto

Thank you for your email of 18th June and letter enclosing a copy of the Geek Manifesto.

It was very thoughtful of you to think of me and I appreciate you sending me a copy of the book.

Like you, I believe it is important that science subjects are well represented in the House of Commons and society as a whole. It is important that young people are encouraged to study STEM subjects, so that the UK can compete on the international stage and our universities can continue to be world leaders in scientific research.

I will be sure to bear the views put forward in the Geek Manifesto in mind during my work in the House of Commons and in my conversations with Ministers.

Thank you once again for taking the time to send me a copy of the Geek Manifesto. I look forward to reading my copy.

With best wishes,

David Rutley MP

January 20, 2009

Donald Braben on Scientific Freedom

The Elixir of Civilization?Donald Braben was in Manchester last week, to give a seminar on scientific freedom, here is the abstract of his talk:

Every major scientific discovery came unexpectedly out of the blue.  Until a few decades ago, creative researchers were free to explore. The unpredicted harvest was prodigious. Nowadays, academic research is subject to unprecedented levels of control.  Consensus rules.  In industry, companies focus on “core business“, and severely restrict the range of their research.  Consequently, caution is encouraged everywhere, and highly original research is curtailed.  As a result, there has been a dearth of major new scientific discoveries in recent years.  The significance of the problems and their possible solutions will be discussed.

So who is Donald Braben? Don has held a senior position at the Cabinet Office in Whitehall, and a has a visiting Professorship at University College London (UCL) . He has written two books [3,5], going against the currently prevalent views on science funding. To overcome the problem of the lack of scientific freedom, Braben proposes the creation of a twenty first century “Planck Club”, (named after some bloke called Max Planck). The Planck Club consists of an elite group of the very best scientists who are completely free to explore their ideas without submitting their project proposals to peer review (what Don calls “peer preview”).

Most of the audience were sympathetic to what Don had to say, and his talk provoked an extended discussion about the best way to fund the best Science. All this reminds me of the Skunk Works projects and the infamous “20% time” given to engineers at Google – freedom in Science (and engineering) really matters, but it isn’t always so easy to decide who deserves it and why. Thanks to Don for an entertaining and thought-provoking seminar, and thanks to Paul Popelier for organising it.

If this kind of stuff interests you, take a look at the references below.


  1. Peter Augsdorfer (2008). Book review: Scientific freedom ChemBioChem 9 (17), 2889-2890. DOI:10.1002/cbic.200800670 “The real value of the book is that it shows that unconstrained funding can really work and it tells us how.”
  2. Tim Birkhead (2008). In praise of fishing trips: The tyranny of ‘the hypothesis’ has made science too timid Times Higher Education 2008-07-31
  3. Donald Braben (1994) To Be A Scientist: The spirit of adventure in science and technology, Oxford University Press, isbn:0198522908
  4. Donald Braben (2007). UK Science must not roll over and play dead Times Higher Education 2007-12-07
  5. Donald Braben (2008). Scientific Freedom: The Elixir of Civilisation, Wiley, isbn:0470226544
  6. Donald Braben (2008). Why peer review thwarts innovation New Scientist 2644, 2008-02-23,
  7. Donald Braben (2008). Shoot for the blue skies: The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) constrains academics Times Higher Education 2008-12-22
  8. Zoe Corbyn (2008). Kill peer-review, save civilisation. Times Higher Education 2008-04-17
  9. Tom Feilden (2008). Searching for Einsteins: Is Science stagnating? BBC blogs (and Radio 4 Today programme) 2008-12-11
  10. Krebs and Braben (2009). Don Braben and John Krebs discuss is funding for scientists is under threat Today programme 2009-02-27
  11. Mark Gilbert (2009). Being judged is hard, not being judged is worse Times Higher Education 2009-01-15
  12. Douglas Kell (2009). Scientific Freedom at the UK Research Councils BBSRC blogs 2009-01-05
  13. KFC (2009). How Google’s PageRank predicts Nobel Prize winners arxivblog.com, the physics arXiv blog 2009-01-21
  14. Michael Nielsen (2008). Three myths about peer review michaelnielsen.org 2009-01-08

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