Can't scientists be intellectuals too?

Is it conceited of me to fancy myself as a bit of an intellectual? I have after all, like most practising scientists, obtained a doctorate in philosophy (and my PhD certainly included a good amount of ‘Ph’). Now I am paid, essentially, to sit and think, and to write about what I have thought. And I read pretty widely, and pretty critically, fact and fiction. If nothing else, the range of posts on this blog show that I’m certainly prepared (am perhaps too keen, if anything) to pontificate on subjects well outside my nominal area of expertise. I don’t think I am in any way unusual in this. Plenty of professional scientists would also count themselves as thinkers, perhaps even philosophers, and certainly intellectuals. Yet scientific voices remain very scarce in public intellectual debate in the UK. Sure, we’ll wheel out an ‘expert’ to comment on something on which they are, indeed, expert. But the thinkers considered suitable contributors to more general discussions on the human condition, public policy, and the like, remain overwhelmingly drawn from the arts, the humanities, and the social sciences.

This is all to give a little context, then, to my rather chippy reaction to finding out that the Arts & Humanities Research Council, together with the BBC, have identified 10 new public intellectuals through their New Generation Thinkers scheme. Said reaction being: ‘So ’intelligent discussion’ programmes on TV and radio will welcome yet more Oxbridge humanities graduates with a double first in self aggrandisement and a keen interest in the sounds of their own voices, yet no concept of the distinction between fact and opinion? Whoopie-doo.’

As it happens, this is unfair. Although at least 6 of the 10 have come through Oxbridge at some point (generally as undergrads), only one of them currently works at Cambridge, and none at Oxford. And they all look to be very high-achieving, worthy winners – several have already published well-received books, and all their ‘specialist subjects’ sound interesting, from Britain in the 1790s to the Rwandan Genocide.

But the broader point, and the source of my frustration, holds: why aren’t the scientific research councils doing something similar? Listen to what the scheme offers its winners, and turn green with envy:

BBC Radio 3 and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) today announce the 10 winners of the inaugural New Generation Thinkers Scheme – the culmination of a nationwide search for the brightest academic minds with the potential to turn their ideas into fascinating broadcasts… The New Generation Thinkers for 2011 will now work closely with dedicated mentors from the production team of Radio 3’s arts and ideas programme Night Waves (Mondays to Thursdays 10-10.45pm). And each night from Tuesday 28 June, and for nine subsequent editions of Night Waves, a New Generation Thinker will talk about an idea inspired by their research.

Sounds pretty good, eh? And when you consider that it will surely be a fast track to regular appearances on the myriad cultural comment programmes on TV and radio, all in all a pretty good gig.

The science research councils seem to still be operating on assumption that what scientists really want is instruction from communications professionals, that we are all clamouring for the opportunity to be offered a walk-on part in Horizon, rather than actually to shape public intellectual discourse.

Even the Royal Society, who fund me, have betrayed something of this attitude in the new secondment opportunity that they have introduced for research fellows, which appears to be a kind of ‘advanced work experience’ at the BBC – getting to play with editing software and the like. It does look fun, I admit (providing you already live in London, as it comes with no living expenses; interestingly, 5/10 of the New Generation Thinkers are also London-based), but it does rather stand in contrast to the AHRC scheme: work experience, as opposed to a leg-up into public intellectual life.

I’m not suggesting that we scientists are offered anything on a plate, nor that we have any special privilege to contribute to public discourse. But rather, that public discourse would be enriched by more contributions of working scientists, applying their hard-won analytical and critical skills to fields outside their area of expertise. This would be both a complement and a balance to the views expressed (often in the absence of data) by the various think-tanks, pressure groups, and assembled ‘thinkers’ that tend to dominate discussions of social policy options.