UP hosts public lecture by Sir Mark Walport

Posted on July 21, 2015

The University of Pretoria (UP) is proud to have hosted a public lecture by Sir Mark Walport, UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA) and Head of the UK Government Office for Science, on 17 July 2015. The lecture addressed the need for innovation, related social concerns and the management of associated risks, and also focused on how policy-makers and wider society can govern risk most effectively. 
 
The issues raised and the questions defined by Sir Mark are highly relevant to the general scientific community in South Africa, especially in the context of the National System of Innovation (NSI). The NSI is coordinated by the South African National Advisory Council on Innovation (NACI) of which UP’s Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Prof Cheryl de la Rey, is the Chairperson. 
 
Technology is the intersection between science and society and is brought to the fore through innovation. Because science, technology and innovation are interwoven with society, there is always a political dimension. Sir Mark believes that science should not overrule values, but that policy should be underpinned by scientific evidence. His message was that clear distinctions should be made between concepts such as risk, exposure, vulnerability and hazard and also between science and values. He explained that a hazardous situation is not necessarily a high-risk situation and that scientific knowledge helps us to better evaluate both of these. He illustrated the difference between hazard and risk by showing that the risk in a hazardous situation is often mitigated owing to a lack of vulnerability of the subject exposed to the perceived hazard in that particular situation. 
 
He further indicated that a key challenge is to distinguish between science and values in the public sphere – in other words, to clearly explain what constitutes scientific fact and what is opinion related to human values, as both are important in policy debates and decisions. By gaining knowledge, uncertainty may be decreased, which will in turn enable better evaluation of the risk. This led to his conclusion that education, the sharing of scientific knowledge and effective science communication are critical in democratic societies. 
 
Sir Mark’s mission with this visit to South Africa was to foster and promote the deep and longstanding scientific relationship that exists between the UK and South Africa. He had a very full programme, including not only this public lecture at UP, but also the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on Space Research Policy with the South African National Space Agency (SANSA), the rededication of the UK government’s commitment to the Newton Fund (which forms part of the UK’s official development assistance), the blessing of the Bloodhound Project (an attempt at the world land speed record), and discussions on energy policy choices on the basis of good science.

 

- Author Ansa Heyl

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