Peter Wilby: We're eloquent on economics but silent on science

Climate change, nuclear power, GM foods: the need for informed debate is greater than ever. But you won't find it in the papers
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The Independent Online

The biggest preoccupation of politicians for most of the 20th century was economic affairs. The exchange rate, the balance of payments, currency reserves, tariffs, taxes, interest rates, wages, prices - these issues, in peacetime at least, dominated the political debate and, therefore, the newspaper comment pages.

But governments of both left and right now leave most of that to the market. No political leader would announce an economic plan, propose further state control of industry or talk of "squeezing demand". Most economic matters are no longer contested. Instead, the issues are increasingly scientific and technological. How do we cope with global warming? Should we embrace nuclear power? What controls are needed on GM crops? Are mobile phones bad for us? Should we prevent the creation of "designer babies"? If so, how? Are biological attacks a serious threat?

Just as most voters understood little about economics, so they understand little about, say, the processes behind climate change. Here, they might look for guidance to trusted press commentators. But there is a problem. Thirty years ago, most editors and columnists could claim at least a rudimentary knowledge of economics and industry. Some would have taken the PPE degree at Oxford; others, such as the late Peter Jenkins, had started out as labour reporters. How many today can claim the smallest understanding of science? How many science correspondents become editors or columnists? In any case, as The Guardian's Bad Science column shows every week, some science and health specialists in the press are far from reliable, and even the country's most trusted news source, the BBC, can be almost laughably ill-informed on these subjects.

The result is a curious vacuum at the centre of our papers, with the most important issues of the day not discussed. You are more likely to read an acute piece about the Church of England than about scientific research. When the Prime Minister hints at a return to nuclear energy, we should expect vigorous, informed debate. But our leading commentators are almost silent; their columns cover, yet again, the future of the Conservatives, the prospects for a Gordon Brown takeover, or the latest schools initiative.

Newspaper readers are uncertain about such issues as GM crops and global warming; worried, but prepared to be reassured by someone whose knowledge and judgement they trust. A handful of distinguished scientists - Steve Jones and Robert Winston, for example - make occasional appearances on the op-ed pages. A few columnists, such as George Monbiot in The Guardian, at least give the impression that they grasp the technicalities. The Times has a weekly op-ed Science Notebook. But few columnists with scientific backgrounds get the prominence and scope to range as widely as economics specialists such as Hamish McRae in The Independent or Anatole Kaletsky in The Times. Business specialists such as Jeff Randall and Neil Collins are headhunted and paid six-figure salaries. Few science writers are so lucky.

It is said that generals always fight the last war. I fear that too much of the comment in our newspapers is about last century's issues.

Peter Wilby is a former editor of the 'New Statesman'

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