This was the question posed at a recent seminar organised by the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee in Portcullis House, opposite the Palace of Westminster. Typically, however, the keynote speeches skirted around the central problem.
The Parliamentary and Scientific Committee is described as “an Associate Parliamentary Group of members of both Houses of Parliament and British members of the European Parliament, representatives of scientific and technical institutions, industrial organisations and universities.” It has over 300 individual or corporate members and thus represents almost the entire British scientific and engineering establishment in its relations with Parliament. The theme of its meeting on 15 February 2011 was: “Can the economy survive without a national measurement system?” so you might have thought that this would be a splendid opportunity to explore a solution to what is arguably the biggest problem of our national measurement system – namely that a large proportion of the population and the media use a different set of units from the official one. If so, you would have been disappointed.
The meeting was addressed* by three impeccably qualified speakers, including the Managing Director of the National Physical Laboratory (the UK’s National Measurement Institute), the Head of Materials and Processes Integration (Airbus), and the Director of Strategy, Measurement Research (LGC Group).
The content of their speeches* (including the near obligatory quotations from Magna Carta and Lord Kelvin) was unexceptionable and will be familiar to most readers of this blog. These were some of the main points:
- It has always been the responsibility of governments to define the legal units of measurement.
- The National Measurement System (NMS) upholds a system agreed internationally in 1875 [system not identified, however]
- All science and industry depend on the work of metrologists (measurement scientists).
- “Measurement underpins the welfare of modern society and touches almost every part of daily life.”
- The National Physical Laboratory (NPL) is the custodian of the NMS – “the collective infrastructure of national facilities, expertise, knowledge, science, research and legal framework in the metrology field”.
- The NPL provides a consultancy service to over 2000 industry customers.
- NMS provides Airbus with “robust, traceable standards which are essential for manufacturing; cross-sector best practice and knowledge transfer; manufacturing optimisation and product improvement; and innovative metrology for product improvement and new concept development.”
- Reliable measurement: “facilitates free trade through harmonised standards”; “underpins regulation” so that “parts manufactured in one country fit into machines in another country”, “products tested and approved in one country can be sold in another country, without further technical inspection”; and “consumer protection is maintained.”
- There are problems of lack of accuracy and of “standards, benchmarks … and protocols.”
- The UK plays a leading role in BIPM, which “ensures world-wide uniformity of measurements and their traceability to the International System of Units (SI)” [at last it gets a mention].
So, all good stuff – except for one thing …
The elephant in the room
Sorry to use this overworked cliché – but it really is appropriate in this case.
It beggars belief that a serious discussion about a “national measurement system” (NMS) can take place without reference to the unfortunate fact that a large part of the general population and much of the popular media (not to mention our official road signs) do not use our national measurement system but continue to use a random collection of units that have survived by chance from Roman and medieval times.
The scientists, engineers and industrialists will no doubt claim that their work is entirely metric. All their calculations, their research, their learned papers, their standards and specifications, their components, their measuring instruments are all wholly and exclusively metric. The disconnect with wider society (the argument continues) is not a problem for them and is not relevant.
But it IS a problem, and it IS relevant.
It is a problem since scientists, engineers and industrialists need to communicate with and explain themselves to the general public and the media. They also need to persuade politicians to accept their advice and recommendations (e.g. on climate change, or BSE, or the classification of harmful drugs), and above all they need to obtain public funding for their research. In order to communicate and persuade effectively, they need to speak the same language and to use the same measurement units.
Science and science-based industries are controversial and are much misunderstood and misrepresented in the media, resulting in deep public distrust. Symptoms of this are the growth of non-scientific (or anti-scientific) medicine such as homeopathy or acupuncture, the drop in take-up of the MMR vaccine with potentially fatal consequences, the campaign against genetically modified crops and in favour of “organic” farming, the growth of “creationism” as a serious alternative to Darwinism in science lessons in schools.
It would of course be an over-simplification to suggest that the only or main cause of this gulf of incomprehension and distrust is that scientists (and most industries) speak metric, whereas many non-scientists, even if they are partly conversant with metric units, generally default to “traditional” imperial units. Yet the fact that scientists speak in a language (metric) that is perceived by many as alien and “unnatural” is an additional, unnecessary barrier that makes communication with non scientists even more difficult than it would otherwise be. The challenge is to make metric the “natural” language of everybody.
It is disappointing therefore that the three distinguished speakers at the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee seminar carefully ignored the “two systems” problem. By failing to address the issue – indeed, by pretending that it is none of their business – scientists help to maintain the gulf and thereby sell themselves short. One can only hope that some of the other participants – especially those who might have an influence on the Government – may be prepared to use that influence to persuade it to resume the stalled metrication programme and complete it as soon as possible.
*Their speeches can be read at this link (scroll down to page 38).