“From Lab Bench to Front Bench” – Politics for Scientists

Last Tuesday saw CaSE team up with the British Library to host the latest in their TalkScience events.

Joined by three experts in the interactions between politics and science, our director Imran Khan and the audience discussed how we can help take the people, ideas, and ways of thinking of science “from the lab bench to the front bench”

This post is written by Kate Sloyan, a PhD student at the Optoelectronics Research Centre, University of Southampton.  These are her personal reflections on the evening.

Click here for an audio recording of the event. You can also read the most interesting questions and comments submitted by the audience during the discussion.

The problem

Science and technology are the foundations of society but rarely the foundations of policy. Science is not an election issue, and as such those in Parliament and Whitehall tend to have not enough experience or enthusiasm for science or how it works. As a result, poor decisions can be made: proposed changes to immigration law that would have drastically affected university recruitment and well- meaning but restrictive regulation on medical research are just two examples.

Given that scientists and scientific ways of thinking are underrepresented in policy making, the question of the evening concerned what we as interested parties can do to tackle the problem.

Helping us to discuss the issue were panellists with first-hand experience:

The key message is that there is hope. MPs and civil servants are not hostile towards science, and the evidence base is valued. MPs are expected to quickly become experts in a wide range of topics but often must do so with limited support, something noted by both Alice Jones on the MP-scientist pairing scheme and Chris Tyler as a former Parliamentary Science Advisor. With competing pressures and often no experience of science since their teens, it is perhaps not surprising that policy makers can show little interest. It’s up to us, therefore, to show them why they should care.

What can we do?

Fortunately there are plenty of routes to influencing policy: writing to your MP, going to surgeries and lobbying him or her in Parliament as well as getting involved with campaign groups and learned societies. The Royal Society’s MP-scientist pairing scheme can provide participants on both sides with highly valuable insights, many examples of which were described by Alice Jones. Personal interactions shouldn’t be undervalued; as Chris Tyler remarked, it’s crucial to remember that policy is made by people. A letter, anecdote or conversation will often make more of a lasting impact than a dry scientific report.

In light of Paul Nurse’s recent comments concerning the relationship between science and society, there was some discussion of bias and the possible negative impact of science’s involvement in politics. However, the panel were keen to point out the positives whilst taking note of politically sensitive issues such as climate change.

Alice Jones reiterated that she did not and should never feel obliged to change her science as a result of involvement with government, but that we as scientists might learn to communicate our work in a more easily digestible way. While we are keen to have parliamentarians understand us, understanding must go both ways. With more effective communication, knowledge of the best time to lobby (i.e. before an MP will be accused of “flip-flopping”) and an appreciation that policy makers are looking for “the least worst” answer rather than the “right” one, we may be able to have a greater influence.

We should also be open to communicating with other scientists about policy matters such as impact (although there were a few indrawn breaths from the audience when that word was mentioned), as well as to thinking of ourselves as potential policy makers.

How can we encourage scientists and the public to get involved?

The importance of getting younger scientists involved was emphasised. Post- and undergraduate policy training was accepted as becoming more widespread, although much is still to be developed.

As pointed out from the audience, we should also not forget public engagement via outreach and education, as it’s only with a greater public understanding of science that science, engineering and maths will become election issues. Mark Henderson highlighted the importance of teaching science as a way of thinking and not as a selection of facts: if the public has a greater understanding of the scientific method then perhaps a proper understanding of uncertainty, as well as of science, will make its way into Parliament, Whitehall and the media.

Some questions were not fully answered, for example Lords reform, which may provide greater accountability at the expense of removing important, impartial scientific voices from Parliament. Questions surrounding the balancing of funding priorities were not resolved, beyond highlighting the need for scientists to appreciate the difficult roles of research councils.

There was also discussion of apparently failed attempts to influence policy, including audience testimony about EPSRC funding concerns as well as the infamous David Nutt controversy. The panel felt, however, that positive results can arise even from apparently negative cases. It is important to make such results clear to scientists as well as politicians, and to encourage scientists to persevere.

Overall, the evening was somewhat of a call to arms. Although science may be underrepresented in Parliament and Whitehall, the outlook is very positive in terms of what we can achieve and the impact we can make. MPs and civil servants are not hostile to science, they are just uninterested and inexperienced. It’s up to us as people who love science to mobilise and help convince them of why they should care. As panellist Mark Henderson stated, politics lets us down only because we let it.

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