There are 650 MPs in the House of Commons. Some 158 have a background in business. Another 90 have worked in professional politics, 86 are lawyers and 38 come from the media. There is, as you may well know, just a single professional scientist – Julian Huppert, the MP for Cambridge. Add in two more science PhDs and a smattering of engineers and medical doctors, and scientific representation in the Commons is decidedly weak. Just one Cabinet minister, Vince Cable, studied the natural sciences at university – and he switched to economics half way through.
You don’t, of course, have to be trained as a scientist to manage it well, or to grasp its importance to public policy. Many of parliamentarians without a science background, such as Phil Willis and Ian Taylor, have become highly effective champions of research. But as I argue in The Geek Manifesto, this under-representation still matters.
The specialist expertise of the scientific expert is rarely relevant to the specific decisions politicians must make: Huppert’s knowledge of structural biology has little bearing on his work as a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee. But there is, I think, a wider disconnect between science and politics that serves neither particularly well. With so few politicians with a background in science, or with an active record of engagement with it, the viewpoint that science might contribute is often absent when decisions are taken – particularly in those important informal conversations between parliamentary colleagues in the lobbies and the tea room.
Without much instinctive understanding of what it means to do science, politicians who have to manage science sometimes take decisions that are unintentionally damaging towards it. The recent introduction of the immigration cap, which as originally framed would have significantly restricted recruitment of talented young scientists from beyond the EU, is a case in point. It wasn’t that the policy was designed to hurt science. It was that its impact wasn’t appreciated, until groups such as CaSE pointed it out.
There’s also too little appreciation of Carl Sagan’s dictum that science is more than a body of knowledge: it’s also a way of thinking. Without this, many ministers fail to use scientific advice as well as they could – witness the handling of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs that culminated in the sacking of Professor David Nutt. And they ignore what the experimental methods of science might have to contribute towards better policy-making when we lack good evidence.
It’s this background that makes organisations such as CaSE, and the individuals and institutions who support it, so important. Significant scientific input into policy-making isn’t likely to emerge from a cadre of MPs and ministers who can provide it. So it’s up to those of us who do grasp what it has to offer to make sure that it has a place at the table.
On science funding in the comprehensive spending review, on the immigration cap, on ministerial use of scientific advice, the parliamentary and governmental activity of CaSE has been pivotal to securing better outcomes. But what CaSE does professionally, often behind closed doors, can only become more powerful if its supporters also make their voices heard, in a fashion that allows them to be listened to.
When politicians mishandle science, it’s rarely because they are actively hostile. It’s more usually because they’re indifferent – they haven’t considered the issues properly, if at all, and they don’t think those issues matter to sufficient numbers of people to be worth their time. We need to make them realise that’s wrong.
So how might we best achieve this? For a start, we should encourage others to join CaSE. With a bigger individual membership, it would benefit from both greater resources and a more powerful and authoritative voice. It costs only £2.50 a month to become an individual member. Why not persuade a friend who agrees with you that that’s a price worth paying. Why not persuade 10?
Then there’s engaging with politicians, through constructive lobbying. As citizens and constituents, we have the right to make our concerns known to our elected representatives, who ought to listen to us, even if they are not bound to agree. Email your MP about the scientific issues that matter to you. Go to see them at their constituency surgeries. You might not convince them to share your point of view. But you will often convince them to read up on a subject they hadn’t previously thought much about at all, to develop an informed position.
Finally, we should think about our political behaviour. If you support a political party most of the time, join it. Make sure that scientific input is heard from the inside. And be prepared to use your vote where necessary. If a candidate in your constituency is particularly good on scientific issues, or particularly bad, you should be prepared to lay your normal party loyalties aside. If attitudes to science are seen to carry political rewards, and even more so a political cost, it’s a fair bet that they’ll start to be taken more seriously.
Looking for more? Buy the Geek Manifesto.