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Scientific elitism helps to keep science policy on the margins

Science needs a cross-party caucus of engaged MPs from all walks of life. That’s unlikely to happen while the issue is seen as one for scientists alone, argues Imran Khan.

Science has become the equivalent, in British politics, of motherhood and apple pie. Every party agrees that it’s a nice thing and we should have more of it. Both of the two largest parties claim credit for supporting it. At a recent pre-election science hustings in the House of Commons, Julia Reid—an MEP for the UK Independence Party—went so far as to say that we should have more scientists immigrating to the UK.

Yet despite these warm words, political support for science—in deed rather than just in word—hasn’t changed much. In the five years I spent working in and around the British political establishment, I saw that almost nobody was advocating a step change in how science was seen and supported. We make do with flat-cash settlements here and reasonable capital injections there, but there is no real grand vision and relatively little trajectory.

It is traditional to blame our supposedly myopic political classes for the state of affairs we find ourselves in. If only they could see the potential and grandeur of science; if only they weren’t all philosophy, politics and economics graduates and lawyers who prefer scoring political points to introducing evidence-based policy; and if only they weren’t chasing the easy votes and cheap headlines rather than the big but slow payoff that science provides. If only, if only.

But there’s an argument to be made that, when it comes to building political support for science, scientists may be their own worst enemies. For instance, fierce advocacy of the Haldane principle, which suggests that scientists alone should make decisions about science, may have unwittingly convinced politicians and the public that their intellectual and practical engagement is not welcome.

I’d argue that there are two big things that the science lobby needs to achieve, and both of them are made very difficult by the framing of science as an elite profession rather than a collectively owned part of our culture.

The first is the establishment of a genuine, visible science caucus in parliament. We already have the beginnings of this, thanks to the smattering of pro-science politicians across the parties, such as Chi Onwurah, Julian Huppert and George Freeman. But beyond the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, there’s little space or incentive for them to politicise science across party boundaries. This stands in contrast to any number of other issues, from reproductive health to free speech.

The second change needed is to open up membership of that caucus to non-scientists. There remains an unhelpful assumption among the scientific establishment, sometimes unspoken, that someone who isn’t a scientist can’t be relied upon to have a view on science policy or be allowed to be part of the scientific community.

At best, the view goes, non-scientists could conceivably be second-rate advocates for the work of real scientists. Even David Willetts, the near-universally applauded science minister who stepped down last summer, was asked by some scientists on his appointment how he could be a good science minister without possessing a scientific background.

The key to bringing about both of these shifts is for it to actually be in politicians’ self-interest to get involved in science policy, regardless of their educational and professional backgrounds. We need to have a society in which political support for science translates into public votes, rather than just applause from scientists.

That’s unlikely to happen as long as the only people who identify themselves as being part of the scientific community are scientists. In other fields, such as cycling, healthcare and party politics, the non-
professionals who feel a sense of ownership of the field are the ones who make it politically important.

Most politicians and much of the wider public still see science as primarily the domain of scientists. Ultimately, science needs to broaden its appeal so that more politicians feel they have the licence, from both the public and the scientific establishment, to push their parties to be bolder when it comes to making science policy.

This can’t be done by issuing economic impact reports and case studies alone, nor will it happen overnight. If we’re serious about getting politicians to help move science closer to the centre of the UK’s political culture and civil society, we need to move beyond simply telling politicians how important science is, and towards a situation where the public is demanding action from them.

Until then, let’s not be too surprised when politicians pay more attention to whatever’s in their mailbag; that is their job, after all.

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Imran Khan is the chief executive of the British Science Association (www.britishscienceassociation.org), which promotes science as a part of culture and society.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight