On the 29th of November, I went to a debate posing the question, ‘Do we need more scientists in parliament?’ The first in a new series of debates about policy hosted by the Society of Biology was fully booked, heralding a positive future for the series. Haralambos Dayantis, Science Communication graduate from Imperial College, organised the debate after exploring the subject for his dissertation and finding that many questions were yet to be answered. Given that the event was fully booked from early on, it seems that others are also keen to discuss the topic. An online poll conducted by the Society of Biology prior to the event was a landslide of 96% voting in favour of more scientists in parliament. I have to admit, my vote was also in favour, which, in hindsight, was a bit of a knee jerk reaction. This probably went something along the lines of, ‘Of course! Scientists have an evidence-based decision matrix and that will help sort out politics!’ I now think differently, but more of that later. The panel was balanced having an academic and a politician on each side who put their views across eloquently, despite some political posturing in the middle of the debate!
The panellists arguing for a greater number of scientists in parliament were:
* Dr Phillip Lee MP (Conservative MP for Bracknell, member of Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Environment Group)
* Dr Jennifer Rohn (Cell biologist, novelist, founder and Chair of Science is Vital, and much more) The main arguments for an increase in scientifically trained parliamentarians (NB: an increase only, not a vast majority necessarily) in a very concise summary are:
- The country faces a large number of strategic challenges (climate change, an aging population, energy, access to food and water, healthcare) that require a scientific or engineering solution. The strategic problems we currently face have many aspects to them and scientists are trained in examining multiple variables and at finding a solution that takes account of them.
- Many in parliament are career politicians, which can mean that discussions are of poorer quality as a result of reduced diversity in academic background.
- More scientific representation in politics is required because scientific training provides skills that would be enormously beneficial in a political landscape alongside the lawyers, philosophers and theologians. Evidence-based decision-making, a good measure of scepticism to not accept things at face value, tenacity and analytical skills would all be advantageous for addressing policies.
This does not necessarily require professional scientists, just individuals with scientific training that equips them with learning how to examine a problem, determine workable solutions and analyse the results in a systematic way.
Debating against were:
* Dr Jack Stilgoe (Lecturer in Social Studies of Science, science and technology policy expert and blogger)
* Dr Evan Harris (former Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, writer on science policy)
Arguing against, yet not quite opposing – i.e. the argument was not that there need not be any more scientists in parliament, rather that focussing on that was detracting from the actual issues that we face so that we forget about solving the actual problems and just waste time arguing about how great scientists would be in politics. Dr Stilgoe gave a balanced view taking account of the merits of the arguments for increasing scientific presence in parliament and explained why he thinks that those arguments, although valid, are weak. You can explore his reasoning further in his own words on his personal blog. I particularly thought his quote from Lord Martin Rees, former president of the Royal Society, was relevant in this discussion, “every scientist out of their speciality is depressingly lay.” The main points from Dr Harris were that it is the actual policies that are put in place that matter; the point of focus should not be placed on who makes the policies but on whether the policies are serving the people of the nation. He also feels that the argument from the other side of the debate of the benefits of increased representation of scientists in parliament is weak – after all, many other professions may wish to be represented in politics but that is a very unlikely scenario. From his own personal experience in politics, he found that it is harder to convince scientifically trained members of the House of Lords, possibly due to a measure of prejudice about the evidence presented as they may have already come their own conclusions and be biased. A better use of resources would be to educate parliamentarians on technique in assessing scientific evidence and statistics.
Will they do it better? Well, yeah….but….no….but….
All the panellists agreed on one factor – insufficient scientific literacy due to fear that science is too difficult to comprehend, stigma attached to showing any kind of academic interest (during school years) or mere disinterest. One of the reasons why I am interested in communicating science is to diminish some of that fear factor – it really need not be scary but some people would benefit from innovative explanations or real-life links to it. The problems of stigma and disinterest are beginning to be tackled by the increasing amount of curricular enrichment of science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM) in schools. Academics are eagerly taking on the role of this enrichment to meet public engagement targets issued by their funding bodies, raise the profile of their research topics, and because it is fun and stimulating to discuss your research in novel ways. Enthusing and impressing the importance of science to successive generations will help to safeguard against scientific illiteracy in the government in the future. Although that does not solve the problems discussed about parliament right now but at least all governmental departments now have chief scientific advisors so it certainly seems like the importance of taking scientific advice is apparent to those in parliament.
It does come down to having a certain aptitude for doing the role as well though. If a scientist is going to be interested in becoming a politician and is able to thrive in the environment, of course they should enter into it. But mere training in a certain way of approaching problems, one that has many merits and the opportunities to gain a range of transferrable skills, does not translate to the individual being able to apply themselves to a different field. In the end, it is the person – whether their training was in the sciences, law, geography, or welding – that has the potential to make a difference. I also think that the arguments on the opposing side from Drs Stilgoe and Harris were valid and I agreed with them that the issue is to figure out making policies that focus on what we need for the future. Our energies should be focussed there rather than on how to get more scientists in parliament. If there are scientists out there that are eager and suited for the role, I am certain that they will find a way in.
However, following on from that point but somewhat on the flip side, I do think it is entirely possible for parliament to become more populated with scientists – a point that Dr Rohn made and one that I have touched on briefly in an earlier post – far more PhDs are attained than can be accommodated in academic positions. Many PhD projects are now funded with stipends that have a liveable allowance so more people are attracted to pursuing what may have been more of a luxury in the past. The severe bottleneck that these PhDs are faced with in terms of careers in academia necessitates they broaden their transferrable skill set and consider other options. Just because someone has a degree in science does not preclude them from an interest and flair for politics so I think it is likely we will see an increased representation in the future.
So, for me – an interesting and lively debate, entertaining also as all the speakers were eloquent and knowledgeable but also made the audience laugh whilst making their case. And it wasn’t just my mind that was changed by the debate – a rough poll taken in the room showed that the nearly unanimous vote on the Society of Biology website in favour (which was always going to be a biased place to put the poll) had changed to approximately a third in favour, a third against and a third undecided. A great start to the Policy Lates series and I look forward to attending future events!
OK OK, so perhaps that title is a bit over the top given that I haven’t published many blog posts at all as yet but here is the reason for that.
In this new uncertain world outside of the protective womb of academia, I am now left to fend for myself – gone is the umbilical vessel feeding my brain nutrition in the form of seminars and stimulating coffee break conversations with colleagues (when we weren’t talking about hummus or cheese). Gone is that warm and protective environment – so familiar by the time of completing my PhD and two research posts in the same institution, surrounded by friends and being shielded from the big bad “real world”. After spending so long studying and in the academic environment, I enjoyed the work and the nurturing and stimulating atmosphere but I also think that my skills can probably be better applied to science outside of research. It is hard to make the break and leave that familiarity behind – the real world demands a lot more. I have had a lot of positive feedback but am lacking in experience outside of academia and unfortunately, public engagement doesn’t count enough at the moment with the employment situation so terrible for all. Great – overqualified and under experienced!
Well, I am now putting that to rights and is the reason why it has taken so long to blog again – I have been trying to sort out moving to London from Manchester, my home for the last 10 years. It has taken a little while to sort out the kerfuffles and logistics of moving and there have been many things to arrange. But now, kind and generous friends have taken me in and are helping me settle in whilst I try to overcome the hurdle of being under experienced. Next week, I will start a month-long internship at Breakthrough Breast Cancer to work with their Senior Information Officer – this will get the ball rolling for making contacts, getting some experience and seeing the difference in research in an office-based context.
Now that I am settled down a bit more, I can finally get back to blogging! This was greatly helped by the entertaining talks and inspiration last night at the first ever UK Science Blog Prize arranged by the lovely people of Good Thinking and Soho Skeptics. My first weekend in London and I get to go to something so fun that soothed and cradled my inner geek – like coming home and being embraced. The ten shortlisted bloggers gave very entertaining talks that I hope they write up on their blogs as they were varied and contained a mixture of humour (in one case complete hilarity – thank you very much Dean Burnett of Brain Flapping), advice and tons of inspiration. We were entertained halfway through by the amazingly talented Helen Arney who regaled us with ukelele music and also had us all in fits of giggles – I think I have developed science crushes for both, Helen and Dean! And really, Ben Goldacre was spot on saying that all the entrants were remarkable in doing such excellent work in sharing their passion so effectively with others all for the love of science and for wanting to break down the “us and them” barriers between scientists and the public. This last point in particular was emphasised in the talk by one of the shortlisted candidates – the anonymous Neuroskeptic – that it is vital to explain science to all, not just science geeks, because it is a way for understanding the world around us which is increasingly vital as the influence of scientific progress impacts us all in our day to day lives. How can we debate the big issues discussed in politics without having some knowledge of their influence and impact? It is a sentiment that I wholeheartedly share and is the reason I got into public engagement in the first place and why I am now doing this blog and why I imagine a lot of other scientists pursue public engagement or science blogging.
Now, normally, this would be written up as, ‘but there can only be one winner!’ However, the judges were so torn between two of the shortlisted candidates that they decided to have joint winners as well as the three runners up! Many congratulations to the runners up:
* Oliver Childs, Henry Scowcroft and Kat Arney that together run the Cancer Research UK Science Update blog to help people deal with all that conflicting information out there about the causes, prevention or cause and simultaneous prevention of cancer that seems to change from week to week in the mainstream media (Kat Arney also has her own personal blog).
* Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science explains expertly and with humour anything from birds that use passwords to spiky beetle penises.
* Dorothy Bishop of BishopBlog discusses many different academic-related matters and more and is a champion of the ‘oldies’ (her words, not mine).
The two winners then that are now even more highly recommended given that they are prize winners and all:
* David Colquhoun of DC’s Improbable Science battles ‘quackery’ – pseudoscience and alternative medicine – without rest whilst being a Professor of Pharmacology at UCL.
* Suzi Gage of Sifting the Evidence where she has fast amassed a massive following as she explains statistics and epidemiology. All the more remarkable given that she is still completing her PhD and as David Colquhoun quipped – he and Suzi were likely the oldest and youngest entrants for the competition.
For a very brief moment whilst I was there, I did feel intimidated in the presence of such eloquent, prolific and popular writers, feeling that I have entered the blogging world too late. But then I came to realise that I can learn so much and only move on up from here. As Suzi said in her talk, one of her tips – there will be at least one person out there that will enjoy what you have written and that is important. That was always how I felt doing schools events, some days there would be classes that consisted mostly of kids that had a fun trip to learn science at the museum forced on them but there would always be at least one that was dazzled by it and had wonder in their eyes, and that really does make it worth all the hard work you put into doing such things. So, I have a lot to learn and a lot to do from here on in. I have a few exciting projects that I may keep under wraps for now (until I learn whether the proposals are successful or not) even though they are making me quite giddy with excitement! Now that I am settled, one of them is to get writing and I have a few topics lined up. However, if there is anything to do with brains, developmental biology, fruit fly research or other biology topics that you want to know, feel free to suggest and I shall try to tackle them, or point you in the direction of someone that has already done it very well. Looking forward to some exciting times ahead! 🙂