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On funding and scientific expertise in a democracy

May 3, 2012

Scientists are political, just not very active. That’s one of the contentions that has been put to me recently as I conduct my research for a series of articles that will begin on the Guardian website tomorrow. The series will explore how science gets into parliament, but here I wanted to pick up on the funding implications of scientists not being very active.

Firstly, it’s important that if we’re making a broad statement such as ‘scientists aren’t very politically active’, we might want to provide reasons for that that are, in turn, generalised. I can think of a few: the career path of a scientist is inflexible; there is a cultural resistance among scientists to get involved in anything other than their science; and scientist can do a U-turn if the data say so, while politicians who change their mind look weak.

Although these factors may block some scientists from becoming politically involved, if you threaten their funding they’ll take up their placards and exercise their democratic rights. In 2010, Science is Vital built a huge, grass-roots campaign to persuade the government to save the science budget (with lots of backroom help from the Wellcome Trust, among others). The momentum gathered pace most quickly on social media, so it will be interesting to watch #science4thefuture, similar hashtags and related blogs about the EPSRC protest march on May 15. Supporters of that campaign were again urged over email this week to write to their MPs.

So scientists do become politically active when their funding is directly threatened, and they rely on the argument that science is, well, vital to the economy. But what about the role of scientific expertise in a democracy? This is one of the most challenging aspects of the Lords reform debate. It was dealt with head-in in a recent in-depth feature in Research Fortnight. Here’s a quote from Lib Dem peer and science champion Phil Willis:

“I think sometimes we overegg the expertise that’s in the House of Lords,” he says. “A lot of expertise tends to be somewhat distant. And what we actually need is practicing scientists, practicing technologists, practicing engineers who are there to offer their expertise rather than people who 20 years ago did something.”

Willis made the same argument to me when I met him this week – more to come on that in my Guardian series – and I can’t help thinking that there’s a less obvious benefit to his proposal. If the ongoing supply of up-to-date scientific insight by practitioners was folded into the democratic process, it strikes me that funding would be much more secure.

Imagine a political system in which scientists are welcomed more frequently than to the odd Select Committee hearing or as peers years after their cutting-edge work is complete. Surely parliamentarians in that system are less likely to need reminding every so often that science is vital.

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