Scientists and politics?

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The lower legislative chamber of the United Kingdom’s Parliament has 650 members, but only one (0.15%) has a science Ph.D. This seems like a surprisingly small number in a mature democracy. About 0.8% of people in the United Kingdom have a science Ph.D., so it appears that science is seriously underrepresented. I suspect it is the same the world over. Why is this, is it right, and what are the consequences?

There is, fortunately, an increasing focus on making governments representative of the diversity of the population they serve in terms of gender, race, and sexual orientation. But diversity also needs to embrace different intellectual approaches. The structured thinking and disciplined methodologies of science add to diversity, but these are aspects that can challenge vested interests. The blunt, socially insensitive, scientist speaking truth to power is certainly a caricature, but it is sufficiently real to warrant careful management by governments. There is also often suspicion that scientists operate their own agendas.

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Vested interests do not want their political, social, and financial currency de-based by being confronted by the real world. Governments have, therefore, tended to put scientists in a metaphorical box and to only open the lid when they are needed, thus reducing science to a technical service function, supplying support, advice, and economic goods. These boxes can take many forms, from the containment of advisers with a set of rules to forums created for science to play within, like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Until recently, I was chief scientific adviser in the U.K. government on food and environment, a role that only slightly corrected for poor integration of science within government.

It is this systematic exclusion that leads to the underrepresentation of scientists in politics and government. Scientific culture is dominated by human social culture and is forced to play by its rules. As C. P. Snow said 60 years ago, “This polarisation is sheer loss to us all.” Politics would look very different if it were more evenly balanced between these cultures. Aristotle saw politics as legislative science or learning by experience. Politics was itself a scientific inquiry, thus reversing the current maxim that science lies outside politics. In Aristotle’s world, scientists would be those who designed policies to solve tricky problems.

The modern idiom of scientists as the custodians and discoverers of knowledge is much too restrictive. When contested issues arise, society needs scientists to be dominant voices acting as authoritative, impartial, and trusted arbiters who can explain where uncertainties lie in evidence and the likely consequences of alternative futures.

Unfortunately, with the possible exception of climate change (helped by the IPCC), scientists are left to struggle to form a politically influential caucus working within its own rules. The alternative is capture by the language and ways of the other culture. Under this scenario, science becomes yet another money-grabbing vested interest. As a result, many of those who would most benefit from listening put scientists in an opposing political box and close the lid. Advocacy is the surest and most rapid way to achieve such an effect. It can compromise the impartiality of scientific evidence and do more harm than good. When science becomes captured by normal politics, its value drains away.

Unless the scientific community grips this problem of systemic disempowerment within government and politics, science will continue to be manipulated within a political game dominated by vested interests. The underrepresentation of science seems likely to continue unless the process of government itself becomes more diverse. Scientists themselves can help by demonstrating greater thought leadership, showing more enthusiasm to become part of government in all its forms, and valuing the contributions of colleagues who get involved. They need to break out of their synthetic box and politely refuse to have the lid closed on them.

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