The importance of young scientists understanding the UK’s
Policy machines – a personal view
I have a strong feeling that the issue of House of Lords Reform and the expertise within it fails to excite not just the British public but particularly the hundreds of young scientists who are beavering away at research across the UK. My experience with them, through the charity Newton’s Apple, is that they wish to understand how grants are awarded, cuts are made and how legislation is enacted and determined and particularly in the case of new measures that have a science content or will impact on the scientific community. By introducing them to the work of learned societies, previous and current members of the Parliamentary Select Committees as well as civil servants by meeting in Parliament and within their local universities, Newton’s Apple gives post docs and research students a taste for these matters. Whether it is how money is given to bee research, how the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act developed and how civil servants get on with it despite the pontifications in Parliament, they come to some understanding of the processes. They certainly wish to know more and come to believe that doing research just on its own without this understanding weakens their role in the scientific educational process. They are the most important sector in scientific research since they do so much of the ground work while their supervisors are administering or serving on committees and are gradually taken away from the bench.
My own feeling is that in Parliament it is unlikely that there will ever be the understanding of how science is done and how it feels to be a young researcher, given the nature of recruitment into political parties and into Westminster. It is not enough to have achieved a GCSE or O’Level in Science to have come to terms with an understanding of the scientific process, its frustrations and its essential nature. There needs to be much more interaction with those who are interested in science and have an understanding of Westminster life with younger people who are able to break down the barriers between the different laboratories in their work places. They can work together to influence MPs and others more effectively from outside Parliament. When I say that the House of Lords reforms seem irrelevant this is not to deny the excellence of the scientific experts there who have been through the mill. But many of them get disillusioned with the parliamentary process and indeed for my part as an MP I regularly questioned what the role of the scientific expert was in the House of Lords. They may have raised the level of the debate but their effectiveness was always in question. The political understanding of scientists was brought home to me at the Latitude Festival recently when Brian Cox, for all his virtues, completely dodged the question of how science could produce, for example, weapons of mass destruction, and this too came from a basic understanding of physics as much as the Higgs Bosun did. Scientists at all levels somehow still think that the social context cannot divert the usefulness, or otherwise, of scientific discoveries. This is why I think it has become easy for people to talk about the virtue and values of science in our economies without really addressing the serious social implications of how science can be used in society. The younger generation certainly appreciates this as a contradiction when it is put in front of them.
I would welcome the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) if it took time to interact with our young scientific community and discuss these issues. We should discuss the successes, the failures, the campaigns and indeed the whole contradictory nature of science in its interaction with politicians. The lack of understanding of each other is a mammoth problem yet to be solved and until we do we shall never settle the so-called issue of the Public Understanding of Science and vice versa. I doubt if the election of the Lords in these circumstances would make any difference to the understanding of how important these are to the economic growth of the UK and also our standing on the world stage which is, of course, high but also vulnerable to current political policies.
To summarise, then, my view is that we should concentrate on developing an understanding with the younger community and perhaps even excite them enough to enter the political field at various levels e.g. the Civil Service, charities or NGOs. Politicians steeped in their dark arts are unlikely to understand the complex, frustrating but challenging world at the laboratory bench.