The Palace of Westminster

December 6, 2013, by Brigitte Nerlich

Maybe, Minister: Can politics and science ever speak the same language?

This blog post by Professor Philip Moriarty (member of the MakingSciPub network of Honorary Associates) was first published in PhysicsFocus on 5 December, 2013. Phil and Dr Clare Burrage from Physics and Astronomy have been spending the week at Westminster. This is Phil’s story:

Along with 35 other scientists (including my colleague Clare Burrage here at Nottingham), I have been at Westminster for the past few days as part of this year’s Royal Society MP-Scientist pairing scheme. Clare and I are paired with our local MP, Lilian Greenwood, and spent some time yesterday shadowing Lilian during a number of her meetings at Westminster. In the not-too-distant future we’ll also accompany Lilian while she meets with some of her South Nottingham constituents.

I’m going to save a description of the Westminster shadowing process – and the frankly unedifying experiencing of witnessing Prime Minster’s Questions “in the raw” for the first time – for a later post. I will say for now, however, that notwithstanding the bear pit that is PMQs, I thoroughly enjoyed the Westminster experience and, for reasons I’ll come back to in the future, found it rather humbling at times.

The tour of the Houses of Parliament on the first day was particularly fascinating and educational for me, given that quite a bit of my knowledge of the English monarchy has been gleaned from episodes of Blackadder. (I’m Irish and our curriculum at primary and secondary school didn’t focus too heavily on the minutiae of the succession of English monarchs. Oliver Cromwell, on the other hand, tended to pop up quite regularly during history lessons…).

What I want to discuss in this first post on the Pairing Scheme, however, are a couple of questions which were raised repeatedly in talks and panel discussions on Monday and Tuesday: what role does scientific advice play in politics, and is evidence-based policy always a realistic aspiration? These are uncomfortable questions for scientists because they cut to the core of our ‘value system’ and force us to consider the plethora of uncontrolled, and fundamentally uncontrollable, ‘non-scientific’ variables which underpin the political system. Simply presenting the evidence is not enough.  (It was also a bit of an eye-opener to find that the term “evidence” need not necessarily mean evidence as a scientist would understand it; often it can mean opinion.)

We heard from a variety of speakers and panellists who are at the heart of the process of translating scientific evidence and scientific opinion/consensus to policy. The introduction to science in parliament by Chris Tylor on Monday afternoon and the subsequent panel discussion were both particularly enlightening. To get a good insight into the general flavour of Tylor’s comments, it’s worth reading this article in the Guardian which, coincidentally, was also published on Monday. Although I suspect that Chris and I would disagree rather strongly on the matter of the RCUK and HEFCE impact ‘agenda’ (lots more on this in my post tomorrow), there’s an awful lot in that article in the Guardian with which I would concur: “Science for policy” and “policy for science” are certainly very different things (today’s post deals with the former, tomorrow’s post with the latter); policy makers aren’t intrinsically driven by, or even particularly interested in, science because there is (a lot) more to policy than scientific evidence; let’s not condescendingly dismiss politicians’ ability to understand scientific uncertainty; and economics and law are much, much higher up the ‘pecking order’ than science.

This latter point was raised on quite a number of occasions. On Tuesday morning, Jill Rutter, Programme Director of the Institute for Government, presented some illuminating statistics on the distribution of the degree backgrounds of the permanent secretaries. As you might expect, economics, law, history, the humanities and the social sciences featured heavily. The life and physical sciences languish at the bottom of the list, occupying a tiny sliver of the pie chart. To hammer this point home, Rutter pointed out that only one person in the current cabinet did some science at degree level: Dr. Vince Cable. Even then, Cable apparently only did two years before swapping to economics.

In common with the vast majority of the talks and panels we attended on the first two days of the week in Westminster, Rutter’s presentation was refreshingly open and honest. She made very convincing arguments regarding the interplay of “technocracy” and politics, pointing out that the big difference between government and academia is that government needs to make decisions. Rutter also stressed that there are very few issues where science or evidence dictate government action, listing such concerns and criteria as cost-benefit analysis/spending prioritisation, political/ethical acceptability, legality, and implementability.

If anything, the presentation which followed – from David MacKay, Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) to the Department of Energy and Climate Change – was even more “transparent” (if you’ll excuse the lift from the political lexicon). MacKay gave an engaging and fascinating insight into his work as a CSA pointing out, amongst many other things, the exceptionally important role of lobbyists and the at times difficult relationship of CSAs with the media. I must admit to being left with some nagging questions after MacKay’s talk about just how the type of rigorous science and comprehensive evidence base which he discussed with regard to sustainable energy was then translated into a form which could, for want of a better description, “play to the Daily Mail”.

MacKay, in common with Rutter before him and a number of panellists on the previous day (including Robert Winston and Alan Malcom, Executive Secretary of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee  – more on their presentations tomorrow), pointed out that individual scientists can be influential “if you talk to the right people in the right way” and that lobbyists are massively influential. I think that the majority of scientists would instead hope that the scientific evidence could speak for itself. This is almost always a pipe-dream.

Yet, although I appreciate entirely that scientific evidence can never be the be-all-and-end-all of policy making and politics, and have a lot of sympathy for the policy-maker’s need to see evidence as only one component of a complex landscape of criteria and considerations, I nonetheless share the concerns voiced by George Monbiot a couple of month ago in an article entitled “For scientists in a democracy, to dissent is to be reasonable”:

“A world in which scientists speak only through minders and in which dissent is considered the antithesis of reason is a world shorn of meaningful democratic choices. You can judge a government by its treatment of inconvenient facts and the people who expose them.”

The tagline for Monbiot’s article is “Government policy in Britain, Canada and Australia is crushing academic integrity on behalf of corporate power”. Tomorrow, I’m going to focus on the question of the extent to which the research councils’ and the funding councils’ ‘impact agenda’ undermines the independence, integrity, and ethos of academia in its headlong rush to make academic scientists more responsive to the needs of business and industry.

Posted in Uncategorized