November 7, 2012, by Alex Smith

The scientist as political tourist: the perils of pairing

The Palace of Westminster

On Wednesday last week (31 October 2012), BBC Radio Four’s ‘Today’ programme featured a scheme run by the Royal Society to promote interaction and engagement between civil servants, Parliamentarians and scientists.

According to their website, the ‘Pairing Scheme’ seeks to match participating scientists ‘with either an MP or civil servant and the Royal Society supports them by arranging a ‘Week in Westminster’ and reciprocal visits to research centres and laboratories across the UK’.  In doing so, the scheme ‘aims to help MPs and civil servants establish longstanding links with practising research scientists and to help research scientists understand political decision making and its associated pressures.’

Reciprocal visits

During their week in Parliament, the selected scientists participate in a programme of activities including seminars, workshops and opportunities to shadow the MP with whom they have been paired.  They are also taken on a tour of the Houses of Parliament, attend Select Committee meetings as well as Prime Minister’s Question Time, follow Parliamentary debates, observe meetings, attend policy briefings and press interviews with the MP and visit Government offices.  The week promises to give scientists ‘a taste not only of the approach to science policy but of Parliament and the Civil Service in general’ as well as generate insights about the working lives of politicians.

During a series of reciprocal visits, scientists also spend a day in the constituency office of the Member of Parliament, attending local events and meetings as well as consultative surgeries.  In return, MPs and civil servants are promised ‘a unique opportunity to gain an insight to the scientific process’ by being offered the opportunity to visit the scientist’s research facilities, where they can ‘talk to staff and students, hear about the research and help conduct an experiment.’

Public trust in science (and politics)

The BBC story ran as if the scheme is new, launched in part to improve the scientific literacy of MPs in response to recent controversies (e.g. ‘climate-gate’, GM crops) over public trust (or a lack thereof) in science.  Since 2001, however, the Royal Society has paired over 150 scientists with civil servants and politicians, some of whom have included Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg MP, the Rt. Hon John Denham MP and the Tory MP Ed Vaizey.

From this description, the pairing scheme can seem both reassuring and unsettling at the same time.  On the face of it, there is much that would appear to commend it.  After all, most people would probably acknowledge that science faces significant political challenges in the current economic climate, particularly in terms of arguing for continuing public funding of science research and teaching, especially in our universities.  It would therefore be difficult to argue against the value of a scheme that promotes dialogue, engagement and – hopefully – respect and understanding between politicians and scientists.  In this sense, various publics might consider the scheme to be reassuring.

Yet, it is also possible to feel troubled by the fact that such a scheme seems necessary in a scientifically advanced society like the UK.  Surely, in the 21st century, and after many decades of significant and sophisticated advances in medicine, science and a wide variety of other technologies, British politicians need no further convincing of the importance and value of science?  Various publics might find this revelation even less reassuring than the suggestion that science cannot always be ‘trusted’.

Political tourism

The logic of such ‘pairing’ is to suggest that the politician and the scientist are engaged in practices that are mutually exclusive of each other.  Exaggerating a sense of distance between the work of politics and science, a divide is imagined that then needs to be ‘bridged’ if understanding is to be achieved between such (opposed) domains of activity and practice.  But before this can be done, one needs to identify the ‘sites’ in which politics and science can be institutionally encountered.  Not only does this demand a number of assumptions about both the unintelligibility of politics to science (and vice versa).  It over-simplifies the question of their institutional location, the implication being that politics can be ‘found’ in Westminster (or the civil service) and that science is something done in a laboratory (remember, politicians get the chance to ‘help’ with an experiment!)

How credible is this?

A question could be raised about the quality of the political education on offer for the participating scientists.  The opportunity of a ‘Week in Westminster’ smacks of political tourism: it reminds me of the five days of work experience I completed in the early 1990s in the constituency office of a local Federal MP when I was a 19 year-old undergraduate in Australia.  On that occasion, the voluntary work I did translated into a paid, part-time position over three years that taught me so much more about the practice of politics than I could have gleaned from that initial week – or, indeed, a tour of Parliament.

But the week I spent shadowing a Parliamentarian was merely the starting point – rather than the sum total – of my political education.  The most valuable lesson I learned was that in trying to identify where power lies and how political decisions are made, one requires a more grounded and sustained engagement with politics, beginning with a more imaginative approach to how one ‘sites’ it.

Science – and politics – in the making

This question, of the location of politics and science institutionally, has long been a concern for social scientists, including philosophers of science and other scholars of science and technology.  For anthropologists and sociologists, politics is as meaningfully transacted in local-level associational life – whether this includes churches, clubs, the family, political parties, the pub, trade unions or other voluntary organisations – as well as institutions of the state, such as schools, local Council chambers and, indeed, Parliament.

In addition, in the 1980s and early 1990s, the French sociologist Bruno Latour published extensively about the various ‘sites’ in which science can be located, highlighting his conception of science as a set of disciplinary practices ‘in the making’ (cf. his book ‘Science in Action’, published in 1987).  Invariably (for Latour), these sites are embedded within networks composed of human and non-human agents that extend within and beyond (while also encompassing) institutions.  But the important point is that these sites are transient and unstable: they are not fixed, static institutions to be apprehended and physically mapped, like a sightseer on a tour of a famous building.  Rather, they are dynamic social practices that give form to objects that come, in turn, to be named as ‘politics’ or ‘science’.

It is through attentiveness to the social – with an eye and ear to how politics and science are made through practices and relations grounded values of collaboration and engaged dialogue that both domains of activity share – that Parliamentarians and scientists can generate mutual understanding that is meaningful for both disciplines.

It would be interesting to know more about how many ‘pairings’ via the Royal Society scheme have led to longer-term conversations between the participating politicians and scientists.  Such a scheme should never be the end point of efforts to build understanding between the two disciplines.  Rather, it must constitute a beginning, a starting point that seeks to reaffirm the social in both politics and science in order to build firm foundations for understanding that bridges whatever is imagined to divide the two.

Image of the Palace of Westminster courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Posted in Personal ReflectionPoliticsScience and GovernmentTrust