What happens when you mix science with politics?
Excerpts from a blog by the ORC's Dr Katrina Morgan on her week in Westminster, taking part in The Royal Society Pairing Scheme 2017, which aims to “build bridges between parliamentarians, civil servants and some of the best research scientists in the UK.
"This was one of the most eye-opening experiences in my career to date. If you are a scientist in the UK, I urge you to apply.
"As part of the scheme, I shadowed a civil servant for two days. The rate and the constant attention required for her day-to-day job shocked me. All I did was observe and I was exhausted. Before this week, I didn’t fully comprehend the work that went on behind the visible front-line of MPs. Whilst the media, public and cabinet focus on Brexit, thousands of civil servants strive to ensure the lights stay on and the wheels keep turning.
"The main theme of the Pairing Scheme was how scientific evidence informs policy. A mock select committee was set up, where we interviewed three expert witnesses. The topic was post-truth politics and whether there is a need for an Office for Scientific Responsibility.
"It soon became apparent that there are many schemes in parliament and government that promote the use of evidence. An example of this is the House of Commons library, that provides impartial evidence for members of parliament and their staff. It also became clear, however, that many politicians or advisers return to the same group of scientists time and time again. A sort of, political-science nepotism, if you will. To overcome this, a greater number of scientists need to take ownership and engage with politicians.
As an academic, it is easy to often feel ignored by politicians. Combining this with high work-loads, instability and stress, it becomes clear why many science academics invest little or no time in politics. There is a real risk however that science will fade further into the background. We need an approach from both sides. We need scientists to reach out to politicians and we need politicians to listen. And as a scientist there are many ways to do this.
"Another aspect of the Pairing Scheme was a Q&A with Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Chris Whitty. This session created context and a bigger picture. I realised that scientific evidence is only one of many factors that play a part in policy. Social, economic, political and public opinion all factor in. For example, despite scientific evidence, government will be very weary if something creates public outrage. In order for policy to align with scientific evidence, we need public opinion to align also.
"We, as scientists, need to increase levels of communication with the public. We need to ensure that our work is accessible to everyone and in a format that the public can understand. We need the public not only to understand, but to respect and become advocates of science. Only then will science and policy truly align.
"My final message is to get involved. Whether it’s a member of public that decides to delve a little deeper into the science behind a news story, or whether it’s an academic who takes part in the next outreach event at their uni, or whether it’s a politician who ensures they have morally used the evidence before them.
"I would like to thank The Royal Society and my pair for giving me this amazing opportunity. I would also like to thank Joe Edwards, Becky Purvis and Luis Guidi for organising such a fantastic week of events."