One thing that scientists and politicians have in common is the need to beg: the former beg for funds while the latter beg for votes. Britain will soon have an election so this is the time for the politicians to beg to both scientists and non-scientists. So what's their pitch?
The British Science Association asked the science spokesperson of each major political party to give their best spin on the issue of science and the public; the results were published in this month's issue of People&Science. “I am optimistic for the future of science.” Swoons Adam Afriyie, for the Conservatives. “The biggest challenges we face today are largely scientific ones – whether rebalancing the economy, tackling climate change or caring for an ageing population.” He wants to encourage more people to study science. “A scientific career is a sexy career.” In an attempt to be newer than New Labour the Tories seem to be on a mission to buzz up everything they talk about. A glance at the New Scientist's job pages will show that research salaries are far from being sexy.
All three parties recite the same mantra of more students and more teachers without thinking through how they are going to pull out of the current nose-dive. You cannot expect more graduates when there is a shortage of good science teachers at primary (laughable!) and secondary levels. Lord Drayson, of the ruling Labour party must have had some party hack write this for him:”This government has made an unprecedented investment in UK science: in education, research facilities and exploiting the potential of UK-led breakthroughs.” Ask the British physics community about the unprecedented cuts in their funding.
Both Labour and Liberal Democrats seem to have an aversion to elitism and both feel that science needs to rid itself of this moniker. I suggest they truly promote a meritocracy, which is what New Labour promised, and stop harking back to their egalitarian past. Sport is elitist and nobody complains, art is elitist and most people can't afford it, the ministers themselves represent an elitist political structure and yet we have to live with them. Making science accessible does not mean making it open to everybody irrespective of ability. We all hope that a surgeon today is better qualified than a barber of yesteryear. If only politicians were also qualified before begging for a job.
The one science spokesperson who actually has a science degree is Dr Evan Harris of the Lib Dems, so does he have anything intelligent to say? One detail about how poor science teaching has become in the UK is that some schools are offering their students a Science GCSE after having scrapped the three individual sciences: Physics, Chemistry and Biology. I've taught this combined sciences course and it is a dreadful, ill-conceived hybrid that has a lot of social dogma thrown in at the expense of real scientific principles. This course may have been designed for those students who need to know a little science before embarking upon an altogether different career path, but for anybody who has the slightest interest in pursuing a science-related career it is like having a door slammed in your face. Going from Science GCSE to, say, Physics A-level is a vertical ascent that few students are prepared for. As Harris points out, we're back to the subject of teachers.
Harris does believe that in the pursuit of a public understanding of science there is nobody better than the scientists themselves to describe their work. The British experience in promoting science has gone from the perceived 'deficit model' of the scientist lecturing an ignorant public to the idea of public engagement with science. The internet has greatly facilitated this latter model but Harris notes that many scientists remain tight-lipped about their work. Perhaps one should look deeper as to who is employing such scientists and why they would rather not speak out in public. I mean, there are not many professions where we demand they give a public account of their work in public above and beyond what they need to report to whichever agency oversees their work.
For all the flag-waving about British science, I doubt it is anywhere near the top of most people's thoughts when they come to vote. Sorting out the teaching of science has to be a priority. Having only one science spokesperson with a science degree should ring alarm bells to the science community that perhaps they have a more important task in building a scientific engagement with politics. In spite of so many global problems being scientific in nature, scientists are kept at arms-length from the decision-making by being mere specialist advisers. Government initiatives are largely there to serve government ends which may, or may not, be immediately obvious. It takes independent thinkers to create truly innovative solutions. Perhaps we should take the Tory line and make science more sexy and more elitist; seems to work for many other professions.
Science is Sexy and Elitist: so what's the problem?
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