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Science and Politics

March 14th, 2012

I’m not ready to declare my blog off hiatus yet (that will come this summer when I start preparing for my first term teaching in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as a Research Assistant Professor). However, Tuesday night’s Talk Science@BL event at the British Library was rather thought-provoking for me, and I wanted to share some thoughts.

The event was entitled From Lab Bench to Front Bench: Opportunities for scientists?. (For American readers unfamiliar with the British political system, the “front bench” in the House of Commons is where the government ministers sit.) The moderator was Imran Khan, Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE). The three panelists were Mark Henderson, Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust and former science editor of The Times of London; Dr Alice Jones, Lecturer (Assistant Professor in American-ese) in psychology at Goldsmiths University and a recent participant in the Royal Society’s program that pairs scientists and Members of Parliament (MPs); and Dr Chris Tyler, Executive Director of the Centre for Science and Policy at the University of Cambridge. (Chris was a late substitute for Dr Julian Huppert, a former research biochemist who now serves in the House of Commons as Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge. He was absent so he could vote against his own coalition government’s NHS-destroying legislation. Kudos to him for that!)

One of the most striking things to me as an American about the discussion at the event was that we didn’t have to waste time talking about anti-science politicians. Yes, the UK has a handful of them, but nothing like the large faction of the Republican party in the US that seems to dominate discussion all too often. While British politicians and civil servants might not always understand what science is or how it’s done, they do seem to respect scientists as being the people who do understand. In the US, unfortunately, there are still too many politicians who can’t distinguish between the scientific use of the word “theory” and its use in everyday language. That said, there’s still significant work to be done here to ensure appropriate levels of funding for science and to ensure that policy decisions are made with good scientific advice.

In his closing remarks, Mark made an interesting suggestion about how the scientific community could work to increase the stature of science amongst politicians and civil servants. He pointed out how over the past couple of decades, gay rights organizations in the UK had made so much progress through grass-roots lobbying that now it’s nearly impossible to be elected to Parliament without having at least a minimally enlightened view on gay rights. As an example of how far things have come, the previous government implemented civil partnerships, which are directly equivalent to marriage for same-sex couples, without any real issues. The current coalition is moving forward with plans to authorize civil marriage for all couples in the near future, and other than a few back bench Tory MPs, there’s no real opposition amongst those who will vote on the legislation. That doesn’t mean that religious leaders aren’t making nonsensical statements (including trying to “call a halt to what you might call progress” on national radio and comparing authorizing marriage equality to legalizing slavery), but they’re clearly a fringe here in contrast to the US. Mark suggested that if scientists engage in grass-roots lobbying efforts by meeting with their MPs and building relationships with the civil servants who develop and implement policy, some years down the road science will have established a place in political discourse where politicians and civil servants see it as inappropriate to make decisions without consulting the evidence provided by science. Mark was very careful to say that he didn’t want to make too close of a connection between gay rights and science advocacy, since one comes down to fundamental human rights and the other is “only” good decision making. However, I think that the analogy is a lot closer than he wanted to let on, at least when thinking about the US. For Republicans, two key litmus tests are being neutral at best (and usually regressive) on gay rights and holding some rather anti-science views. For instance, Senator Lindsay Graham spoke at the LSE last year on US energy policy and climate change, and while it was very clear that while he is one of the most enlightened Republicans on the matter of climate change, he still spoke of things like “polar bear politics” and stripping the EPA of its ability to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.

One of the night’s recurring themes was how important it is for scientists to be engaged in the discussions early in the process, rather than reacting after a decision has been made. Here it’s important to draw a distinction between politics and policy, as civil servants are often willing to reverse course in light of new evidence. On the other hand, once a politician has taken a public stance, they fear being branded like John Kerry (Mark’s exact example) as a flip-flopper if they change their mind. This part of the panel discussion led me to a question, and fortunately I was able to ask it. There’s been a recent issue with mathematics funding in the UK, as the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (the UK equivalent of the the part of the NSF that covers engineering and physical sciences including mathematics) decided to restrict funding for fellowships (postdoctoral and sabbatical) in mathematics to the areas of statistics and applied probability from July 2011 onward. (Burt Totaro in Cambridge has a great summary of everything related to this debacle.) This has been a spectacular failure for mathematics in the UK. A number of prominent mathematicians (including four Fields Medalists) and non-mathematician scientists, most Fellows of the Royal Society and several with letters like OBE after their names, wrote a letter to the Prime Minister expressing concern over this policy decision after it had been announced by EPSRC. It appears that this has only further entrenched those responsible for the policy decision. My question was rather simple: After this spectacular and very public failure to change government policy, how do we convince leading mathematicians (or other scientists) to continue to lobby and promote science to politicians and civil servants?

Mark’s response to my question might not have been as specific as I’d hoped, but I think the suggestion has a good amount of merit, at least for this side of the Atlantic. In recent years, there was a big debate in the UK over various forms of embryonic research, including research that would combine human and animal DNA in the same cell. (I certainly remember the hullabaloo in the US over banning human-animal hybrids and how it was unsurprisingly predominantly anti-science and poorly informed.) In the UK, leading scientists were involved in the policy making process from early stages, and they continued to be consulted and speak up as legislation progressed. (Even as the same Scottish cardinal mentioned earlier for comparing marriage equality to legalizing slavery was denouncing “Frankenstein scientists”.) The final product was legislation that respected ethical concerns but didn’t hinder scientific progress. Science had informed the political and policy process throughout, and the end product was positive. Mark’s suggestion was to take this as a case study of when things have worked and share it (and similar stories) with those who’ve only ever experienced failed efforts to lobby because of late involvement. I’m not sure that such examples will be enough for the rank and file mathematicians, but maybe they’ll be enough to get a few prominent people to engage earlier on. The American Mathematical Society recently tried a grass-roots effort to help maintain a certain funding level for the NSF, but it again seemed like it might have been too late in the process.

Another distinction that the panel drew is an area where I think the US has a lot of room for improvement. The panelists really wanted us to keep in mind that science and policy based on or informed by science are different things. In the UK, most politicians and civil servants understand that scientific evidence shows that the climate is changing and that this change is caused by human beings. However, they can still disagree over what the right policies are to combat climate change (Kyoto protocols, cap and trade, carbon taxes, etc.). In the US, unfortunately, politicians seem incapable of disentangling evidence and policy. Republican politicians, in particular, tend not to argue against climate change policies they dislike by explaining why they feel the policy is wrong but instead by attacking the scientific evidence (something they’re universally blatantly unqualified to do), thereby suggesting that no policy or legislation is required. On the other side, I have to say that I don’t think the Democrats do a great job of making an argument for why a policy proposal is the right thing to do. That might be a side effect of the other side attacking the science instead of the policy, of course. Unfortunately, since it’s not really an issue in the UK, there wasn’t really any discussion of how we might elevate the level of discourse to making arguments about policy instead of attacking science, and I haven’t come up with any great ideas in that regard either. (I should include here that in last year’s LSE event, Senator Graham was much more willing to accept scientific evidence on climate change than his colleagues and tried to put forward policies he felt could pass that might make a difference. Unfortunately, he’s quite exceptional in this regard.)

I’ve left my notes at home, so I’m sure I’ve omitted a few things. However, these were my key takeaway ideas. I know I left the event feeling more inspired to be engaged with the political process as a member of the mathematical community (at least once I return to the US in the summer). I definitely will want to know more about the AMS presence in Washington and hopefully can encourage my colleagues to be more engaged as well. Despite the differences in politics between the US and the UK, I left the event believing cultivating relationships with politicians and policy makers at the state and federal levels can make a difference. If we can make those in positions of power take the time to stop and reflect on what the evidence is saying, we’ve made a good step in the right direction.