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  • Writer's pictureDavid Cope

Science and Politics: Oil and Water?

I recently had the honour of being invited onto a panel to discuss the relationship between science and politics in front of an audience of PhD students from the University of Oxford. I made three assertions, which I hoped would make these emerging scientists ponder the relationship they wanted their science to have with politics over their careers.

Firstly, a little about me. Going back 15 years, I could have been a member of this audience, doing a PhD in conservation ecology and interested in seeing my research have an impact on decision-makers across the world. After my PhD and a few years of being a Postdoc, I became disillusioned because my research was never really applied in the corridors of power. So I left to go work in the corridors of power themselves.

I found myself working in the UK Civil Service, firstly as an operational research analyst, and then latterly as a policy advisor and in corporate roles around change and strategy. I was always working on advising Ministers and senior Civil Servants about the best course of action based on the best possible evidence. Then five years ago I left to work at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew where my role has been, at least in part, to influence UK Ministers and foreign Governments to support our vision of a world where plants and fungi are understood, valued and conserved - because all our lives depend on them.

I was in the company of people who had seen and experienced a lot in the fields of science and politics

I like to think that I've got a pretty good understanding of both the process of making good science and the process of making political decisions. I was extremely honoured to be sitting on this panel alongside some incredibly eminent people. Dame Ottoline Leyser is Professor of Plant Development at the University of Cambridge, a Fellow of the Royal Society and a member of the Prime Minister's Council for Science and Technology. Sarah Main is the Executive Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering and a Trustee of the British Science Association. Lord John Krebs is an ornithologist, was the first Chairperson for the Food Standards Agency and was a member of the Climate Change Committee. The panel was chaired by Nicola Buckley, Associate Director of the Cambridge University Centre for Science and Policy. I was in the company of people who had seen and experienced a lot in the fields of science and politics, so I have to admit that I was pretty nervous about how they would respond to my three assertions!

Three assertions:

1.Good science is completely apolitical, so stand firm if politics threatens to take over

This is vitally important in my eyes. Science is noble endeavour, searching for truth (or at least trying to clear away the fog of uncertainty that exists when you don't know the truth). That truth might support or contradict something that a politician wants to promote. I believe that scientists should always stand by their results and not be swayed by criticisms or favours that politicians might throw at you. Uncovering inconvenient truths isn't always welcomed immediately, but stick with it.

2.Decision-making is a multi-faced beast, keep on looking around you to see what the beast sees

We don't live in a technocracy, so policy decisions may not always seem rational unless you are assessing them against all the different dimensions of political decision-making. Ultimately, politicians are accountable to their constituents, the people who put them in office. While a politician might have a job as a Minister and therefore a national responsibility, they will still be driven by the need to satisfy their local voters. If you want to make your scientific results understood and actioned on, it acn help to relate your results to what politicians know best, their voters.

3.Science and politics work on different timescales, now adjust your watch

Just as science is a long-term task, building new knowledge on top of that generated by people who have gone before you, you might think that politics is the long-term task of creating a better society, built on the efforts of previous politicians. Of course this is true, but remembering that politicians are only there at the gift of their electorates, their tenure can be limited to five years (or even less). Ministers often have an even shorter life-span in their roles. In the five years I have been at Kew, we have worked with four separate Secretaries of State in Defra. In order to get your science listened to and integrated into decision-making, it isn't always possible to wait for that last experiment to complete or for the paper to be published, political windows of opportunity are short.

Now what?

I'm pleased to say that the panel and the audience had a really engaging and lively discussion about science and politics. My three assertions, although only based on the one data point of my personal experience, weren't completely debunked (although there was a healthy level of challenge as you might expect in a room full of incredibly bright people!).

I would love to hear thoughts from other people too, what are your experiences of mixing science and politics?

For all the early-career scientists out there, I would encourage you to find out more about the world of policy-making and politics. Here are some ideas:

- The Royal Society organise a pairing scheme for scientists and policy makers.

- The Parliamentary and Scientific Committee organise a poster competition for scientists called STEM for Britain.

- The British Ecological Society has published helpful guides for how ecologists can engage with policymaking.

If you are looking for an excellent job in the UK Civil Service as an analyst, take a look at the Government Operational Research Service.Finally, make contact with your local MP to say hello and tell them more about your work, remember that they work for you!

Thanks for reading!


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