A 'critical friend' in science

September 29, 2006

Stephen Keevil is a scientist with a socialist voice. He is celebrated for his work on MRI scanners and is also known for championing science within the Labour Party: he is secretary of Scientists for Labour and honorary senior lecturer at King's College London.

"I joined (Scientists for Labour) soon after it was set up in 1994," he said. "I felt that it was terribly important that scientists inform policy.

Labour was in opposition then, and we were keen to ensure that it developed sound policies on science."

The group is affiliated to the Labour Party like a trade union. "It means I have a vote at conferences as part of the trade union bloc," Dr Keevil said.

He is proud of the fact that the Labour Government has put so much money into science.

"The investment has been huge and has made an enormous impact on the UK science base," he said. "I can see the effect clearly in my own working life."

Dr Keevil gained a physics degree from Oxford University before moving into medical physics and then into a London medical school. His research work has focused on new ways of using MRI scanners, particularly in cardiac imaging. When he first started working in the medical school, there was just one scanner; now there are six.

Although he believes the role of Scientists for Labour is to inform policy and to talk up what the Government has done, he is clear that the organisation is a "critical friend".

"We were very active as the Higher Education Bill went through Parliament two years ago," he said. "We agreed with the fundamental principles but worked on the detail."

The group also makes its views known on the research assessment exercise.

"We have been extremely concerned that there has been no money for departments rated 4 in the last RAE," he said. "This has had a big impact on many medical schools."

The RAE has also had an impact on chemistry at King's.

"The RAE, along with (low) student demand, led King's to controversially close its chemistry department," he said.

"My MRI work is increasingly using molecular imaging, and for that you require chemistry expertise. My unit has now had to employ an in-house chemist to do that work."

He believes that there is still a lot of work to be done within the Labour Party to dispel suspicions that science is too closely linked with big business.

And, of course, a change in leadership will have implications. "Gordon Brown has always recognised the importance of science to the future economy of the UK, and we hope that that work will be further developed," he said.

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