It's just politics in a lab coat

August 22, 2003

While scientists command public respect, they are not necessarily impartial, argues Alice Farrands

From BSE to GM by way of MMR, "crises" around scientific issues have been a regular fixture on the political landscape over the past few years. Despite this, there remains a sense of surprise, even wrongdoing, when it emerges that scientists have their own political interests.

Implicit in this is the notion that scientists are impartial practitioners, misrepresented by journalists and politicians engaged in a Machiavellian process of back-stabbing and self-promotion. Yet the neat dichotomy that separates politics from science is a fallacy.

As the events surrounding the death of government weapons adviser David Kelly illustrate, expert scientific advisers provide journalists and politicians with authoritative information that lends instant credibility to policy proposals or stories. Polls reveal scientists to be one of the few remaining professional groups that still commands a vestige of public respect. But their ostensibly technical advice is inflected by their own world view and vested interests, no matter how magnanimous or utilitarian these may be.

Much of the government's rationale for declaring war on Iraq depended on technical expert advice. Did Saddam Hussein have weapons that posed a threat? What were the technical specifications of those weapons? How real was this threat? It was this dependence on scientific evidence that made Dr Kelly's views, expressed in contradiction of the government line, so significant. It has been noted in the media and the Hutton inquiry that Dr Kelly was cleared to provide technical advice, not political comment. But there is no acknowledgement of the substantial overlap.

A response to a question about Iraq's weapons capability cannot be anything but political, even if couched in technical jargon. Richard Hatfield, the Ministry of Defence's head of personnel, described Dr Kelly as "extraordinarily naive" in his dealings with the media. But it is the MoD, and the government as a whole, that naively assumes there to be a realistic distinction between the scientific and the political.

Politicians have come under fire for failing to grasp the technical details of expert advice, but, while they may not be political neophytes, scientific advisers have also illustrated an alarming failure to grasp the political import of their own advice.

To suggest that science-related political crises could have been averted if only political actors had understood the scientific issues in depth is one approach. But such crises might also have been avoided had scientific advisers understood the political implications of their advice.

Since we don't expect politicians to be fully alive to the intricacies of molecular biology, we shouldn't expect scientists to be fully aware of the ever-shifting nuances of professional politics.

What is needed is not a PhD in physics for all potential politicians, or diplomas in political theory for expert advisers, but a sea change in a culture that extols the neutrality of science, then exploits it for political gain. Scientific advice should be treated with the same scepticism that greets much policy advice because when it comes to policy-making, science is politics by other means.

Alice Farrands is a PhD research student in the science and technology studies department at University College London.

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