Lessons in the lab and the lobby

November 5, 1999

Today's scientists need a training regime that takes in politics, lobbying and a spell at Westminster, says Ian Gibson

It has been a good week for science. The evidence scrutinised by a European committee resolved, at one level anyway, who was right as far as the beef safety debate was concerned and moved the debate on. "Science is on our side," retorted the prime minister, before and after the decision.

As science plays an increasing role in political decision-making, the question arises: how should universities react to this growing involvement?

Science, it has been argued, is neutral and independent of social, political and economic conditions. That is a hard hypothesis to sustain in the wake of the debate about genetically modified foods.

I remember enjoying a conversation with a colleague in biology who taught a lecture on the biodiversity of starvation without mentioning starvation's causes. The causes were for students of social, political or developmental studies to engage with.

Scientists are a pretty apolitical bunch, steeped in their technologies in laboratories and in teaching classes. The politics of science does not enter their training because major universities believe that the aim of the training process is to produce a research scientist whose sights are fixed on nothing more than his own laboratory and funding as the peak of scientific attainment.

Little serious consideration is given to other training pathways for scientists. Yet we live in a world where the scientific method contributes hugely to other areas of human endeavour, such as the civil service, law, even politics.

With university scientists being pressurised to play the games involved with the research assessment exercise and to innovate and then spin their research findings out into products, training must be changed to allow young scientists to engage with and understand the political process.

Lobbying and campaigning for science within the political dimension has become ever more important as scientific information becomes essential for political decision-making. American science has learned to campaign in Washington and elsewhere to ensure science funding increases and plays a major role in wealth creation.

A bill I am presenting in Parliament aims to start a process in Britain whereby scientists enjoy a sustainable budget over ten years for scientific and medical research and a culture is developed that recognises that short-term research contracts are incompatible with wealth creation.

It is time for universities to engage in the political process and to encourage science students to undertake part of their training in Westminster, where the process of government and political decision-making will become familiar. There will be advantages for them and for science.

This kind of training could result in a vastly more effective science lobby, replacing the rather ineffective one that comprises the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and perhaps a few royal societies.

We need a concerted training programme that aims to engage in the political process for the advantage of science. We cannot leave the distribution of the science budget to an annual "negotiation" but need a strategy for the longer term. But I forget - politics is in the arts block, nothing to do with science. Ian Gibson is MP for Norwich North and former dean of biological science at the University of East Anglia.

Should science degrees include a politics module and should science students train at Westminster?

Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk

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