Political science

A new generation of politically savvy scientists is needed to ensure that STEM delivers the benefits the UK needs, argues Ian Gibson

December 15, 2011

Recent media reports on the state of doctoral study in the UK should, I think, give us cause for grave concern. A lack of research grants means that fewer British students are undertaking PhDs in the sciences, and the UK's science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) departments are today dominated by international students. The combination of cuts to funding, higher fees and visa restrictions means that our young postgraduates face a volatile situation. The elite Russell Group of large research-intensive universities has expressed concerns about the consequences of all this for the UK economy. However, its only answer seems to be to try to access more industrial and corporate funding.

It cannot be long before we see UK universities bought out by foreign potentates, as has happened with our football teams. The government seems laid back about opening up a free-for-all market in education, and no doubt private universities and colleges will spring up everywhere in the same way as free schools. The academy is in flux and the high-quality education for which the UK is rightly famous and which provides us with a highly trained workforce is vulnerable.

The coalition repeatedly makes the point that our economic future lies in innovation and the creation of new products for the international market. It acknowledges the role of UK universities as originators of much of this innovation. But although the science budget has been largely preserved, the researchers needed to convert the funding into results are at risk.

There is a mismatch between policy and what is needed for effective practice, but perhaps this is not surprising. Many Whitehall policymakers have no STEM background and the number of scientifically qualified MPs is small. To compound the problem, many in the scientific community do not see it as their business to get involved in matters of policy. In fact, the grant-assessment system and career-progression paths militate against such involvement - after all, it distracts from the perceived all-important focus on the publication of research results in "top journals".

Several years ago, Newton's Apple, a charitable science policy foundation, was set up to help bridge the gap between scientists and policymakers. One of its major activities, and one in which I have been actively engaged, is a workshop programme designed to help young scientists and engineers gain a greater understanding of the processes of government and legislation. Participants learn from MPs and others about the workings of Parliament, from civil servants about how the government gets its scientific advice, and from the major learned societies about their role.

Graduate students and others are fascinated by what they learn in these workshops, and they believe it should be an essential part of postgraduate training. They want to understand how policy decisions are made, how scientific evidence is used in the formulation of policy, and how they can get involved in the process.

In the workshops, they hear about Harold Wilson's "white heat of technology" campaign slogan, how it helped to win the 1964 general election, and how it never fully came to fruition. They learn about select committees and how the black arts of politics operate in the Westminster village.

The excitement and enthusiasm of these young scientists shines through in these educational sessions. Some who attend may even wish to go on to become part of the process by working in Parliament, for example. Most, however, want to bring their influence to bear on MPs and, through their membership of scientific societies, to provide grassroots scientific information to the policy groups within those organisations.

Established academics show little interest in political understanding, fail to see its relevance and frown on politicians. But the new generation, through organisations such as Newton's Apple, will hopefully understand how to handle issues such as genetically modified foods and climate change more effectively. "Feeding in" scientific evidence is an art. There is no such thing, in my view, as "sense in science" that means it must automatically be heard, or that provides easy solutions to difficult scientific or social problems. Scientific evidence is only part of the decision-making process, and is often ignored.

From my meetings with hundreds of science graduates and postgraduates, I've concluded that it is essential for them to understand how science is used (and misused) by the hierarchies within government. There is a desperate need for a new generation to emerge within their disciplines with the muscle and confidence to influence legislators, politicians and civil servants alike on particular scientific policies. The time has passed when the odd march in London was enough to ensure that science, engineering and technology would play a major part in the growth of our economy.

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