Rather than bemoaning the loss of science-savvy politicians in last week's
election, researchers in the UK should strive to make new friends
Nature goes to press, the United Kingdom's general election of 6 May has
still not produced a clear outcome. Although the right-leaning Conservative
Party won the most seats in the parliament, they failed to capture the majority
needed to form a government. In the coming days, the Conservatives or the
incumbent Labour Party are likely to form a coalition with the left-leaning
Liberal Democrats to govern the country.
seems clear, however, is that the next parliament will contain fewer scientifically
savvy members than the current one. An analysis by London's The Times newspaper
shows that some 71 candidates with scientific backgrounds have been elected,
down from 86 of the 650 members in the last parliament. Among the defeated
is Evan Harris, a Member of Parliament (MP) for the Liberal Democrats, who
was considered by many to be the most articulate voice during the election
for science and its importance in policy-making.
fate represents the dashed hopes of a small but vocal minority of scientists
and policy-watchers who tried to shape research into a live campaign issue.
In the aftermath of the election, The Times announced that it had been a
“terrible night” for science, while New Scientist declared that
“science is the loser”.
truth, the UK's deep economic troubles meant that science was never likely
to figure highly on the public's agenda. This parliament will be filled
with fresh faces, and it now falls on the scientific community to begin
the important and urgent work of educating these new MPs on scientific issues.
The case must be made to members of all three major parties that science
is an important driver of Britain's economy; that it can provide crucial
solutions to major issues such as energy independence; and that it deserves
strong support even during times of economic cutback.
arguments will hold more sway if they are cast in a non-partisan light.
In the United States science has enjoyed strong support from the left and
right for years, in part because academic societies such as the American
Association for the Advancement of Science have scrupulously worked with
both major parties to ensure a broad understanding of the benefits of science.
Britain, non-partisanship in the scientific establishment has been more
fleeting. Since the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher imposed savage
cuts to research in the 1980s, most academic scientists have shied away
from the Conservative Party. Much of the effort to build an understanding
of science has focused on Labour politicians, through groups such as Scientists
for Labour, which was formed in the 1990s because of a perceived lack of
scientific expertise within the party.
is the time for such efforts to be extended to all parties. Unlike Thatcher's
party, the Conservatives of today have made supportive noises about science
— even if most members lack a strong understanding of scientific issues.
Non-partisan organizations such as the Campaign for Science and Engineering
in the UK (CaSE) and the Royal Society are well placed to make a broad appeal
to the new parliament.
the run-up to the election, CaSE encouraged all parties to make their positions
on science known, and in its aftermath the organization must work to inform
a new government's science policies. The Royal Society, meanwhile, has a
long-running programme matching scientists with MPs that could be particularly
useful in educating new politicians. That programme should be put into high
gear while the society considers other ways to engage parliament. Other
scientific societies should rally their memberships to get the word out
to new parliamentarians about the value of science. A well orchestrated,
non-partisan appeal early in the life of the parliament could leave a lasting
an early and enduring impression may be crucial to preserving Britain's
scientific enterprise. Faced with a soaring budget deficit, whoever forms
the new government will have to impose deep cuts on public spending. Unless
researchers act swiftly, science could end up at the front of the firing
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