Tuesday, 15 July 2014

An uneasy alliance: science, politics and scientifically-trained politicians

Last April, whilst speaking of the need for technological innovation in order to promote economic growth, President Obama joked that his physics grades made him an unlikely candidate for "scientist in chief". With the recent unease surrounding the (now thankfully dropped) takeover bid of leading UK pharmaceutical company Astra Zeneca by the American firm Pfizer, it seems appropriate to investigate whether science at the national level could be better supported if more politicians had a scientific background or were at least more savvy in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. After all, had the Pfizer bid proved successful, the British pharmaceutical sector was predicted to lose in the long term, both scientifically and economically.

There are many statistics that prove the notion that the past half century has seen a major dumbing down in Western politics, such as the reduction in average sound bite length for US presidential candidates from over forty seconds in the late 1960s to barely seven seconds today. It's quite easy to suggest that politicians are simply following mainstream societal trends, but such lack of substance only serves to further distance politics from science, since the latter rarely offers straightforward yes/no answers, especially in cutting-edge research.

One rather bizarre example of how little science can mean in mainstream politics can be seen in President Reagan's reliance for key policy decisions during most of his term in office on astrologer Joan Quigley. Whilst it is easy to mock the far right wing (and Reagan himself looks increasingly liberal by the standards of the Tea Party), those on the left could be equally guilty of paying short shrift to science, especially if there isn't an immediately obvious benefit to society. A combination of relativism and overdosing on political correctness make for difficulties in proclaiming judgement values: if everyone deserves an equal opportunity to air their own pet theory as to how the universe works, then science appears as just another set of beliefs.

If we look back further than the Reagan administration, how well do scientifically-inclined American Presidents fare up? Here's a brief examination of those with scientific leanings:
  1. Thomas Jefferson made contributions to palaeontology and agricultural technology but perhaps more importantly promoted science as essential to national wealth. However, he was still very much man of his time, maintaining conventional Christian beliefs that sometimes overrode his scientific sensibility, including those that questioned the Biblical timescale.
  2. Theodore Roosevelt is well known for what would today be called sustainable development, creating national parks and wildlife refuges at the same time as promoting a balanced exploitation of natural resources. He went on expeditions to Brazil and Africa, ostensibly to find specimens for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, although the results appear more akin to the curious modern phenomenon of scientific whaling (in other words, somewhat lacking in the conservation stakes). Roosevelt also considered a "thorough knowledge of the Bible...worth more than a college education".
  3. Jimmy Carter gained a Bachelor of Science degree and later majored in reactor technology and nuclear physics whilst maintaining a conventional Christian faith. During the energy crisis of the late 1970s he seemingly promoted alternative energy, most famously having solar panels installed on the White House roof. However, in some ways he resembled Nineteenth Century Anglican scientists such as the Dean of Westminster William Buckland, particularly in his looking for the proof of God's existence in nature.
  4. An example from the other side of the Atlantic can be seen in Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, who trained in chemistry under the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. Despite her right-wing, monetarist policies (incidentally the political antithesis of Hodgkin), Thatcher has been acclaimed as an active environmentalist: her late 1980s speeches supported action to combat climate change; policies to rapidly phase out CFCs; and the promotion of sustainable development. Yet commentators have viewed Thatcher's concerns for cost-benefit analysis as taking precedence over science, with blue sky thinking getting scant attention. At a practical level, in 1987 she sold the Plant Breeding Institute at Cambridge to Unilever, which has been deemed detrimental in the long-term to British public science.
The only current major Western leader with a scientific background is the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has a doctorate in physical chemistry. In contrast, eight out of the nine top government officials in China have backgrounds in STEM subjects. Is it any wonder they have already got their own space station and have become the world's largest exporter of high technology, now only second to the USA in terms of annual expenditure on research and development? Yes, the rate of progress has come at enormous environmental and personal cost, but the way in which the Chinese government is clearly imbued with science and technology is to be marvelled at.

From looking at the above examples, it doesn't appear that scientifically-trained national leaders have substantially improved science's output or public opinion and have on occasion been quite detrimental. The late Stephen Schneider, author of various reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), stated that since is up to governments (and to some extent the general public as well) to formulate policy rather than scientists, the former need to understand not just the data, but how to interpret it. In the UK, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills recently launched a public consultation over spending plans for the research infrastructure of the next five years. But scientific endeavours require a certain level of knowledge and that least common of commodities, critical thinking. Science just doesn't adhere to the simple black versus white mentality so beloved of Hollywood.

This is where scientifically-literate politicians hopefully come into their own, being able to accurately represent to the electorate such difficult material as probability statistics, as well as understanding risks and benefits themselves. If anything, science will only fare better if the majority of politicians have a more thorough science education, rather than just relying on the occasional professionally-trained key statesperson. But therein lies an obvious catch-22: how to persuade politicians to invest more funds in science education? I suppose it starts with us voters...