Monday, 1 June 2009

Europe - politics and science all in one post!





At the risk of being self-indulgent, allow me to explain why I'm writing a post linking the imminent European elections and science. I began this blog as a result of being a badscience.net forum nerd, discussing amongst other things how the media often makes a hash of reporting perfectly good science, how scientists are often frustrated at the sensationalist headlines their otherwise sound work is linked to, sometimes throwing in a bit of ethics for good measure (like this post on the use of genetic testing in the insurance industry).

As time moved on and I became a little more confident, I started throwing in the odd post related more to politics than science - as I did with a three-parter on the Embryology Bill being discussed in Parliament at the time, I've often tried to link science policy with issues of government where relevant. I've also written the odd post on that could be described as out-and-out politics - on Labour's handling of foreign affairs to attempts to safeguard out freedoms - as I gradually became more and more confident of my political leanings.

Today however the two strands meet courtesy of an impressive effort on the part of two of the heavyweights in the science blogosphere - Martin Robbins, who is better known as The Lay Scientist, and Frank Swain, a.k.a. Science Punk. They have investigated the scientific credentials of the main political parties contesting the upcoming ballot by quizzing them on nine areas of policy to which science is central. It pays to read the questions posed and the responses of the various parties in detail, as they are often illuminating, sometimes troubling and in every case clear-cut examples of outstanding investigative journalism - with Martin and Frank having published a precis of their work on the Guardian Science blog it is further proof, were any needed, of the outstanding work bloggers can do to probe Establishment institutions and extract useful information to be shared with the community.

Science Punk and The Lay Scientist both analysed the answers to their questions on their own blogs too, and I'll leave it to the reader to research these at leisure (highly recommended). Suffice to say that there was a mix of the reassuring (Lab, Con and Lib Dem responses to the climate change questions appear so to varying degrees) and the disturbing - and sadly the latter is mostly due to the Green Party's stance on so many of the categories investigated.

Other, more thorough bloggers have now covered the Greens' position on genetic modification (which the indefatigable Gimpy rightly flags as representing a threat to the entire field of biological research) and on the role of alternative medicine in healthcare (which holfordwatch, insightful as ever, cites as no more than encouragement to the Alt Med industry whose 'treatments' are largely ineffectual and often dangerous).

From all these analyses, this blogger takes one over-arching lesson. That is the distinct lack of engagement with scientific issues by elected representatives which could easily lead to uninformed decision-making at the highest level. Some notable exceptions aside, our leaders appear at best disinterested in and at worst downright ignorant of the most pressing scientific concerns. I'm not choosing to be critical because of some misguided bias - yes I am a scientist myself, but what's more important is that those in a position to set budgets of billions and influence the direction of scientific enquiry are as clued up as possible on the very areas they have such heavy jurisdiction over.

As Martin and Frank say in their Guardian article,
Science is at the heart of our modern world, and it deserves to be at the heart of political discussion too.
Perhaps now is the time for scientists themselves to enter into public life, to ensure that standards are upheld and key decisions made by those with a grasp of the scientific process and what it is that constitutes evidence - lest the leaders we elect on Thursday fail yet again to acknowledge the centrality of scientific research in all we do.

4 comments:

gimpyblog said...

Good post Teek. I agree with your conclusions. One recent comment on my blog highlights a policy responsible for the Greens somewhat eccentric approach to science. There policies can be set by any member, subject to a certain number of seconds. There does not seem to be much discussion of policy, rather it is formulated by the wishes of members, who may not be best qualified to assess the practicalities and implications.

Evidence based policy should not be democratic in considering all points of view as equal, it must be beholden to the concept of ranking views by the quality of evidence supporting them.

gimpyblog said...

Good post Teek. I agree with your conclusions. One recent comment on my blog highlights a policy responsible for the Greens somewhat eccentric approach to science. There policies can be set by any member, subject to a certain number of seconds. There does not seem to be much discussion of policy, rather it is formulated by the wishes of members, who may not be best qualified to assess the practicalities and implications.

Evidence based policy should not be democratic in considering all points of view as equal, it must be beholden to the concept of ranking views by the quality of evidence supporting them.

teekblog said...

heh cheers Gimpyblog.

I agree that in the case of evidence-based policy not all voices can be equal - those who have the ability to interpret said evidence with a critical yet understanding eye should be foremost in setting policy.

Aran's comment on your blog suggests that this any-random-pitching-his-idea-and-getting-it-set-as-policy malarkey is a good thing - but such pitches contravene clear-cut scientific evidence this is a dangerous path to follow!

Anonymous said...

Teek, I like your post and also agreed with your conclusions about European politics and sciences.

Regards,

Andrea K.
Hotels Guide