In areas such as climate change and health, it seems obvious that science has a lot to offer by way of advising or leading policy decisions, but in what other arenas can some knowledge of science, or use of scientific methods, be useful?
Why should we care about what science has to say, and how can you find out whether your candidates do?
In science, hypotheses are formed and tested, and conclusions drawn from the results of the test. If the evidence cannot be conciled with the hypothesis, the hypothesis must be rejected, lessons are learned and a new path devised. This stands in stark contrast with the political fear of the U-turn. All too often when coming up with policy ideas, politicians will seek out and selectively quote that evidence which supports their position – instead of holding those ideas up to the available evidence and rejecting them if they are not supported. Perhaps it would be better to praise those who are willing to change their views in the face of stronger evidence, and by calling out those who abuse evidence, make politicians more thorough in their research. In the 2014 Public Attitudes to Science Survey, 70% of people in a stratified sample of UK residents aged 16 and over agreed that “experts and not the public should advise the Government about the implications of scientific development“, and the same number felt that “politicians are too easily swayed by the media’s reaction to scientific issues“. Every government department has a Chief Scientific Adviser, but their influence varies from each department to the next. It has even been suggested that, just as economists and lawyers have to sign off government policies as economically viable and legally sound, perhaps relevant policies should receive the same scrutiny from scientists, to ensure that if governments are going to claim “evidence-based policy”, it will be clear to see in which cases the advice from science has indeed been heeded.
Science is critical to Britain’s economic recovery; don’t take my word for it, though, this was written in a Royal Society report in 2010 assessing science’s contribution to the economy. In the same year an independent academic paper calculated that the then £3.5bn of science budget gave back around £60bn contribution to GDP, and that even by lower estimates, cutting the spend by just £1bn would mean £10 billion less in GDP. Despite this, UK spending on science is lower than many other leading nations as a percentage of GDP. This March, for the first time in a few years, the allocation of the budget ring-fenced for science and research has seen a real terms increase; having varied slightly above and below the £5bn mark since 2011-12, in 2015-16 the proposed science budget will be £5.8bn. However, this still leaves it slightly below where it would be had it been maintained with inflation since 2010. The Public Attitudes to Science survey found that 66% of people disagreed with the suggestion “Government funding [to science]should be cut because money can be better spent elsewhere”, with only 14% agreeing, and the remainder unsure or undecided. If you earn £25000 a year, you pay £3000 a year in income tax (and £2045 in National insurance). By comparison , the UK’s subscription to CERN costs £1.50 per person per year.
In medicine, randomised controlled trials are used to test new drugs and treatments; it would be unthinkable to administer a new treatment to patients without it having been tested and proven safe and effective first. We don’t, however, use the same method of testing new educational initiatives. Instead, in many cases, ideas or changes to the curriculum which seem reasonable are conceived, and then made nationwide policy, without any real evidence of whether it will help. It would be relatively simple to conduct trials in randomly selected schools to begin with, assess the evidence, and then either roll it out across the nation or not, based on what it tells you. One problem is that some may view this as a waste of time, especially if the result turns out to be negative – but surely, it is less a waste than imposing untested policy? All too often the lay politician scoffs at what the scientist knows to be true: that a negative result still tell us something. Another is that there are few practitioner-academics in schools in the way that there are in medicine. Doctors consult patients as well as conducting research, but most people leave teaching if they are thinking of going into educational research, with some of the few exceptions being through teacher fellowships with the Nuffield Foundation, which allows working teachers to become practitioner-academics. It is unlikely that many will choose this course, either, with the current demands on teachers being as they are.
That this was somehow allowed to become a politically divisive issue is a tragedy. It’s important that governments aren’t complacent. Science needs to lead on this issue, but it has to be correct science. It’s important for both sides not to make assumptions about causation with relation to single events, whether it is a member of US congress using the height of snow in New York to ask “how can this be if global warming is happening?”, in an impressive demonstration of wilful ignorance, or Greenpeace calling Hurricane Katrina in 2005 “a wake-up call about the dangers of continued global fossil fuel dependency”. Whilst there is evidence for the outcomes of warming including severe storms, it can’t be shown for certain exactly what effect it has had in individual cases; we can’t cite every British summer as evidence. There is, after all, enough actual rigorously statistically analysed scientific evidence for climate change. We can’t risk citing shoddy evidence and muddling a very clear message: This issue is crucial.
So how do you find out if your candidate, or a party, cares about science? Well, you can start by searching party webpages for their manifestos or questioning candidates at hustings. If you want them to care more, you have to make it clear in your numbers that your vote will go where the science leads you – to the critical thinker and those with respect for evidence. See senseaboutscience.org and sciencecampaign.org.uk for more advice.
Feature image by Sammie Burstow