Wednesday, 19 May 2010

UK Scientists in Parliament fog

Claude Monet from the series "houses of Parliament".

Education of the Members of the Parliaments.
Following the recent election, the United Kingdom parliament is undergoing a major representative replacement with the coming to power of a conservative/liberal democrat coalition.
How much knowledge these new comers have on research and technology related issues is a legitimate concerns to the UK scientists. The way science will be assessed and supported in the coming years is at stake.
This made the headline of a recent Nature editorial Vol 465, 135:
Scientists' turn to win votes
"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 Members of Parliament (MPs) on scientific issues."

This comment goes beyond UK research, researchers and politics. All scientists in the world are facing similar concerns and it is part of the scientific and political communities duty to engage in a thorough dialog.
Communication channels have been created along the years, but today more and better is needed. The high impact science has on people life, especially when related to health, environmental or energy issues, the fast-paced scientific progress and the increasing complexity of scientific matters call for new communication tools and new discussion platforms.

Educate the scientists, too.

But more importantly, the dialog should be bi-directional, if I dare the pleonasm. Scientists must also be educated by policy makers. Although as citizen, scientists have a fair knowledge of the political and societal situation, they need to get more insight and global views on many issues like the genuine societal needs and expectations, the people knowledge on and reactions to scientific issues, the economic and financial implications, the legal and administrative issues and barriers, the national policy and strategies, the international framework, ...

Existing communication channels

Most of the Parliaments in Europe have an office or a bureau in charge of informing the parliament about science and technology.
For example, in the UK, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) or in France the "Office Parlementaire d´Evaluation des Choix Scientifiques et Technologiques" (OPECST (eng)) fulfill this role. They are actually regrouped at the European level on EPTA, the European Parliamentary Technology Assessment.

Science Academies have also a similar mission.
The Royal Society (UK Science Academy) sees also its role as "Influencing Policy".
"The Royal Society has a long track record of providing scientific advice to policy makers. Its earliest report, on the state of Britain’s forests, was published in 1664."
The press, the communicators, the NGO or the associations are also sources of information and requests for actions.

All these channels are important and should be strengthened by more researchers' involvement.
But they only partially deliver the precise, open and unbiased information the scientific community owes our representatives and more is needed.

Possible lines of actions:
  • Improving MPs general scientific culture, independently of the parliament specific agenda. As reported in the Nature editorial only 10% UK MPs have scientific background. Introductory talks on the way research gets done, on basic reasoning logic, on uncertainty and statistical evidence, on the international cooperation dimension of research and on the main issues of the various science fields should be given to all MPs. Research organizations and institutions should get involved in contributing to this basic information on a regular basis.
  • Providing open and possibly contradictory presentations. Science is not a frozen ensemble of truths, it is a living body which only gets better through the interplay of observation and critical interpretation. So, at any given moment, uncertainties exist. Even if it may be seen counter productive when trying to provide convincing arguments, the limits of knowledge and therefore the need for more research should be clearly stressed.
  • Avoiding lobbying for specific projects or science fields. This is maybe illusive due to the high competition researchers are facing, but scientific credibility depends on fairness.
  • Getting true research-makers involved, not only communicators or established committee aficionados. In particular, young researchers should come to the front and communicate their enthusiasm.
  • Getting coordinated. It is time for scientists, at the European level (at first) , to coordinate their outreach efforts, specially towards the national assemblies. Research endeavors are international nowadays, approaches to policy makers should reflect this fact.
Implementing platforms for dialog

MPs' very busy agenda may not allow the implementation of all the items of this wish list.
New communication tools should be invented to both cover the national and EU needs
  • Specific web sites aggregating societal issues and scientific background for policy-makers,
  • regular scientific updates like a weekly "5 minutes science news" to the parliament, one yearly event with a "Science in parliament day" in the national and the EU parliaments
  • Grouped MPs laboratory visits in Europe,
  • ...
What else ???

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