It’s come to my attention that there’s a General Election looming in the Untied Kingdom. This is the moment when the people of the country decide to change (or not) the people who are governing them (or not). It’s a defining moment in a democracy. This Election comes not a moment too soon–we’ve been under the iron rule of an unelected Prime Minister who he hasn’t, until now, given us the chance to vote him out. And as with all elections, the candidates–or the Parties, it amounts to the same thing–set out their wares to the good voters of the country, a bit like the ladies of negotiable affection do along the Old Kent Road. In fact, a lot like the ladies of &c., &c.
In the UK there are two major political parties. The Conservatives are blue in colour and represent farmers, people with a savings account and/or who earn between about £25k and £60k a year, and anybody who likes to shoot foxes. The Labour Party (red) were traditionally left wing socialists but in recent years have drifted somewhat to the right of the Conservatives. They are funded by trades unions but now find most of their support in the lowest and highest income brackets and manufacturers of closed-circuit television equipment. They’ve also stolen my English rose and I’d like it back, please. Some might call the Liberal Democrats (centre socialists, yellow) a ‘major’ party; but essentially they’re very nice people who haven’t a hope of getting into power, so they can promise anything they like in their manifesto so everybody knows not to listen. (They tend to do quite well in local elections however, where they can’t do much damage to the country as a whole.) In terms of US politics, in the past the Conservatives were more or less equivalent to the GOP; the Liberal Democrats to the Democrat party; and Labour to Fidel Castro. Things have changed somewhat, however.
So the Parties try to tempt us by promising lower taxes, higher taxes, more defence spending, less defence spending, better healthcare, a new way of screwing up education and so on and so forth. Because scientists are, to be blunt, a bit of a niche electorate, we don’t get much attention except when political mileage is to be made. ‘Science is important,’ they tell us; ‘as long as there’s votes and money in it,’ they don’t. (Yes, I’m cynical; no, I don’t think I’m cynical enough. You should catch Henry Gee on a bad day and then call me cynical.) There has been a bit of a fuss recently because the current Minister for Science and Innovation, Lord Drayson, has been active on Twitter and apparently ‘engaging’ with real scientists and finding out what they want. And then telling them they’re not going to get it, as far as I can see: ministers, even if they do like fast cars and try to be one of the people often have this nasty habit of toeing the party line and claiming they can’t do anything about it. (I’m also naturally suspicious of anyone in the Cabinet who has a peerage, but anyway.) Be that as it may, People & Science–the quarterly mag of the British Association for the Advancement of British Associations of Science in Britain, asked the Science spokesmen (and they are all men, rather sadly) for each of the two (or three) major parties how they see public engagement in science, and what are promising us. Actually, the quote is what would they ‘hope to achieve in this area if they were to form a government’ but I prefer honesty in my reporting. (The full article is available as a PDF.)
Dr Evan Harris, MP (Nice but Useless Party; Yellow) starts off by claiming there is a perception that science is different from sport or music, that it’s harder for anyone to ‘have a go’. I am sure those of us who spent years at University studying for two or more degrees will be pleased to hear that. He wants to bridge the ‘them and us’ divide, eliminating some sense of elitism. I’m not sure if he means he wants to dumb down science so that anyone can do it, or at least understand it, but he does say he wants the ‘brightest’ from every socio-economic ‘and other social’ group to be able to make careers in science. He promises to cut student debt to achieve this (see, this is what’s brilliant about the LibDems: they can promise the Moon because they know they won’t have to deliver). Now, coming from a pretty poor, working class background myself, the only person in my entire extended family to get more than 2 “A” Levels let alone a clutch of degrees from Oxford, I do wonder what extra he’s offering.
Then he talks some rubbish about making engagement ‘more natural’ (I can hear the groans already) and extending PhDs to 4 years with ‘some’ of the extra time being used for ‘funded and credited work in teaching and public engagement’. News for you, bucko: grad students already teach, and the MRC at least run public engagement courses any of their scientists can sign up to. There are other good reasons for extending PhDs, but the extra two days a public engagement course will take isn’t one of them. After laying into the two major parties, Harris says he wants to make engagement easier for non-scientists, by giving all students the opportunity to study GCSE (our age 16 exam) Physics, Chemistry and Biology as separate subjects. Um, just like I had the ‘opportunity’ in 1985, then. Oh, this is good: all such students will be ‘taught by someone with appropriate science training so that the public becomes more science literate.’ Yeah, in my day they were called science teachers.
Evidently, the LibDems have also ‘made the case’ for open access publishing. This is important, apparently, because access ‘by more of the public and the general media to what real science looks like can help them distinguish it from pseudoscience.’ Right. I follow that. I think he’s saying that peer-reviewed OA papers have ‘This is not pseudoscience’ stamped across the masthead. Gets my vote.
Next up, we have the aforementioned Lord Drayson, Paul to his friends (Socialist Banker Party; Red). Drayson also wants to challenge elitism, and all of a sudden I’m wondering if that word means what they think it means. The unelected Prime Mangler’s ‘Science: So What?’ campaign was supposed to challenge ‘elitist’ images of science and engineering, and to show how they connect to sport and cooking. Excuse me, I need to step outside for a gasper. Oh, wait, that’s illegal in public places now; perhaps I’ll take photos of a CCTV camera instead.
The rest of Drayson, and the Tories, in the next installment.