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4 things scientists can learn from politicans

posted Apr 27, 2015, 4:32 AM by Al Liance   [ updated Apr 27, 2015, 5:48 AM ]
On 7th May 2015 voters across the UK will be heading to the polling stations for the general election. This inevitably means that our television screens and newspapers are full of stories of politicians mingling with constituents, slinging muck at one another and playing games of one-up-manship to win over voters.

Sarah, over at the Brain Bank, has looked at what politicians could learn from scientists to improve public perception. Meanwhile, here, I’ve pondered what it is that politicians actually do better than scientists and that researchers could learn from.

1. Public speaking and community engagement
David Cameron meeting members of the public. Photo source: Department for Business, Innovation and Skills via Flickr. Licence under CC BY 2.0.
     The political elite are, on the whole, excellent public speakers. They know how to deal with the public and the press and how to get their points across clearly (when they want to!). Their jobs depend on their constituents liking them, trusting them and knowing what they’re doing to help their community – without that, they won’t get many votes and won’t have much of a career. So why isn’t this the case with scientists?

    The point of scientific research, as I see it, is to advance humanity’s understanding of the world around us. The government’s science budget, set in 2010-11 at £3.2 billion and since ring-fenced, comes from taxpayers’ money. Surely this means that scientists have an obligation to talk to the public and keep them informed as to how their money is being used to advance our knowledge?

    This is slowly becoming a more common train of thought amongst researchers. Between surveys performed in 2000 and 2006 by the Wellcome Trust and The Royal Society respectively, the proportion of scientists who had undertaken at least one science communication activity in the preceding year rose from 56% to 74%.  But, the situation could still be improved. Surprisingly, these reports agreed that, in the UK at least, younger researchers were less involved in public engagement than their older colleagues (Bauer and Jensen, 2011), showing that we can’t be complacent and expect thinking in the field to gradually change as younger blood comes in.

    If we want to increase public understanding of science and eradicate the divide between scientists and the public, then perhaps researchers will need to be more like politicians and get out there and speak to people. News programmes, radio, public talks and science festivals – the opportunities are there, as is the audience. We just need the scientists. Speaking of which…

2. Make use of recognisable public figures

    Like them or loathe them, some politicians capture the public’s attention more than others. Prime Ministerial candidates aside, many political parties have someone who piques the  public’s interest and really makes them listen. Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage divide opinion whilst Michael Gove…well, you can’t say people didn’t take notice when he announced something!

    And that’s the point – whether you regard them as heroes or pantomime villains, these figures are instantly recognisable and their voices and opinions are passed on very quickly. Larger than life characters in the case of Johnson and Farage, offering clear, straightforward ideas, engage the public consciousness.

     Now think about scientists – who acts as a public figure; someone who people will tune into or whose opinions matter to the general public? David Attenborough and Brian Cox are the obvious examples. Indeed, Cox’s popularity and ability to engage the public with complex scientific research is arguably, unrivalled. The ‘Brian Cox Effect’ has even resulted in a 20% increase in people studying physics at A-Level and a 52% increase in the number of students applying to study physics at university.

    Science needs more people like this. Attenborough and Cox have achieved so much in popularising science and researchers should capitalise on this momentum. Chemistry, psychology, genetics – all of these areas and more need a charismatic and recognisable champion in the media. This will not only stimulate interest in their field, but it will also potentially increase public demand for further research and funding opportunities.

    This, however, brings me onto a murkier topic.
Prof. Brian Cox. Photo source: Paul Clarke via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY 3.0.

3. Allocation of public money

    We may not always agree with their decisions, but the wide-eyed optimist in me believes that politicians make decisions that they genuinely believe are for the greater good and will be of benefit to the country. That includes how public spending is managed – a key argument in the current election campaigns.

    Allocation of funding is determined by the incumbent government’s beliefs on where the available money will be of greatest service to the country and the economy. The logic behind its distribution may not be immediately obvious to us – after all, how many of us are economists – but I believe it’s there, even if the money is being used to fuel something we’ll reap the benefits of in a decade or more.

    This may be a controversial statement but I think that science has lost its way in this regard. Funding is now predominantly handed over to projects that can claim direct impact upon the general public, such as ‘Daily Express-style’ cures for cancer or Alzheimer’s. 

    This is not in itself a bad thing, however, it would be foolish to underplay the worth of basic research. With so much we don’t yet understand, it’s important to recognise that big leaps in our understanding (i.e. a cure for cancer) depend first on a basic understanding of how the body works - something which may not sound ‘sexy’ on a grant proposal, but nonetheless may prove hugely beneficial in the future.

    I can’t help but feel like too much funding is being spent on the ‘safe bets’ – research proposals that claim to provide immediate and simply explained results. Let’s get a bit more adventurous and try something new once in a while. Let’s investigate the interesting, not just the immediately useful. You never know what benefits we might reap in the long run. Indeed, this ties me in nicely to my final point...

4. Don’t be afraid to make bold suggestions on how to advance your field
     Before I start this one, I feel I should clarify that I cannot stand Nigel Farage. But, good Lord, the man knows how to make a statement and he isn’t afraid to push radical ideas. Regardless of how practical, or morally provocative, his ideas may be, Farage should be applauded for trying something new. 

    The three two major parties in England (sorry Lib Dems) tend to avoid making radical changes, instead taking baby steps and building upon what’s gone before. Scientific research is much the same. Scientists are encouraged to build slowly on what’s come before, with only the big name researchers being given the freedom to shake things up and make the big suggestions that could advance their field.

    The problem is that research costs money. A lot of money. As such, funding is generally given to more traditional, safer research proposals - this further limits scientists, holding new ideas back. Therefore, it could be argued that science needs more people like Farage, people who aren’t afraid to try something different and push boundaries. 

    So there you have it. Science and politics may seem miles apart on the surface, but I think that researchers really could learn a lot from our nation’s politicians and their campaign tactics. And remember to use your vote come May 7th!

Nigel Farage. Photo source: Diliff via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.
Bauer, M.D. and Jensen, P. (2011) The mobilization of scientists for public engagement. Public Understanding of Science 20 (1), 3-11.