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November 07, 2012

The scientist as political tourist: the perils of pairing

On Wednesday last week (31 October 2012), BBC Radio Four’s ‘Today’ programme featured a scheme run by the Royal Society to promote interaction and engagement between civil servants, Parliamentarians and scientists.

According to their website, the 'Pairing Scheme' seeks to match participating scientists ‘with either an MP or civil servant and the Royal Society supports them by arranging a ‘Week in Westminster’ and reciprocal visits to research centres and laboratories across the UK’. In doing so, the scheme ‘aims to help MPs and civil servants establish longstanding links with practising research scientists and to help research scientists understand political decision making and its associated pressures.’

Reciprocal visits

During their week in Parliament, the selected scientists participate in a programme of activities including seminars, workshops and opportunities to shadow the MP with whom they have been paired. They are also taken on a tour of the Houses of Parliament, attend Select Committee meetings as well as Prime Minister’s Question Time, follow Parliamentary debates, observe meetings, attend policy briefings and press interviews with the MP and visit Government offices. The week promises to give scientists ‘a taste not only of the approach to science policy but of Parliament and the Civil Service in general’ as well as generate insights about the working lives of politicians.

During a series of reciprocal visits, scientists also spend a day in the constituency office of the Member of Parliament, attending local events and meetings as well as consultative surgeries. In return, MPs and civil servants are promised ‘a unique opportunity to gain an insight to the scientific process’ by being offered the opportunity to visit the scientist’s research facilities, where they can ‘talk to staff and students, hear about the research and help conduct an experiment.’

Public trust in science (and politics)

The BBC story ran as if the scheme is new, launched in part to improve the scientific literacy of MPs in response to recent controversies (e.g. ‘climate-gate’, GM crops) over public trust (or a lack thereof) in science. Since 2001, however, the Royal Society has paired over 150 scientists with civil servants and politicians, some of whom have included Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg MP, the Rt. Hon John Denham MP and the Tory MP Ed Vaizey.

From this description, the pairing scheme can seem both reassuring and unsettling at the same time. On the face of it, there is much that would appear to commend it. After all, most people would probably acknowledge that science faces significant political challenges in the current economic climate, particularly in terms of arguing for continuing public funding of science research and teaching, especially in our universities. It would therefore be difficult to argue against the value of a scheme that promotes dialogue, engagement and – hopefully – respect and understanding between politicians and scientists. In this sense, various publics might consider the scheme to be reassuring.

Yet, it is also possible to feel troubled by the fact that such a scheme seems necessary in a scientifically advanced society like the UK. Surely, in the 21st century, and after many decades of significant and sophisticated advances in medicine, science and a wide variety of other technologies, British politicians need no further convincing of the importance and value of science? Various publics might find this revelation even less reassuring than the suggestion that science cannot always be ‘trusted’.

Political tourism

The logic of such ‘pairing’ is to suggest that the politician and the scientist are engaged in practices that are mutually exclusive of each other. Exaggerating a sense of distance between the work of politics and science, a divide is imagined that then needs to be ‘bridged’ if understanding is to be achieved between such (opposed) domains of activity and practice. But before this can be done, one needs to identify the ‘sites’ in which politics and science can be institutionally encountered. Not only does this demand a number of assumptions about both the unintelligibility of politics to science (and vice versa). It over-simplifies the question of their institutional location, the implication being that politics can be ‘found’ in Westminster (or the civil service) and that science is something done in a laboratory (remember, politicians get the chance to ‘help’ with an experiment!)

How credible is this?

A question could be raised about the quality of the political education on offer for the participating scientists. The opportunity of a ‘Week in Westminster’ smacks of political tourism: it reminds me of the five days of work experience I completed in the early 1990s in the constituency office of a local Federal MP when I was a 19 year-old undergraduate in Australia. On that occasion, the voluntary work I did translated into a paid, part-time position over three years that taught me so much more about the practice of politics than I could have gleaned from that initial week – or, indeed, a tour of Parliament.

But the week I spent shadowing a Parliamentarian was merely the starting point – rather than the sum total – of my political education. The most valuable lesson I learned was that in trying to identify where power lies and how political decisions are made, one requires a more grounded and sustained engagement with politics, beginning with a more imaginative approach to how one ‘sites’ it.

Science – and politics – in the making

This question, of the location of politics and science institutionally, has long been a concern for social scientists, including philosophers of science and other scholars of science and technology. For anthropologists and sociologists, politics is as meaningfully transacted in local-level associational life – whether this includes churches, clubs, the family, political parties, the pub, trade unions or other voluntary organisations – as well as institutions of the state, such as schools, local Council chambers and, indeed, Parliament.

In addition, in the 1980s and early 1990s, the French sociologist Bruno Latour published extensively about the various ‘sites’ in which science can be located, highlighting his conception of science as a set of disciplinary practices ‘in the making’ (cf. his book ‘Science in Action’, published in 1987). Invariably (for Latour), these sites are embedded within networks composed of human and non-human agents that extend within and beyond (while also encompassing) institutions. But the important point is that these sites are transient and unstable: they are not fixed, static institutions to be apprehended and physically mapped, like a sightseer on a tour of a famous building. Rather, they are dynamic social practices that give form to objects that come, in turn, to be named as ‘politics’ or ‘science’.

It is through attentiveness to the social – with an eye and ear to how politics and science are made through practices and relations grounded values of collaboration and engaged dialogue that both domains of activity share – that Parliamentarians and scientists can generate mutual understanding that is meaningful for both disciplines.

It would be interesting to know more about how many ‘pairings’ via the Royal Society scheme have led to longer-term conversations between the participating politicians and scientists. Such a scheme should never be the end point of efforts to build understanding between the two disciplines. Rather, it must constitute a beginning, a starting point that seeks to reaffirm the social in both politics and science in order to build firm foundations for understanding that bridges whatever is imagined to divide the two.


June 29, 2012

Battle looms over European funding for embryonic stem cell research

According to an interesting story in this week’s Times Higher, a strong challenge is being mounted to EU science funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Several Members of the European Parliament opposed to the use of embryos in stem cell research are planning to raise objections in a forthcoming debate on the European Commission’s research funding programme Horizon 2020.

Here in the UK, the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council have joined with patient groups and other biomedical lobbies across Europe to call for continuing support in this field of research, which will total 107 million euros (£86 million) over the seven years of the EU Framework Programme 7.

Currently, embryonic stem cell research is prohibited in Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia. Restrictions exist in four other countries – Austria, Germany, Italy and Ireland – where stem cell lines drawn from donated embryos that have been discarded during IVF treatment have to be imported.

Of the remaining twenty EU member states, Belgium, Spain, Sweden and the UK have the most liberalised regulatory environments for supporting such research. Each allows for the creation of embryos for research purposes, albeit under strict conditions.

But it would seem that even as embryonic stem cell research gathers momentum in Europe, public opinion is taking a more sceptical turn. While recent polling suggests that there is still an overall majority (63%) in favour of this research across Europe, support fell by eight percentage points between 2005 and 2010 in several countries, including Austria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland and Slovakia.

Two issues, in particular, seem to be vexing supporters of embryonic stem cell research. Firstly, according to Dr David Lynn of the Wellcome Trust: ‘If Europe were no longer to fund [embryonic stem cell research] through Horizon 2020, it would risk giving the impression that Europe is no longer open for business in this area.’

Coming amid concerns about whether companies will be able to patent technologies and treatments derived from embryonic stem cell research following a recent European Court of Justice ruling, the European Parliament’s forthcoming debate risks muddying the waters further on this important question.

Secondly, it could be argued from the above polling data that, after many years of debate, religious opponents of embryonic stem cell research are winning the ethical arguments and re-shaping public opinion in their favour.

Professor Austin Smith, director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research in Cambridge, suggests that the problem here is one of a lack of scientific literacy and understanding that renders the public ‘susceptible’ to an ‘odd alliance’, which includes Greenpeace and the Vatican, both of which he alleges ‘ignore the patient, and … the scientific evidence.’

Advocating a pan-European initiative to educate the public and policymakers about the value of embryonic stem cell research, Professor Smith concludes the article by asserting that people ‘shouldn’t be allowed to impose fundamentalist views on the rest of the community.’

Unfortunately, comments like these do little more than reinforce an old and unhelpful trope in debates between science and religion: that if the public lacks enthusiasm for science, it is because the former fails to understand the latter and prefers to listen to (fundamentalist, irrational) religious leaders rather than (enlightened, rational) scientists.

This risks stereotyping and unnecessarily ridiculing religion and the often-important ethical and moral questions religious leaders ask – not just of scientists, but also of business leaders, politicians and others. In turn, this does little to progress the debates, especially when so much of the argument for embryonic stem cell research – as exemplified by the broad thrust of the Times Higher article itself – is devoted, first and foremost, to making the market case for investment in such research.

When the US State of Missouri famously debated embryonic stem cell research in the run-up to the 2006 US Midterm elections, opponents caricatured scientists at the Stowers Institute in Kansas City (see image) and the Washington University Medical Center in St Louis as only being interested in ‘Dolly, dollars and donors’. Their argument was that scientists have a vested interested in playing down the ethical questions raised by embryonic stem cell research so that business and private individuals will be persuaded to invest in their science.

This is the equally unhelpful counter-view – the mirror image, no less – to the intellectually lazy assumption by some in the scientific community that religion cannot make a ‘valid’ contribution to the ethical debates surrounding areas of controversial science, largely because (they allege) those with religious views either do not understand, or choose to ignore, the scientific evidence.

There is a sting in the tail here, with important consequences for those of us who believe in making science public. As American supporters of embryonic stem cell research engaged in the so-called ‘culture wars’ that have bedevilled the USA over the last decade can tell us, support for publicly funded education almost always goes hand-in-hand with a wider public acceptance of, and support for, science funding and research.

If the above polling is to be believed, the recent decline in support amongst European publics for embryonic stem cell research should sound alarm bells for policymakers because it appears to coincide with an age of budget austerity that has resulted in funding cuts for education and scientific research.

To compensate for these lost revenues, governments both here in the UK and abroad have emphasised the need for universities and other recipients of publicly funded research grants to move to commercialise (i.e. privatise) science.

Whether there is a relationship – an interface – between these two ‘trends’ no doubt requires further analysis. But my suspicion is that in a world of privatised science, it will become increasingly difficult to make the case that the public should support controversial scientific research.

Of course, this will only matter if there is still public funding in place for scientific research over which to fight in the future. But my point is that the drive to privatise science will likely make securing public consent to science funded in our name more problematic.

Privatised science is antithetical to making science public, which requires a commitment to making public science. This commitment, which needs to be renewed, is to a democratised science – of and for the people, so to speak. Only then can publics make a claim of ownership to science, culturally, financially and, most importantly of all, morally.


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