Why Don’t Politicians Love Science?

Recently I was set a challenge by a leading scientist/science administrator. What could be done, he asked, to make politicians more enthusiastic about science.

He said there were lots of programs to generate awareness and support for science amongst the general public, but little in regard to politicians and policy makers, and he thought that this was where the need was greatest.

I have a couple of ideas I am working on, and eventually I hope to send them to him. However, I thought to answer the question properly we first need to ask a different one: why are most politicians so unenthusiastic about science in the first place?

I thought I would raise that here along with my theories. Responses very, very much appreciated. I’ve started with some well worn points people may prefer to skip, but at the bottom I have something I have not seen proposed before.

The Old Ground

Before I get started, some may question my premise. You could argue that politicians have a reasonable level of enthusiasm for science, it’s just that science nerds have an unrealistic view of the share of the budget science and technology should be getting. I believe that this view is propounded by Thomas Barlow in The Australian Miracle, although as I have never got round to reading his book I may be misrepresenting Barlow. To answer that properly would take a lot more space than I have here, but I guess I can summarise by saying that I believe almost every problem Australia (and the world) faces could be reduced by more spending on science, and greater adoption of scientific findings in confronting these problems. A few might even be eliminated. That seems a pretty good return for an extra 2% or so of GDP.

Two reasons politicians are not very enthusiastic about science are rather hard to tackle. Some genuinely hate science because they have a pre-enlightenment view of the world, a commitment to religious fundamentalism and an opposition to intellectual inquiry. I don’t think there is much one can do about such people, other than vote them out. However, these are a minority of politicians, although these attitudes sometimes permeate somewhat amongst others who would not agree with them if actually confronted on the topic.

A second problem is the short timelines imposed by three year terms. The disadvantages of longer term governments have been clearly exposed by examples such as NSW 2007-20011 and the UK from 1992-1997, but that does not mean that there is not a price to pay for short electoral horizons where governments know they will receive no reward for work with a payoff even four years down the track. To some extent I think this can be addressed by building support in the wider public. If the public gain confidence that science will work out for them in the end and, perhaps more importantly, demonstrate that belief to the politicians things may change. Making this happen, of course, is another problem.

Something New?

However, I think there may also be a psychological factor that puts a lot of politicians off science. Despite what we may often say, most politicians are reasonably intelligent, educated people. Almost all of them have university degrees, which the majority of the population do not. These degrees are concentrated amongst the more prestigious universities and a highly disproportionate number are in law and medicine – courses that are not easy to get into. Politicians also, almost by definition, have substantial egos, so they probably see themselves as at least as intelligent as they are.

Consequently, they not only performed well academically at school and university, but formed a substantial part of their identity around seeing themselves as academically successful. Most however, didn’t study much science. It would be difficult to prove, but I strongly suspect that this is because most of them were not particularly good at maths and science. They may have done reasonably well at these subjects at school, but were probably not doing nearly as well as they were in humanities. If you’re getting 90% at English and History, and 75% in maths and biology, you’ve got nothing to be ashamed of in the sciences, but there is still a fair chance you will regard your scientific performance as something best put behind you. That’s not the best basis for looking favourably on science when it comes to doling out the research funds.

Moreover, it would be quite common for politicians to have been close to the top of their school. Their humanities results may well have put them in the running for dux, or various prizes, and they may often have missed out to the nerdy kid who was a whiz at maths, physics or computing.

It strikes me that the politicians I can think of who are most enthusiastic about science are those who probably would have been good scientists had they taken a different path. I remember hearing Obama’s science advisor talk to the American Association for the Advancement of Science on how much Obama loved talking to scientists, how he always extended his meetings with scientists making other things run late. I strongly suspect that an important part of this is that Obama feels like he understands what these people are telling him, that his discussions with them are the intellectual meetings of equals, rather than being talked down to by greater minds.

I don’t think it is as simple as pollies settling thirty year old scores by not allocating research grants. However, I do think that the perception of science as something that is too hard, and maybe in some sense off limits, to the politicians does not make for a great environment to be seeking funds, let alone pushing for the application of scientific decision making to water allocations in the Murray-Darling.

I’m still working on ideas as to how to address this, but I think that the solution may lie in giving politicians a sense of ownership over science, a feeling that this is something they can be part of, rather than something in which they cannot engage.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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2 Responses to Why Don’t Politicians Love Science?

  1. Lee Cath says:

    Hi Stephen, further to my comments on FB: I remember when I was helping legal academics with ARC grant applications it was fiendishly difficult to get them to tell the story of their research from their audience’s (grant-makers’) perspective rather than their own. The problem is that they are already in love with their research subject; assume a lot of knowledge, and think that its importance is both inherent and universally apparent. I assume that the same is true of scientists. So what we need are science communicators who can help scientists tell their stories in ways that are accessible (to politicians and the general public) and answer the important questions – what difference does this make and what difference does this make to me? (for what it’s worth, I think you’re doing a pretty good job on this front.) Focusing on impact, outcomes and the audience’s interests might make science more attractive to politicians. I realize that runs counter to the notion of broad-based scientific research, but there’s not much I can do about that….

  2. Lee, that is really interesting. A while back I had a conversation with a scientist who said the success rate of his team’s grant applications shot up when they got someone with a writing, rather than science, background to help write their research grants. Since then I have been trying to see if any scientists want to hire me to do just that (indeed it was a byproduct of this search that I ended up meeting the man who set me this challenge). So far I have had G8 universities tell me that they already have people who fill this roll, so I’m looking for contacts at other universities to see if they might be more in need.

    However, getting science communicators to present the research in a format that might interest the politicians is only one part of the challenge I think. We have to get them to even bother reading what might be written.

    One of the ideas I am kicking around is to try to set up a facebook/twitter account that mainly presents current Australian research in a way that might generate a large audience (so lots of pictures of puggles, not too much length). Then the audience could be used when funding issues arise – “hey guys, click this link to contact your politicians to tell them you want funding increased so these cool experiments can go on”.

    I doubt this is terribly original, but I don’t see it being done.

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