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.
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.