People & Science

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21/09/2014

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Spending cuts – to public engagement?

Ian Taylor hopes not

An economy and society with high levels of scientific appreciation tends to have a greater capacity for innovation and adaptation.  The corollary to this is that scientific expenditure stimulates growth in a range of sectors of the economy, although not always predictably. 

So in this time of austerity in public expenditure, not only should there be a ring-fencing of the scientific budget, but also no letup in efforts to improve public appreciation of and engagement in science.  As part of this process, we should as a nation cease undervaluing the efforts of scientists and engineers, as well as raising the esteem of those who engage in exploitation of discovery.

Good signs

Scientific advice underpins a wide range of policies.  How governments deal with these issues has an impact on public opinion of the science involved.  There can be no clearer justification for improving the scientific literacy and appreciation of science across the board.

My proposal to the then Conservative Shadow Cabinet,1 for voluntary scientific literacy sessions for new MPs, has been taken up by the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology.  I hope that this will help develop an interest in science among the new intake of MPs. In turn, the new Science Minister, David Willetts, has made a positive start by urging his Ministerial colleagues to observe the Principles of Scientific Advice to Government and to strengthen evidence-based policy making.

Trust means anticipation

Many of the problems with poor outputs in science education derive from cultural barriers that discourage young people from studying STEM subjects.  This is recognised by the key Ministers in the coalition government and tackling it is a high priority.

But the wider challenge is to improve public trust in what scientists say and do.  As Lord Jenkin of Roding admitted in a recent article for this publication,2 we have greatly underestimated the difficulties of doing it.

It was often frustrating during my Parliamentary career that colleagues chose too often to avoid speaking up on science subjects which they saw as inside a walled garden to which they did not have the key.  But it is as important for scientists to listen to the public as it is to talk to them.

We need to try to anticipate subjects where the public becomes alarmed before a proper debate has been undertaken.  Broader acceptance of novel technologies requires an open dialogue.  Where possible ‘upstream’ debate should anticipate issues or react quickly and Ministers should look ahead as to what regulatory frameworks might enhance public confidence.

Measure success with GM

Public (and Ministerial) appreciation of risk is deficient.  Debates about risk/reward and taking some caution out of the precautionary principle are still urgent. Social/ethical/environmental risks need to be put in context. We do not want a further case of damaging confusion arising from MMR fears.

So from time to time, scientists and politicians should go on the front foot. The new Secretary of State for the Environment, Caroline Spelman, has bravely indicated a more open mind on the trials of GM crops.  Before the election, I chaired the Parliamentary & Scientific Committee session in the House entitled ‘Come back GM – all is forgiven’.  The debate was remarkably constructive.  Perhaps this points to a renewed maturity and less fear of being shouted down by the scare-mongers.

Overwhelmingly, the science points not only to the safety of GM foods, but to the fact that the technology is essential if we are to feed the nine billion people that will be on our planet by 2050.  So there are positive merits to GM, not just commercial advantages for the companies involved.  Getting this widely accepted is a crucial challenge of how we engage with the public on questions of scientific assessment. 

1 Ian Taylor MP (Chairman) (2007), An Innovative Society: Capturing the Potential of Science and Engineering. Submission to the Shadow Cabinet. Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM) Task Force, p37. Available at www.conservatives.com/pdf/stemreportfinal.pdf.

3 Patrick Jenkin (June 2010), Ten years on. People & Science p8

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Ian Taylor
Ian Taylor was a Conservative MP from 1987-2010 and Science Minister 1994-97. He most recently chaired the Parliamentary & Scientific Committee
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