Rather than bemoaning the loss of science-savvy politicians in last week's election, researchers in the UK should strive to make new friends.
As Nature goes to press, the United Kingdom's general election of 6 May has still not produced a clear outcome. Although the right-leaning Conservative Party won the most seats in the parliament, they failed to capture the majority needed to form a government. In the coming days, the Conservatives or the incumbent Labour Party are likely to form a coalition with the left-leaning Liberal Democrats to govern the country.
What seems clear, however, is that the next parliament will contain fewer scientifically savvy members than the current one. An analysis by London's The Times newspaper shows that some 71 candidates with scientific backgrounds have been elected, down from 86 of the 650 members in the last parliament. Among the defeated is Evan Harris, a Member of Parliament (MP) for the Liberal Democrats, who was considered by many to be the most articulate voice during the election for science and its importance in policy-making.
Harris's fate represents the dashed hopes of a small but vocal minority of scientists and policy-watchers who tried to shape research into a live campaign issue. In the aftermath of the election, The Times announced that it had been a “terrible night” for science, while New Scientist declared that “science is the loser”.
In truth, the UK's deep economic troubles meant that science was never likely to figure highly on the public's agenda. This parliament will be filled with fresh faces, and it now falls on the scientific community to begin the important and urgent work of educating these new MPs on scientific issues. The case must be made to members of all three major parties that science is an important driver of Britain's economy; that it can provide crucial solutions to major issues such as energy independence; and that it deserves strong support even during times of economic cutback.
“Unless researchers act swiftly, science could end up at the front of the firing line.”
These arguments will hold more sway if they are cast in a non-partisan light. In the United States science has enjoyed strong support from the left and right for years, in part because academic societies such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science have scrupulously worked with both major parties to ensure a broad understanding of the benefits of science.
In Britain, non-partisanship in the scientific establishment has been more fleeting. Since the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher imposed savage cuts to research in the 1980s, most academic scientists have shied away from the Conservative Party. Much of the effort to build an understanding of science has focused on Labour politicians, through groups such as Scientists for Labour, which was formed in the 1990s because of a perceived lack of scientific expertise within the party.
Now is the time for such efforts to be extended to all parties. Unlike Thatcher's party, the Conservatives of today have made supportive noises about science — even if most members lack a strong understanding of scientific issues. Non-partisan organizations such as the Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK (CaSE) and the Royal Society are well placed to make a broad appeal to the new parliament.
In the run-up to the election, CaSE encouraged all parties to make their positions on science known, and in its aftermath the organization must work to inform a new government's science policies. The Royal Society, meanwhile, has a long-running programme matching scientists with MPs that could be particularly useful in educating new politicians. That programme should be put into high gear while the society considers other ways to engage parliament. Other scientific societies should rally their memberships to get the word out to new parliamentarians about the value of science. A well orchestrated, non-partisan appeal early in the life of the parliament could leave a lasting impression.
And an early and enduring impression may be crucial to preserving Britain's scientific enterprise. Faced with a soaring budget deficit, whoever forms the new government will have to impose deep cuts on public spending. Unless researchers act swiftly, science could end up at the front of the firing line.