As the Scottish referendum showed, scientists’ views can influence political debate.
It is natural for local and specialist media to seek a relevant position on national and international events. Taken too far, such an approach breeds satire — see the ‘local man lost at sea’ line, a possibly apocryphal headline from a regional newspaper’s report on the sinking of the Titanic. But it can sometimes help to drill into general-interest topics; what is the wider world if not an ever-shifting collection of individual groups of special interests?
To some outside the British Isles (and some inside), last week’s decision by the people of Scotland to remain with the United Kingdom merely saw the status quo continue. No iceberg, no shipwreck. Yet there are lessons for scientists; they just have to see them.
As is normal in independence debates, the political fight over Scotland’s future was rancorous. And when the result — 55% no to independence, 45% yes — came in early on Friday morning, many scientists were among those either elated or mourning a lost opportunity.
It would be going too far to say that debates about how science would fare in an independent nation became central to the decision. But the prospects for research did provide an intriguing and relevant subplot.
Pressure groups on both sides — Academics for Yes and rivals Academics Together — received significant airtime. Heavyweights from UK learned societies were wheeled out to make the case for the union in that most British of political statements: a letter to The Times newspaper. Scientific leaders were presented front and centre as part of the dialogue, and both research and academic freedom in Scottish universities were held by both sides as a prize to value and fight for. In the days leading up to the vote, Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish government and the independence movement, was attacked over claims that he bullied the head of the University of St Andrews, Louise Richardson, because of her unfavourable (to him) views.
The media, and through them the UK public, were interested in more than just researchers’ political opinions and analysis of their funding streams: scientists’ daily work was also enlisted. Estimates of the size of the oil reserves in an independent Scotland became front-page news and even the subject of conspiracy theories, with allegations that the unionist UK government was concealing the true, vast scale of Scotland’s potential future wealth.
The story has some way yet to run. Scotland will get extra powers to tax and spend — a sop promised to separatists in the desperate campaigning (see Naturehttp://doi.org/vvm;2014). These may even end up resulting in more money for science. But the message from the politicians and the public is already clear: science is important and the views of scientists occupy a privileged place in debates. This may not surprise anyone but it is worth saying, especially at a time when researchers from Australia to Canada feel under-served by their political masters.
Lobbying for science is too important to be left to the science lobby alone, as effective as it can be. Every scientist can do more to talk up the importance of what they do. Researchers who care nothing for Scotland and have no comprehension of the differences between the United Kingdom, Great Britain, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should still care about this message. Your voices carry great weight: use them.