As a citizen or resident of any country I think it is highly important to do your best to learn at least the basics about the political system that governs over you, and of course if you want to meaningfully comment on a state of affairs, you should educate yourself even further (avoiding the logical fallacies and the minefield that is cognitive biases, as shown here, here and here). This might seem boring to some, but it is essential since the government and politics plays such a large role in your life (whether you like it or not). There is nothing different about being a scientist; in fact the higher up you go, the more important it becomes to understand what is going on in the political sphere, especially since government funding makes up a large percentage of academic research. However I do seem to notice a paucity of skilled scientists going into politics and I think I know why (and also welcome your comments).
To distil science into its essence, it is all about the search for practical, fundamental truths and getting as close to truth as possible. Now with politics, particularly modern Western-centric politics, its distillation seems to me to result in an appeal to popularity (a logical fallacy in its own right). Popular opinion matter a great deal in politics, and almost serves as the currency of power; after all one gets elected based on popular vote above all else. This is the key reason Socrates was a critic of democracy. Just because a large proportion of the populace agrees with a policy, does not make that policy correct. So as a scientist, it really does appear that there is a dearth of real evidence-based policy, and as scientists we cannot abide by that due to our extensive training in looking for and assessing evidence of claims. However, we cannot turn out backs on politics or democracy, because let’s be realistic, it’s here to stay and most of the alternatives are terrible.
So what needs to be done? Well popularizing politics and the rise of political fact checking groups is a real boon. But I really do think that more scientists should get involved in politics, particularly in becoming politicians themselves. I know this might sound radical to some, and challenging to others (particularly scientists). There are people, including scientists like Martin Reece, who think scientists should merely advice politicians and not have aspirations beyond that. I disagree with this fervently. Few have the critical skills that world-class scientists have, and critical thinking should be the rule in politics rather than the exception.
I think one of the hardest things to swallow for a scientist going into politics is the balancing act of following the party line in public and disagreeing with key policy points held by the majority or the leader of a political party. Indeed this is a challenge for all members of a political party, but I think it is perhaps worse for a scientist who is used to dealing purely in evidence and engaging frequently in expert debate over claims and findings to help garner a more accurate and precise vision of truth. Too much internal debate (especially that which gets out of control) can crush a party; just look at what happened to the Australian Labor Party in the 2013 election. On the flip side, the hardest thing for a politician to do, or indeed most people, is to accept credible findings that go against their beliefs (as Michael Brooks points out in his New Scientist article). These are both things that need to be remedied. I think the issue of debate within a party needs a careful approach from the party, whereby appropriate forums are established for debate. Additionally, the public needs to be aware that internal debate does not always equate with an instable party. As for the issue of politicians disregarding evidence that states the contrary of their views, well that’s a little tougher to remedy. You need to carefully word public statements so as not to be seen as unable to take a stance on an issue, but also to not be seen to “backflip”.
So how best for a scientist to become a politician? Well Julian Huppert may have some advice, including challenges faced, as he is the only professional scientist (with a Ph.D in Chemistry from Cambridge) in the UK House of Commons. An interview with Dr. Huppert on Nature Blogs has him stating “We need more people with a scientific background in Parliament; there are very few MPs who have any sound scientific knowledge”. Dr. Huppert also remarks in a separate interview that scientists will have to give up the bench work, a notoriously difficult thing to do for a skilled professional (and perhaps one of the greatest challenges at the start).
So leaving the bench work one gets accustomed to is the start, but what next? Well one view I have come across (including a discussion with a friend today) is that scientists should create a new paradigm in politics and come up with a new way that may not involve utilizing the current political system. I am skeptical of this view (though open to hearing more about how exactly it would work) because I don’t see how it would function. Radical change can be good (ultimately the French revolution was a positive change), but can also be bad as the Egyptian conflict currently demonstrates. But what about countries like Australia where we don’t have the worry of one tyrannical, oppressive group filling the shoes of a former? Well I think there is no choice but to work within the existing system. Just as the so-called “good bacteria” work with us for their benefits, and over time give us benefit, so must the scientist-politician work with the established system and political parties. This may involve slow change rather than anything revolutionary, but people and societies are often adverse to rapid change, particularly when they have become relatively complacent with their current state of affairs (due to a paucity of critical governmental emergencies, and the relative comforts a developed, Western society provides).
So to finish off my thoughts, I would like to encourage more successful scientists to engage with the public and pursue a political career, despite how unpalatable it might sound. This may need to start at a younger time point, such as university science students, or perhaps it will occur as unfunded researchers get fed-up with the lack of government funding for their research? I look forward to your thoughts and comments, as I am not a social or political scientist (my area is molecular parasitology, mmm, maybe the study of parasites goes well with studying politicians, policy and government…or that’s just my facetiously cynical side coming out).