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We should bring scientists to the political table

By Charles Onyango | Jan 29th 2022 | 3 min read

Ever wondered why society is happy to pay a pilot, a footballer, an accountant, even an estate agent, but would decry few well-paid engineers and scientists? Or why do lawyers study for about the same number of years as scientists, work similarly long hours and occasionally shoulder the same kind of responsibility, but are terrifically more remunerated?

It boils down to an assumption that scientific conversations shouldn’t have a place in political debates or that scientific research can take place in a vacuum; without society’s blessing. And that science isn’t a political institution, governed by society and beholden to its political will.

The truth is society has historically wielded the power to select who’s permitted to become a scientist. There’s also the issue of societal control over scientific research. Scientists, like everyone else, are subject to being swept away by their society’s cultural currents. 

When they vote in elections, part of what they’re doing is deciding what scientific research will be prioritised. Society also determines what kind of knowledge scientists are allowed to acquire and distribute. For instance, the Vatican imprisoned Galileo and forced him to recant his scientific assertions that the Earth revolves around the Sun to avoid being burned at the stake.

In a thriving democracy, society shapes politics, politics shapes science, and science influences both society and politics. And there are socioeconomic implications to this association. The understanding and implementation of science are vital to the fortunes of modern nations. Perhaps that’s why in the 2021 Ipsos Global Trustworthiness Index, scientists were voted the second most trusted people, at 61 per cent. Even so, the line between science and politics is blurred. There are scientific concepts, supported by a robust body of factual data, which are now inherently politicised, not because of a controversy, but because they threaten some political agenda.

In this coming election, let’s strive to increase scientists’ participation in governance and public policy. As a budding life scientist, I believe that policy and government function best when institutions value diversity and include members from a wide spectrum.

It’s ill-advised to exclude scientists from mainstream considerations and debates. We stand to benefit from scientists being involved at all levels of policy. In the political and societal arenas, they provide a unique perspective. 

The fact that they are best suited to advocate for research financing is perhaps the most evident need. They recognise importance of basic research and that without it, industries risk losing their competitive edge. They are aware of and can explain how drastic budget cuts may make potentially game-changing ventures less likely to succeed. Scientists use evidence to make claims and conclusions about the significance and direction of their work in experiments and projects. 

They are oblivious of everything unless they see it themselves, therefore any assertion with no supporting evidence is instantly disregarded. 

Evidence-based decisions have the power to decrease wasted spending and create productive programmes in the political world. Many in government, however, neglect facts and evidence. 

Politicians who are scientists have power to modify these mindsets. In present political climate, ability to maintain objectivity and make informed decisions based on concrete data, will be extremely useful. 

While transitioning from science to government may appear daunting, scientists’ ability to represent the public at all levels has never been more important. 

The writer is a life scientist and global fellow at Moving Worlds Institute. [email protected]

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