The hosts of the January 13 cross-party science policy debate in the U.K., the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), are the source for video and some reactions on blogs and in the press. While these events are a better set-up and discussion than what the crazy idealists over at ScienceDebate 2008 wanted, the blog reactions suggest that even a couple of 90 minute debates involving the head science ministers in the three major British political parties don’t get to the level of detail that the scientists want. Arguably this is a nice problem to have, since I think similar events in the U.S. would devolve quickly into talking point exchanges over stem cell research and evolution and manage to avoid any meaningful questions or content. We’ll see if anything changes come the third debate, scheduled for March 16 at the House of Commons. So it seems people are happy that the debates are happening, but not so crazy about the broad, but shallow coverage of the issues. Maybe if they watch more political debates, they can figure out this is par for the course.
It seems as though the three parties, not unlike the two parties in the U.S., manage to agree on most scientific issues discussed (putting aside the hot-button issues I mentioned in the first paragraph, which didn’t come up in the U.K. debates, and are really issues involving philosophical and religious differences in the U.S.). This appears to have caused some to comment that the debates are not terribly lively or exciting. Personally, political debates should be informative first, and entertaining dead freaking last. (This probably explains my antipathy for most networks that claim to cover news 24 hours a day.) Apparently the closest participant to a loser in the debate was Tory shadow science minister Afriyie, who responded to a question by sort-of, but not really, supporting Professor Nutt’s sacking. Afriyie’s response was the focus of the mainstream press coverage I saw, which tends to make the debate a lose-lose proposition, since more substantive issues about science funding get ignored as a result.
There are two items I’ve noticed while perusing coverage of this last debate that deserve some attention. First, while it’s great to get the science ministers involved in a cross-party debate, I really think that – given the nature of research funding in the U.K. – that sometimes the science ministers are not the ones making the final calls. I think cross-party debates involving the universities secretaries and ministers (some parties have the universities position as a secretary – automatically part of the cabinet – and some have it as a minister – not necessarily in the cabinet.) and focused on science questions, would be important to the push CaSE is making to have science and engineering as a policy issue.
A related issue is the need to keep in mind that these ministers, while responsible for science and technology issues, can well be trumped by other ministers, or the Prime Minister. For instance, Lord Drayson, Labour science minister, has strongly opposed Professor Nutt’s firing, but about the only other Parliament leader agreeing with him is the science minister for the New Democrats, who is not likely to have any significant power any time soon. CaSE’s campaign certainly needs the support of scientists and engineers, but it also needs broader support from the general public in order to exert some influence on ministers and MPs who aren’t likely to respond to a few motivated scientists.
I’ll close by asking the same question of the U.K science debate organizers as I do of the U.S. ScienceDebate people. What do you mean when you want to make science and engineering an election issue?