Putting More Science Into Government
Updated: Mar 17
By Dr Paul Walker
Picture: June 2021 - UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson promoting the UK as
Politics is an art not a science. A ruthless one too, as Niccolo Machiavelli's instruction guide for new princes and royals laid bare in The Prince (Il Principe) in 1532. Government decisions, even in the midst of a pandemic, cannot be based on science alone. There is a complex balancing act of competing health, economic and other interests to perform. But is there enough science in government?
Into The Hub's New Year In Box comes an email from regular Wellbeing contributor Dr Paul Walker with the intriguing tease: "Trawling through my many old computer files I came across this 2008 article I think is as relevant today as when I wrote it - perhaps even more so."
The article is a critique of science literacy in UK education and government with a nod back to Oxford Chemistry graduate Margaret Thatcher. Dr Walker's unspoken inference is Britain's Covid crisis stewardship might have been better handled if informed by better scientific understanding inside No. 10.
The Hub's mind turned to another totemic national leader with a Chemistry degree, Angela Merkel. Indeed in April 2020 The Atlantic claimed: The Secret to Germany's Covid Success: Angela Merkel is a Scientist. What do you think dear reader?
Putting More Science Into Government
Picture: Former UK scientific adviser David King set up a "shadow" government scientific advisory group. / Credit: ClimateRepair/Wikimededia Commons (CC BY-SA)
By Dr Paul Walker
I was struck the other day by something the recently retired Government Chief Scientist, Sir David King, said to the effect that he had been surprised and considerably hampered in doing his job by the scientific illiteracy of most Ministers and senior civil servants. My first thought was that we had never had a scientist prime minister and few if any in the higher echelons of government. But of course I was wrong in one respect. For Margaret Thatcher was very much the scientist – an Oxford graduate chemist if I remember aright. Only Lord (CP) Snow comes immediately to mind in terms of other scientist Ministers.
I have to declare a personal prejudice. I had the great good fortune to go to an excellent LEA grammar school whose headmaster was a physicist by background. His policy was that the brighter pupils were strongly encouraged to do sciences with only the less able permitted to do arts subjects. Dutifully, I pursued sciences and developed a clear bias in their favour. This was reinforced at University where, once again, the brighter undergraduates seemed to be those reading science though there was a prevalent heresy that whilst reading History or English was a real education the pursuit of science constituted merely a vocational study!
Reflecting on Sir David’s words raises the important question of how we select our parliamentary candidates (and civil servants too, for that matter) and what we should expect of them in terms of knowledge, including scientific literacy, and experience.
Modern recruitment practice requires a person specification. I am told that such a specification now exists though couched in very general terms. So, what about formal qualifications? What about experience of real life including experience of doing an ordinary job? What about experience of those issues that feature large in an MP’s postbag? What about experience of the thinking processes required in the formulation of policy? And, last but not least, what about knowledge and experience of science and technology, issues which are increasingly central to modern life?
Picture: Oxford chemist Margaret Roberts before becoming Prime Minister
Margaret Thatcher / Credit: popsci.com
In an age of declining scientific literacy, witness the flight from sciences and maths in schools in favour of media studies and the like, we need to increase the profile of science including in government and among our democratic representatives. Apart from the intellectual rigour that scientists would bring to politics from which I am sure we would all benefit, wouldn't it be a refreshing change to listen to politicians schooled in the art of communicating to inform with precision rather than to bamboozle and obfuscate?
Whatever her faults, and they were legion, Margaret Thatcher did not waffle. She knew what she wanted to say and she said it with great clarity and brevity. How different to many members of the present government whose ability to say nothing at length is now legendary.
And, peddling yet another prejudice, can it really be appropriate to start a political career before gaining a broad experience of real life? H G Wells proposed that men should not be allowed to marry before achieving the age of 25 years (so young!). My variant is to say that nobody – male or female – should be eligible to contest a parliamentary seat before the age of 40 years (I wonder whether even this is too young).
Being an MP should not be seen as a career for life but as a mid to later life vocation founded on a track record of real experience and service as attractive to scientists – even medically trained ones – as it currently is to lawyers.
We do not want a classe politique on this side of the Channel.
Dr Paul Walker
Image: The front cover of From Public Health to Wellbeing
Edited by Paul Walker and Marie John / Credit: MacMillan Education
Dr Paul Walker is an independent public health consultant with 50 years experience of working for the NHS, local government and academe as a public health specialist and manager. He is the co-editor of Public Health Matters and the co-editor of From Public Health to Wellbeing: The New Driver for Policy and Action.
Synopsis for From Public Health to Wellbeing: There has never been more awareness of the public health agenda, as policy-makers stress the importance of 'wellbeing' to the general public. Charting the history and evolution of the public health agenda, this insightful reader argues the place of wellbeing in local and national strategy. It identifies some of the critical events that have influenced the development of public health systems, and looks at the challenges for policymakers and professionals in the formulation and delivery of effective strategies for the future.
This text explores the challenges of defining and promoting wellbeing across the lifespan, from childhood and youth to older age, through a range of approaches, such as town planning and partnership working. It is a valuable resource for students of public health, health promotion, the social sciences and social policy, as well as for any practitioner supporting health promotion within the public, private or voluntary sector.