April 15, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Last week, I travelled to UCL to meet Imran Khan, head of CaSE. Imran is an alumnus of the Imperial College Science Communication MSc course and was previously a researcher for former Liberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris. As Director of CaSE, Imran deals with a whole range of issues surrounding science policy. Today, Imran talks about some of the difficulties faced when trying to convince UK politicians of the importance of science and engineering…

AP:       On the whole, do you find that politicians are generally receptive to your arguments or do you come up against strong resistance?

That’s an interesting question. You’ll always find politicians who are willing to hear what you’ve got to say. There are around six hundred and fifty MPs in the House of Commons and there are always bound to be some that are prepared to listen to what you’ve got to say, because they agree with your aims. But equally, there will always be some who just aren’t interested. The key is trying to make sure that the ones who are actually in positions of power, and are able to make key decisions, aren’t the ones who are uninterested.

I think we’ve actually been very lucky with the current science minister we’ve got, David Willetts. He’s very engaged and he’s very cerebral and academic. Despite not being a scientist himself, he’s clearly very interested in scientific issues. I think that, intellectually, it excites him. The trouble is that ultimately he’s not the person who makes the decisions about science funding and he’s no the one who gets to decide whether researchers can get into the UK. So, as well as influencing the friendly ministers, we’ve got to try and influence the ones who perhaps aren’t automatically as interested in helping us achieve the sort of things we’re aiming for.

It is tricky sometimes; we’ve had a lot of difficulty recently trying to get a meeting at the Department for Education. We’ve been quite critical of some of their plans on science education and we’ve had this ridiculous to and fro with them trying to get a meeting organised. In fact, I ended up complaining about them to The Financial Times and was quoted in the paper having a bit of a go at them. But, as a result of that, we finally got the meeting with them — I suppose that’s another example of how we use the media.

To be honest, sometimes it can be really difficult to gauge. We’ve never really had the chance to meet George Osborne and we hear conflicting things about him. Some people say that he’s really into science and that he understands the arguments. Other people say that he’s just a bean-counter, who’s just interested in the bottom line and doesn’t understand the philosophical and long-term aspects of science and engineering.

It’s a mixture really, but the thing that I’m always really keen to emphasise is that it’s not so much about how keen and eager the politicians are just by UK standards. At the end of the day, we’re competing against the rest of the world; we’re competing against places like Japan, Germany, USA, South Korea, France, etc. From what I’ve seen, politicians there seem to be much more engaged with science and engineering issues. For instance, Cameron’s been Prime Minister for just over a year now and he’s still yet to make a major speech on science. Meanwhile, all of his G8 counterparts have already done so. In fact, Obama was even talking about science during his recent fleeting visit to the UK, never mind all the times he’s spoken about science during his State of the Union Addresses. I think that, as a country, we really need to step up in terms of how seriously our politicians currently take science and engineering.

AP:       Do you think that this unwillingness on behalf of British politicians to talk about science could possibly be an unwanted side-effect of the Haldane principle?

I’m not sure. I don’t think the Haldane principal should ever stop politicians talking about why science and engineering are important. I don’t even think it should stop them talking about where they’d like research in the UK to go. My interpretation of the Haldane principle is that on an individual, project-by-project basis, it’s counter-productive to try and interfere with research decisions.

Yet, on the bigger scale, fundamentally, most publicly-funded research is, by definition, paid for by taxpayers. Our MPs and our Governments are elected by the people to take decisions on their behalf; they’ve got a democratic mandate, unlike researchers. So, I think it’s actually their duty — not just their right — to try and steer the way the UK is going. Hopefully, organisations like CaSE can help them do that. I really don’t think that the Haldane principal should get in the way of that kind of decision.