THE SCIENCE VOTE (#SCIVOTE) MOVEMENT: ORIGINS

[Over the last 3 weeks I have been following very closely what was happening before, during and after the recent UK elections but from a scientist’s point of view. I copy-pasted every article I could find into Word documents. In the end, these Word documents were more than 300 pages long. I also read all of them and I have been following the twitter discussions as well. Finally, I wrote the following article for a major Greek newspaper (for those of you who understand Greek and this will not all “sound Greek to you” the weblink for the Το κίνημα “Ψήφος στην επιστήμη” paper is http://www.vimaideon.gr). This is my attempt to translate it. I am saying attempt because the language centre of my brain does not understand anymore which are Greek expressions and which English. I would really appreciate it if any of the people that were actually part of this movement could tell me which points I’ve understood wrongly: a third-party always sees things differently and a lot of times not correctly. I can think of many points that might be wrong or annoy people.]

THE SCIENCE VOTE (#SCIVOTE) MOVEMENT: ORIGINS

The Lisbon Treaty and then European Strategy for 2020 stressed, ambitiously perhaps, the importance of long term investment in knowledge – produced through science and technology – as the only way of exiting from the financial crisis. Politicians in every corner of Europe (and beyond) indicate that the goal of modern society should be a knowledge-based economy.Nevertheless – whereas the U.S.A., China and India increased their funding for science – Great Britain and other European countries in their general panic to reduce public deficit and debt, announced cuts in public investment in science and technology. In other words, although governments recognize the importance of these investments, they do not apply them. In this way they are risking the future of their country, since a reduction in funding today will lead to future lack of scientific expertise needed to boost economic growth.[businesses seem to agree already on this]Many British people noticed this paradox during the recent election campaign and their disagreement resulted in the “Science Vote” movement or «#scivote» if one is to use twitter terminology. But what is this movement? What were its aims? Did it succeed in British elections? What is its significance for Greece?

WHEN VOTES MET SCIENCE

Two months before the British elections of May 6th, most people would have bet on a victory of the Conservatives, a party that had made it clear in their manifesto and before the elections that they would promote the greatest and more immediate reductions in the budget for Science and Technology. Faced with this frightening scenario, natural and social scientists, science journalists, skeptics and bloggers united to bring for the first time in the center of discussions fundamental issues concerning science, such as funding, free speech, the importance of evidence-based policy, etc. This had never happened in any country.The first members of the «#scivote» movement, also could be called “science activists”, decided to turn any votes to “science votes” i.e. to inform the British public on the scientific policies of each party, in order to enable them to judge and vote for the party with the best science policy.The first to react was the non-profit organization “Campaign for Science and Technology” (CaSE), who on the 8th of March 2010, with the support of many major British scientists sent a letter in the Times to the political parties asking them to submit a detailed “scientific” manifesto.One day later, on March the 9th, the Royal Society of Chemistry organized the first “scientific debate” and first public debate in the House of Commons streamed live over the Internet. In this debate took part representatives from the three major parties. The Liberal Democratic Party was represented by Dr Evan Harris, a leading supporter of and perhaps on the most active politicians in science and technology issues for over a decade. For example, he was a supporter of the reform of libel law in the UK, which made a lot of scientists afraid of speaking in public about their research and their views, in case they were sued by large organisations whose interests were affected [as it happened with Simon Singh]. Of course, not everyone reacted positively to Dr. Evan Harris’s actions: extremists named him “Dr. Death”, because of his views on abortion, euthanasia, stem cells and animal experiments.These two events provided an initial impetus to the «#scivote» movement and, thanks to Twitter among other reasons, the movement quickly grew larger. Of particular help was that the Minister for Science, Lord Drayson, like many members of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, had a strong and constant presence on twitter. Therefore, through the use of new web tools, there has been over the past few months continuous and direct dialogue on issues of science policy because the views of the movement reached directly the ears of politicians.The voice of science activists was so strong that it even reached the media. Despite the heat of the election season, there was an increased focus on science in the press: in the last weeks before the election, Mark Henderson in the Times Eureka blog and Martin Robbins in the Guardian, wrote almost daily on scientific policy. The latter – together with five of the most famous British scientists – asked all political parties the same ten questions, so that British people are able to easily compare the science policies of the parties.After an election season with so many “firsts”, those who had bet on a clear victory of the conservatives were regretting it. Nick Clegg, the LibDem leader, had unexpected success in the television debates and in the polls the percentage of his party was increasing. This positive atmosphere gave hope to many members of the «#scivote» movement, since the LibDems were the party that understood the contribution of science and technology in the recovery from the crisis the best. Hence, the slogan «geek the vote, vote LibDems» was created.

THE DAY OF CRISIS

May 6th, 2010. Conservatives get 36.1% of the vote, Labour 29% and the LibDems 23%. As many feared there was a hung parliament, a result of “European style” as some people put it, which shocked Britain. Shocked was the «#scivote» movement as well. “Did we lose?” they whispered. “Were the polls so wrong? Did nobody read the articles we wrote in the press and online?”. Anyone would be thinking the same since at first glance the results actually looked like a “disaster”:

  1. The number of MPs who were in some way related to science and technology declined from 86 to 71 and only one of the old “science activists” would be present in the parliament. Of the remaining, some retired and others did not get elected. In the second category is Dr Evan Harris, one of the “leaders” of the movement, who lost for 176 votes.
  2. Secondly, the Liberal Democrats, the party that expresses best the beliefs of the «#scivote» movement, not only did not win seats as was expected from the very positive election exit polls, but lost five seats (out of the 62 that they had, they got only 57 seats in the recent elections).

Looking closer however, it revealed that the results are not as disastrous as they seem. It might be true that some of the previous MPs positive towards science did not get elected, but many of the newcomers also have a background related to science. The absence of Dr Evan Harris, remains really tragic however. Nor the LibDem performance was that disappointing: the share of votes did not fall as would be expected given the decrease in the number of seats, but increased from 22.1% in 2005 to 23% in 2010. The problem was the “First-Past-The-Post” electoral system, which is considered by many (among them the LibDems) as a system that does not represent what the public wants.

THE PUBLIC SPOKE BUT WHAT DID IT SAY?

For nearly five days after the election, Nick Clegg has negotiated with the two major parties so that they can agree on a coalition. Finally, on Tuesday, May the 11th it was announced that there would be a coalition between the LibDems and the Conservatives.The fact that the LibDems would be part of the government and therefore had some influence in the administration of the country, did not relieve science activists. Clegg would be able to negotiate only a few points in the coalition agreement between two parties. It would therefore be unlikely that one of them was science. Furthermore, the scientific policy of the Conservatives differ considerably from that of the LibDems, so it was even more unlikely to find a compromise so quickly. For example, the Conservatives support the creation of nuclear power plants, while the Liberals are completely opposed to it.All would be judged by the agreement between two parties, announced in the afternoon of Wednesday, May 12th, followed by the first public speech of the two leaders of the coalition. This agreement did not clarify at all the situation since it did not contain even once the word science. Instead, it resulted in new questions. “Why did they not mention science? Did they not discuss the issue or did they disagree on many points?” wondered members of the “#scivote” movement.Their hopes were not lost though. Key would be who would be chosen for the positions of Secretary of State for Enterprise, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and Science and Universities Minister.After almost a week of suspense for the «#scivote» movement, finally came some good news. First it was announced that Secretary of State for Enterprise, Innovation and Skills would be a LibDem, Dr Vince Cable, who has a degree in Natural Sciences from Cambridge University and a Ph.D. in Economics. Shortly afterwards it was announced that the Conservative David Willetts was appointed Minister of Science and Universities, also known as “two brains” because of his residing hairline, but also because of his cleverness. Willetts studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford University. This option was particularly welcome because Willetts had argued in 2007 that science had important role in all sectors of society and that it was essential for all members of the cabinet to appreciate the importance of science and technology in making policy decisions.

AND NOW WHAT?

The team Cable-Willetts was that best that science activists could hope given the current allocation of seats in the British Parliament. It is a great advantage that both ministers are members of the cabinet, and thus they will be able to express their views on science and other issues. An even greater advantage, however, is that the LibDem Dr Vince Cable will oversee Willetts, a smart Conservative, who is pro-science, who also had the respect of Chancellor George Osborne, the one who will approve all ministerial decisions in the new government. Therefore, the future of British science will be influenced by a team with good awareness of the state of science policy before they even begin, and who has the tools and the conditions to bring good science policy about.Of course not everything is perfect. Many would prefer an practicing scientist in the position of Minister of Science. Also, the movement did not agree with everything Cable and Willetts have said in the past. An important role will also play who will be the members of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology. There are many battles to be fought in the parliament and outside in order to even keep the British science at its current high level.The elections were only the beginning. The first battle in which no one can say with certainty whether the “science vote” movement lost or won. On the one hand, the elections reminded members of the movement that they remain a minority. That said, we they should be proud because, as the former Minister of Science Lord Drayson said “#scivote now has a real voice & influence in politics so keep it up! And support the next science minister whoever she/he is”.Now the “#scivote” movement should begin the important and urgent task of educating new MPs on scientific matters. Of convincing party members that science is more than one source of information and knowledge. That it is an important driver of the economy that will play a crucial attention to major issues such as energy independence, and that there should be strong support, even in times of economic cutbacks.Also, the movement should push for a system that will not be based solely on public funding, but also a “charity-capitalist” organizations, such as The Wellcome Trust, which by their nature are long-term strategy and ambitious and risky objectives which governments by their very nature could never be set.Furthermore, activists of science should not just preach to the believers. They should turn to those who have not had an interest so far for scientific policy, because only in this way there will changes in the way politics is practiced. Finally, they must convince the new Minister of Science and Universities to use twitter, in order to continue the constructive dialogue they had with the previous minister.If the “science vote” movement does not act in continuity and consistency, it is certain that science will be one of the areas most affected by the crisis, and thus there will be uncertainty for the future.But the important thing is that thanks to the science activists, for the first time in history science and technology became an election campaign issue. We must therefore ask ourselves what were the circumstances and why did this movement leave today the area of consensus and entered politics.Could such a phenomenon have been created in other countries, such as Greece?NOTE: some of the ideas/thoughts of this article were taken by the various articles I read. I will be linking to these articles in the next few days.

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