How does science influence politics?
A review of David Cannadine’s biography of Margaret Thatcher, the UK’s first woman prime minister, describes how her background in science, as well as her gender, set her apart. “No skimming of great books from the canon in PPE for her: chemistry was a proper subject, evidence based,” writes William Waldegrave in his review for The Daily Telegraph. Waldergrave served a junior minister in Thatcher’s government before she resigned in 1990.
Thatcher, who worked industry as a research chemist after graduating, was reportedly more proud of being the first UK prime minister with a science degree than she was of being the first female to enter Downing Street. David Payne examines how science influenced Thatcher’s politics, and looks at the interface between science and politics and its coverage in Nature’s careers section.
In his 2013 obituary for Popular Science, Colin Lecher points out that other obituary-writers did not examine Thatcher’s scientific background. The topic was seldom explored during her lifetime. Thatcher, scientist, a 2010 paper by Jon Agar, published in Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, is a notable exception.
Agar, professor of science and technology studies at University College London, points to a 1971 policy during her time as Education Secretary, when she controversially ruled that market forces should play a part in government funding of science. In Agar’s view, “it was precisely because Thatcher knew what scientific research was like that made her impervious to claims that science was a special case, with special features and incapable of being understood by outsiders, and therefore that science policy should be left in the hands of scientists.”
He adds: “Such a strategy of persuasion and protection might have considerable purchase on a science minister with no direct experience of the working life of a scientist, but not Thatcher.”
It is tempting to speculate how Thatcher might have related to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who earned a doctorate for her thesis on quantum chemistry and who worked as a researcher before her political career took off.
And how might Thatcher and Trump have hit it off? Ronald Reagan, US President at the time of Thatcher’s premiership, enjoyed a warm relationship with her, and, like Trump, expressed apparent disdain for scientific evidence, particularly if you consider his silence on the AIDS epidemic. But it is hard to imagine Thatcher questioning vaccine safety, as Trump reportedly now is. The incoming US President’s planned commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity has set scientific alarm bells ringing. An editorial in Nature warns: “There is no need to wait for this commission to be announced officially… Scientists should get their retaliation in first. Live are at stake.”
It urges scientists to return to the fray. Some are already there. Last week in Nature Careers we examined “post truth” and how scientists should negotiate a new world order where objective facts and evidence can be lost in the noise generated by direct appeals to emotion, sentiment and deeply held personal beliefs. We interviewed three experts who advocate for science in their local communities. There is also a profile of stem cell researcher Karen Ring, who started the @SciParty group to discuss how scientists can do public outreach better.
Some scientists follow Thatcher by taking a more direct route into frontline local or national politics. In November 2016 we interviewed nanophysicist Michael Stopa, who served as a delegate for Trump at the 2016 Republican National Convention, and other scientists.
But they are few and far between. As Waldegrave notes in his book review: “There are still few proper scientists than there are women in the House of Commons and many more PPE graduates than either.”
David Payne is chief careers editor, Nature.