Wednesday, August 06, 2008

World Leaders Should Understand Science

Sometimes when I'm surfing I stumble across a factoid that I think will make an interesting post and I stash it away for later. With the US election season heating up, I've put new significance on the following tidbit: Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979-1990, was a chemist. According to Wikipedia:

Finishing school during the Second World War, she subsequently applied for a scholarship to attend Somerville College, Oxford and was only successful when the winning candidate dropped out. She went to Oxford in 1943 and studied Natural Sciences and specialised in Chemistry. She became President of the Oxford University Conservative Association in 1946, the third woman to hold the post. Thatcher graduated with a BA from Oxford in 1946 with Second Class Honours in Final Honours School. She subsequently studied crystallography and received a postgraduate B.Sc. degree in 1947. Her BA status was converted to MA by Oxford in 1950. Following graduation, Margaret Roberts moved to Colchester and worked as a research chemist for BX Plastics. During this time she joined the local Conservative Association and attended the party conference at Llandudno in 1948, as a representative of the University Graduate Conservative Association. She was also a member of the Association of Scientific Workers.
Her tutor at Oxford was Nobel prize-winning crystallographer Dorothy Hodgkin.

Reading Thatcher's bio it seems pretty clear that she was heavily involved in politics from at least her early 20s and that was likely always part of her long term plans. She first stood for election as a Member of Parliament in 1950 at the age of 25. At the time she was the youngest ever female Conservative candidate, and, even though she lost, it was the start of her long career in politics.

Did her science background affect her politics? It certainly gave her a different view of science issues than those currently in favor with American conservatives. In a 1988 speech to the Royal Society she talked about the importance of basic science:
It is mainly by unlocking nature's most basic secrets, whether it be about the structure of matter and the fundamental forces or about the nature of life itself, that we have been able to build the modern world. This is a world which is able to sustain far more people with a decent standard of life than Malthus and even thinkers of a few decades ago would have believed possible. It is not only material welfare. It is about access to the arts, no longer the preserve of the very few, which the gramophone, radio, colour photography, satellites and television have already brought, and which holography will transform further.

Of course, the nation as a whole must support the discovery of basic scientific knowledge through Government finance. But there are difficult choices and I should like to make just three points.[fo 2]

First, although basic science can have colossal economic rewards, they are totally unpredictable. And therefore the rewards cannot be judged by immediate results. Nevertheless the value of Faraday's work today must be higher than the capitalisation of all the shares on the Stock Exchange!

[. . .]

Second, no nation has unlimited funds, and it will have even less if it wastes them. A commitment to basic science cannot mean a blank cheque for everyone with—if I may put it colloquially—a bee in his bonnet. That would spread the honey too thinly.

So what projects to support? Politicians can't decide and heaven knows it is difficult enough for our own Advisory Body of Scientists to say yea or nay to the many applications. I have always had a great deal of sympathy for Max Perutz's view that we should be ready to support those teams, however small, which can demonstrate the intellectual flair and leadership which is driven by intense curiosity and dedication.

[. . .]

We accept that we cannot measure the value of the work by economic output but this is no argument for lack of careful management in the way specific projects are conducted. The money is not for top-heavy administration but for research.

[. . .]

My third point is that, despite an increase in the basic science budget of 15 per cent in real terms since 1979, the United Kingdom is only able to carry out a small proportion of the world's fundamental research and that of course is true of most countries.

It is therefore very important to encourage our own people to be aware of the work that is going on overseas and to come back here with their broadened outlook and new knowledge. It is also healthy to have overseas people working here.
In that same speech she also famously spoke about the human-related problems of global warming, the ozone hole and acid rain.

I don't know whether Thatcher's opinions on basic scientific research and the environment were effectively translated into public policy. And, while I don't care for Thatcher's politics beyond her support of science, it is in sharp contrast to the dismal use of science by the current Bush administration.

So, what about Bush's successor? While both McCain and Obama both apparently support (to some extent) the reduction in greenhouse gases and stem cell research, only Obama has come out with specific suggestions for the improvement of science, technology and mathematics education. However there are many science-related issues that have not been addressed by either candidate. That's why I strongly support Science Debate 2008.
"Given the many urgent scientific and technological challenges facing America and the rest of the world, the increasing need for accurate scientific information in political decision making, and the vital role scientific innovation plays in spurring economic growth and competitiveness, we call for a public debate in which the U.S. presidential candidates share their views on the issues of The Environment, Health and Medicine, and Science and Technology Policy."
And if the candidates are unwilling to have a debate focused on science (which appears to be the case), I support the efforts of Science Debate 2008 to get the candidates to submit answers to 14 important questions about science and technology.

As Thatcher said in 1988:
From my experience let me say this: in today's world it is no bad thing for a politician to have had the benefit of a scientific background. And not only politicians. [. . .]
Science and the pursuit of knowledge are given high priority by successful countries, not because they are a luxury which the
prosperous can afford; but because experience has taught us that knowledge and its effective use are vital to national prosperity and international standing.
(Thanks to Angela Jones for suggesting I blog about ScienceDebate2008)

Image: Margaret Thatcher in her mid-twenties, from the Margaret Thatcher Foundation web site.
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Cath@VWXYNot? said...

You know, as much as I'd like to admire a woman who was leader of her country AND a scientist, I can't, because it's Thatcher. I have a visceral hatred of the woman.

Peggy K said...

Understood. I was actually surprised by Thatcher's background, because I associate her with Ronald Reagan, and Reagan was absolutely no friend to science.

While I don't think a science background should be the only criterion by which a politician is judged, but I do think at least a willingness to learn about science is an important quality for a world leader.

Anonymous said...

If you are interested in another example of a politician who is also a scientist, and is more likable than Thatcher:
Angela Merkel, The current chancellor of Germany, has a PhD in physics.

Thanks for your blog, I really enjoy it, even though I usually only lurk.

Peggy K said...

Thanks for the tip anonymous!