Enough already with the doomsayers and demagogues. Support for research can be a powerful argument on the campaign trail.
Next year elections will be held in several major European countries, including France, Germany and the Netherlands. Yet as candidates from across the political spectrum hone their arguments, science is getting disappointingly little attention. Parties are clearly betting that it will be more effective to focus on hot-button issues like immigration and terrorism. People need to be reassured, politicians believe, and no election has ever been won by advocating support for research.
And yet… Bringing science to a political platform would provide any candidate with some powerful arguments. To begin with, laboratories are often the incubators of solutions to the challenges of modern life, notably when it comes to transport, the environment and healthcare. Promises of smoother travel, less urban air pollution and more effective cancer treatment may not wow the crowds, but they reflect the day-to-day and sometimes very private concerns of many citizens.
Candidates who openly favour support for research also stand to gain credibility compared to their rivals. Throughout Europe and North America voters are concerned about the growing prevalence of emotions over reason in the political discourse. Caving in to populist pressure, politicians simplify issues and vilify experts, depicting them as technocrats or even imposters. Alas, this plays well with some audiences even as a majority of voters realise that oratorical skills are no substitute for knowledge and competence.
In Germany, France and the Netherlands, along with Norway, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovenia, the major elections scheduled for 2017 will give candidates a chance to show which issues they truly master. Those who stand up for science – that is, on the side of reason – and bring respect for facts into the debate will develop an authoritative advantage over their populist opponents.
As always, economic arguments will weigh heavily. Both the right and the left emphasize, as they should, the importance of innovation to ensure growth and create the jobs of the future. But they could go a step further by championing research in a broader sense, especially the basic research that is often a fertile breeding ground for start-ups.
Contrary to the mythology, innovation rarely comes from an isolated individual’s “aha” moment. It is nurtured by people who share ideas, work together, join forces to fund those ideas and create an environment favourable to risk-taking. Candidates who aim to make their region or country more competitive would do well to position themselves on the side of researchers. Not only will they be more effective; they will also convey a much-needed positive image. European research is an incredible reservoir filled with human stories built on challenges, failures and perseverance that come together and culminate in concrete innovations. These inspiring stories can boost an election campaign and silence the doomsayers and demagogues.
By Pierre Grosjean