A quick and probably overly pessimistic look at why SciVote may have failed to have an impact.
Numbers, numbers, numbers…
I heart science. I do science for a living. Science and me can generally be found sitting in a tree, and up to no good. Science has been a source of constant fascination to me for as long as I can remember. Science and the science economy is doubtless immensely important to the UK economy as a whole.
But the efforts to mobilise the science vote for the LibDems on the 6th of May failed.
Not only did the LibDems lose seats, the peerless science advocate MP Dr Evan Harris was pipped to the post in Oxford West by 176 votes. All this whilst the more inane members of the tory party ( “Mad Nad” Dorries, Woo-devotee Tredinnick ) managed to keep their seats.
So why is this? An oft quoted figure for the potential impact of the scivote was the “3.3 million science and engineering votes”, bandied around by the New scientist. This seems like a decent number. Over half the total number of votes the LibDems got in 2005 [PDF] — it all seemed credible and feasible — 3.3 million votes to put behind the party with the best science policies would have an impact.
However, the lack of obvious science vote and the general Lib Dem fail have caused me have a bit of think about this 3.3 million figure.
In my 2nd year of biochemistry, we had some lectures on career choices. An interesting fact was that less than one third of biochemistry graduates go on to do research for a career, whether it be in academia or in industry A rather depressing fact is that more than 40% of Biochemistry graduates went into banking.
According to the ONS (link – .xls file) there are 3.3M “professionals” employed in the UK. Of these, 1.03M are in the STEM sector (Science Professionals, Engineering Professionals, ICT professionals). This suggests that that the 1/3 of biochemistry graduates going on to use their degree as intended is broadly replicated across STEM disciplines.
Just beacuse someone has a STEM degree, doesn’t mean that they do STEM for a living, or indeed that they might have a vested interest in STEM investment, or that STEM might be an important election issue for them.
According to the higher education statistics agency, there are 260,000 academic professionals (I think this means postdocs, fellows, lecturers, readers, professors) in the UK. Academics traditionally vote left-of-centre, with ~70% of them favouring Lib Dem or Labour (data from this 2001 THE piece – if anyone has more upto date info – please comment!).
So, based upon this, we have a group of 1M STEM workers, a good chunk of whom probably already vote for the Lib Dems or Labour. Sadly I am forced to conlcude that the SciVote initiative merely resulted in the shuffling of deck-chairs on the Lib/Lab titanic.
In order for SciVote to have an effect, it must reach beyond the scope of STEM workers, and into the general public. Publicity generated by high profile scientists, such as professors Cox, Hawking, Dawkins, and Al-Khalili could/should be used as a stepping off point to better engage the public in science – not just the “hey, look how brilliant science is” and the “wow! this looks ace” aspects, but the economic and social benefits of science [PDF].
Until this is done, the voter on the street is not going adjust their vote in order to benefit something in which he/she does not have a vested interest, or perhaps see an obvious and tangible return within the lifetime of a government.
SciVote must quickly engage with the new STEM recruits in the house of commons (full list here), and try and push STEM back up the political agenda as quickly as possible. This can and should be done in a cross-party manner, and irrespective of who has the keys for number 10. And as a matter of urgency.