Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Science for progress

This article is part of a series of articles written by candidates for the Progress strategy board elections. The publishing of this article is not an endorsement of the candidate. You can read Martin Yuille’s candidate statement here

With the scientific challenges of the future on our doorstep, true progressive politics will require a coalition of ordinary people and experts, writes Martin Yuille

Let’s be frank. Most of us just pay lip service to science. When it comes to scientists, we listen politely and perhaps quizzically to their enigmatic utterances. And then we get on with day-to-day business, whether by earning our keep or campaigning for the Labour party – or both.

Only rarely has the practice of, and choices in, scientific research impinged directly on our everyday lives. We see the new widgets in the shops. We may even benefit from new medicines. But these are the finished tangible products of research. They seem separate from the abstruse language, obscure questions and byzantine processes of research itself.

But not now. The two most pressing problems facing humanity today – global warming and the epidemics in avoidable chronic diseases like common diabetes – can only be solved if research steps full-square into the public arena. That means researchers stepping into – or, more likely, forcing their way into – the hurly-burly of politics, ideology, economics and of societal change.

‘Research in the public arena’ has a name: action research. It refers to researching a problem not in the seclusion and safety of a lab but in the real world with real people with real consequences.

You can see that it has started. To end global warming, vast experiments are underway with, for example, wind turbines and solar panels. This is a research experiment that affects us all and that may affect the climate. The questions that the experiment asks include: does the construction, deployment, maintenance and decommissioning of turbines and panels really stop carbon emissions; can we do it better?

This immediately takes climate researchers into the political maelstrom, with climate change deniers hoping that the experiments all fail. Or that ‘the climate may change back again’ as Donald Trump, the erudite philosopher-president, hopes.

When it comes to the pressing problem of human health, researchers have accumulated as much data as anyone could wish demonstrating that there is a global epidemic in obesity and its associated life-threatening diseases that include type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Epidemiologists put this epidemic down to a change in humanity’s way of life, a change that has sneaked up on us due to technological progress – whose consequences for health we all largely ignored.

Accumulating masses of data is one thing. But action is another. Timid efforts at ending the epidemics have failed, as the data demonstrates. The conventional public health approaches of public education and legislation have been inadequate, as the data demonstrates.

The only way left to us is a change in humanity’s way of life, in the way of life of entire societies. And that change is not only through action research; it is simultaneously through progressive politics, ideology and economics.

To put it another way, progress requires the commitment of ordinary people as well as those with specialist knowledge. However that specialist knowledge is not just in politics, philosophy and economics. It now has to include the sciences as well.

That means that our Labour party and organisations such as Progress need a cultural revolution. We need to start waving not faded Little Red Books, but our latest laboratory notebooks.

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Martin Yuille is a candidate in the Progress strategy board elections. You can read his candidate statement here

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Martin Yuille

is a member of Withington constituency Labour party

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