The European Elections are taking place this week, when millions of people will go to the polls to decide how they are represented in Europe. The European Parliament is a stage on which countless battles are played out, influencing aspects of our economy, law, judiciary, technology, environment, trade, culture, immigration, research, education, and many more. However, in the lead up to the elections, European politics have been eclipsed by the furore over our own MPs’ expenses. Those who with an appetite for political debate over Europe have been forced to subsist on the amuse-bouches of party political broadcasts and tedious jingoism.
When it comes to the Europe elections, only three issues seem to matter: immigration, immigration and immigration. Euro-sceptics, nationalists and outright racists use the election as a canvas on which to paint Goya-esque murals of the massed hordes of some plague-ridden medieval Eastern Europe beating a path to Britain. But these tired arguments only exist because they are pulled into centre view by the vacuum of public debate about our place in Europe and its relation to our lives. And it’s this lack of debate that breeds widespread apathy toward European elections. Twice as many people voted in the 2001 series of Big Brother than the 1999 election. Admittedly, it’s a lot easier to vote (and vote often) in Endemol’s election, but I can’t help wondering if this would still be the case if the European elections were given as much column space as Big Brother (or it’s current equivalent, Britain’s Got Talent).
To play a small part in remedying this, myself and fellow blogger Martin Robbins of the Lay Scientist decided to investigate the science policies of the major political parties, to see where they stood on issues such as stem cell research, environmental protection, energy security and alternative medicine. We drew up nine questions to be sent out to the press offices of UKIP, Labour, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, and the Green Party.
Recently a ship chartered by the British offices of a Dutch petroleum company illegally dumped tonnes of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast. The European Commission has proposed the creation of criminal sentences for “ecological crimes” – do you support this action?
Currently the EU imports over half of its energy. Recent disputes between Russia and it neighbours have highlighted Europe’s precarious dependency on these imports. What are your proposals for increasing energy security?
Current EU approaches to combating climate change include limits on carbon emissions, investments in alternative energy technologies, and carbon trading. Which of these would you prioritise and how else will you use a seat in the European Parliament to tackle climate change and its impact on the UK?
Although the EU distributes billions in research funding, the results are often locked in pay-for-access journals. How will you improve open access to publicly-funded research findings?
Last week Major Timothy Peake was selected as an astronaut for the European space programme. How important is continuing space research, particularly manned missions, and what role should Britain play in this process?
STEM CELL RESEARCH
It has been said that there are serious incompatibilities between member states on regulations governing stem cell research. How will you work to resolve these differences?
Do you believe that complementary and alternative medicine has a role in public health care, and do you believe it should be subjected to the same regulations as conventional medicine?
GM FOOD AND RESEARCH
The field of genetics has the potential to improve human health and nutrition, but many people are concerned about the effects of genetic modification both in humans and in agriculture. What is the right policy balance between the benefits of genetic advances and their potential risks?
In 2007, The REACH act came into force, addressing the potential harm to humans and the environment of all chemicals imported to and manufactured in the EU. Critics point out that this will require a significant increase in animal testing. How will you balance these concerns with the need to assess the safety of chemicals in our food and products?
Their responses were in equal parts good, bad, astonishing, surprising and informative. Did you know, for instance, that UKIP wish to overturn the most stringent laws on chemical safety ever created? Or that the Green Party are proposing legislation that would stop almost basic biological research in the UK if passed?
All of the people we questioned deserve a tremendous amount of praise for gathering together answers on such a wide spectrum of subjects. It wasn’t easy for them, often it wasn’t even clear who the questions should be addressed to. That this is the case, when we have been involved in wide-scale scientific endeavours with the European Union for over 20 years, is nothing short of a travesty. Science is at the centre of our lives, from the food that we eat to the cars we drive and the buildings we live in. That few of the parties could even point to a single manifesto of their attitudes toward science and how it should be carried out on a European stage is a terrible indication of our lack of interest in our own well-being.
Voters in the 2008 US presidential elections were able to make science a key issue in the race for the White House. Meanwhile, our own European parliament swims with Creationists, opponents of genetic science, and climate-change denialists, who are able to carry out their duties in the absence of rational, evidence-based policies because of our own disinterest. Remember, these are your MEPs, and if you don’t want to wake up in a year’s time to find a moratorium on stem cell research, Creationism in your classroom, unknown chemicals in your food, or crystal healing in your health service, it’s up to you to push science into the mainstream of political debate. Write to your MEP, ask questions of your political party, make your voice heard. Open democracy starts with you.