Record low numbers voted in the European Union’s parliamentary elections last week and the center-right European People’s Party expanded its plurality in the European Parliament. In Eastern European countries, where voters should arguably be chomping at the bit for some democratic action, voter turnout was lowest, with only 19.64 percent in Slovakia, 28 percent in Slovenia and the Czech Republic, and just more than 36 percent in Hungary, substantially lower in each case than the turnout in the latest national elections. Some political analysts pegged voter apathy to the recession, but the turnout was only a few percentage points lower that the 45.5 percent who turned out to the polls for the last European election in 2004. The clear indication is that voters don’t understand the EU’s relevance to their lives, lack a clear sense of its powers, or just don’t care.
For those that care about science in Europe and abroad, there is an equal amount of head-scratching about what newly elected members of the European Parliament (MEPs) mean for research and development, environmental policy, energy use, stem cells, spaceflight, and more. These issues were scantly mentioned during the campaigns, and many of the center-right and fringe parties that gained in the election don’t have developed platforms on science. In the United Kingdom, Frank Swain of sciencepunk.com and Martin Robbins of layscience.net tried to fill part of that gap in The Guardian just days before the elections. The pair interviewed representatives from five political parties in the UK (UK Independence Party, Labor, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, and the Greens) about their positions on environment, energy, climate change, open access, space, stem cell research, alternative medicine, genetically modified food and research, and chemical safety, then ran the responses on their blogs. The results were underwhelming.
As James Wilsdon explains in this podcast, the big question for supporters of science is how much emphasis the newly elected Parliament will place “on science and research within a broader response to recession.” Another big event on the Parliament’s horizon is the Irish vote, due to be held by October of this year, to ratify the Lisbon Treaty, which would give the MEPs more power relative to the European Commission and the Council of Ministers. The new Parliament will also play a key role in shaping the EU’s new Framework Program for Research and Technological Development, the multi-billion-euro plan for research that is renegotiated every few years and will shape negotiations on an international agreement on global warming. However little either voters or MEPs care about science, the EU has an integral role in shaping science policy. The challenge will be in figuring out how science can engage the new MEPs.
Originally published June 12, 2009