The Swedish Society of Parliamentarians & Scientists, Rifo, was founded in 1959. The publication presents a series of snapshots from half a century of activities intending to better inform MPs on future issues of importance emanating from science, getting scientists better to understand how political decision-making may affect their activities as well as pondering the eventual social outcomes from their research. Furthermore, Rifo brings together scientists from domains otherwise rarely intersecting.
Formally, Rifo is a society of individuals, a club where members are accepted only on applications granted by the Board. The Board consists of members from all (currently seven) political parties represented in Parliament, and five scientists. Rifo gets some economic and material support from the Swedish Parliament, the Riksdag, from which it is independent. Working within a purely party-political body, Rifo stays above and outside party politics, subscribing to no particular scientific outlook or methods family. There are few counterparts in other countries: one in Finland was created by inspiration from Rifo, and one in Britain that works along roughly similar lines.
Rifo was inspired by the insights, productive personal contacts, and concrete results gained from study trips bringing together Parliamentarians and scientists under the auspices of the then-Swedish Board for Applied Research during the 1950’s. By force, travelling was by train so there was ample time for productive informal contacts. A work group prepared the Society to be, and a Founding Assembly was called for on the 4 of February 1959.
Study tours continued to be an intermittent activity, though the most frequent ones have always been meetings in various forms: seminars, hearings, conferences, coffee talks, and breakfasts. Study visits have proven particularly attractive. During each of the last ten years, a Nobel laureate addresses Rifo in the days after receiving her or his prize. Late autumn each year, the Royal Swedish Academy hosts a buffet dinner preceded by some ten introductions to the year’s most important scientific and technical breakthroughs, each lasting 2-7 minutes, together with a somewhat longer policy discourse by the Academy’s president. This has turned out to be a very successful format – providing a rewarding content. Another type of activity is study-groups made up of MPs as well as scientists.
Their themes as well as those of the meetings reflect concerns related to science and society, with a view to bring up items so early that they have not yet entered the domain of party politics. Thus science policy was a recurrent theme early on during a period when in Sweden such policy was still in its formative years. Space research was another early theme, recurring recently. Energy, environmental, and climate change problems seem to be perennial while Rifo identified HIV/AIDS and also issues related to genome research early on. Science applied to the needs of developing countries was discussed – in Rifo’s first year – much before any such research had been established in Sweden.
Various initiatives emerged out of Rifo activities, some indirectly or not easily attributed to the Society only. The Audiology laboratory, a division of the Karolinska Institute (a medical one) located to the Royal Institute of Technology, itself an original solution, came out of meetings and deliberations within Rifo, resulting in motions in Parliament by members of the Rifo Board. All Rifo Board MPs also signed a motion on science policy in the mid 1960’s, a motion pitted against the government’s bill, causing a sensation when the bill was defeated in the Lower House (the Swedish Parliament then had two houses); the bill survived on the merit of winning the Upper House vote.
For almost four decades, the Society published an even less than un-assuming science brief, Rifo-Nytt or Rifo News. The early years saw it devoted mostly to science policy; later ambition grew to encompass important general science and technology breakthroughs with a potential impact on society. In the final years, sources swung from international science journals to Swedish efforts to popularization, thus foreshadowing the publication’s eventual demise in an environment of a beginning deluge of popular science information rather than the dearth forty years previously.
The backbone of the publication is a conversation between seasoned Rifo Board members on the Society and its development trajectory. Society and Parliamentary life have changed profoundly during Rifo’s lifetime. In 1959, scientists constituted a small, intimate circle; certainly those concerned with science policy did. The role of politicians has also undergone tremendous shifts: media are much more demanding, time pressure much more imminent. MPs receive a vast amount of invitations to potentially interesting and rewarding activities: how to compete for time and attention? But the current glut of information has not made the Society superfluous, though demands are a-changing: how to sort, sift, and evaluate the contents of the flood of information just too easily available?