Science in Parliament (Part I)

Science and technology are crucial pillars of any industrialised society. They serve the drive research and technological development in the public and private sectors, which increases the efficiency of the manufacturing, pharmaceutical, energy and infrastructural sectors and the economy in general. They also provide individual consumers with fascinating gadgets, computers and novel forms of transport, whilst also improving their quality of life via the medical and environmental sectors. Science seeks the know the unknown and unravel the tangled complexities of our world, hopefully providing answers and solutions to our tribulations and easing our anxiety of the undiscovered and unpredictable. A scientifically literate workforce is better equipped to deal with the demands of an increasingly digitised and globalised world, being more adaptable to new technology and more able to make informed, rational decisions firmly grounded in an intelligent and evidence-based approach. The UK can be proud of our strong reputation in the sciences and laud our many notable and erudite scientists, both past and present.

It holds therefore that the science and technology policy would be at the forefront of the political agenda in the UK and that many Members of Parliament (MPs) would be scientifically literate and actively or formally engaged in the practical application of science and technology in either the public or private sectors. It is to my despair that I have to conclude otherwise, and I intend to outline the disconnect between the architects of science policy in the UK’s most senior legislative bodies and their appropriateness for these roles in this and future posts.

Firstly, I turn my attention to the Science and Technology Select Committee (STSC) of the House of Commons. The STSC is comprised of 11 MPs drawn from three of the major parties (Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats) and its role is to scrutinise the findings of the Government Office for Science, an otherwise commendable body that serves to support the Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor John Beddington. It is therefore not unreasonable to expect that the STSC is made up of MPs with a background in science or technology, who have since become politicians. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the case.

The current members of the committee were selected on the 12th of July 2010 and the chair is Labour MP Andrew Miller. Mr Miller was a former laboratory technician in the Geology Department of Portsmouth Polytechnic, now the University of Portsmouth, after completing a diploma in Industrial Relations at the London School of Economics. Whilst not a published academic, at least Mr Miller has a background in science in the research sector. The same cannot be said for at least four of the members of the STSC, including Labour MPs Greg Claymont, who read History and Pamela Nash, who studied Politics, both at the University of Glasgow. Labour and Co-Op MP Jonathan Reynolds was a practising solicitor after obtaining a LLB from the BPP Law School Manchester campus. Perhaps the most extraordinary CV of all the members of the STSC belongs to Conservative MP David Morris, who trained as a hairdresser before owning his own salon, and then going on to become a successful songwriter alongside Pete Waterman. He also serves in the Royal Navy as part of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme and is a friend of Baywatch star and cult personality David Hasselhoff.

Treading the line between science and industry are Tory MP Stephan Metcalfe who runs a small printing company and Conservative Stephan McPartland MP, who has a BA in History from the University of Liverpool but also holds a masters degree in Technology Management from Liverpool John Moores University.

Nevertheless, there are a few science degrees to be found amongst the members of the STSC. Conservative MP Gavin Barwell holds a degree in Natural Sciences from Cambridge, but has never worked in science, whilst Liberal Democrat Roger Williams MP holds the same qualification and formally worked as a livestock farmer. Stephan Mosley studied Chemistry at the University of Nottingham whilst Labour MP Graham Stringer completed the same degree at Sheffield before becoming an analytical chemist in the plastic industry. He has since however openly attacked the frankly substantial medical evidence behind the diagnosis of dyslexia, calling it a ‘false condition’ and a ‘cruel fiction’ devised, in his eyes, by education chiefs attempting to disguise poor teaching methods. Accordingly, Mr Stringer’s appointment to the STSC is worrying, despite his previous scientific qualifications, as his vehement attack on a credible and well justified area of medical science may reveal his apparent inability to critically analyse evidence and come to rational conclusion.

Surely, a Science and Technology Select Committee that contains very few scientifically trained representatives can not scrutinise science policy effectively, especially if the legislation contains technically complex theories as atmospheric science, climate science and pollution analysis often do. Despite the fact that not a single member of the STSC has a background in astronomy, physics, mathematics or biology some of the STSC current inquiries include those into Astronomy and Particle Physics, the soon-to-be defunct Forensic Science Service and an inquiry into the availability of rare earth metals. These are extremely complex issues, requiring expert analysis and opinion from experienced scientists. Whilst I am certain that an arts degree provides most MPs with a myriad of useful skills in political debating, qualitative analysis and linguistic prowess, I feel very strongly that matters of science policy should be analysed by accordingly educated representatives to provide the most efficient and democratic return. An industrialised country with a strong science and technology sector and an impressive research reputation deserves representative science policy makers that are in touch with the concerns and visions of the members of these areas.

In future posts I plan to outline the membership of the Lord’s STSC, the Energy and Climate Change Committee and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, in the hope that the scientists-turned-politicians finally reveal themselves…

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