Science in Parliament (Part 2)

Following my post outlining the science credentials (or rather, the lack thereof) of the members of the House of Commons’ (HOC) Science and Technology Select Committee (STSC), I will continue on a similar tangent by providing a brief overview of the membership of the Energy and Climate Change committee (ECCC). This body is appointed by the Commons and serves to examine and scrutinise the operation, policy and expenditure of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), the government department responsible for addressing climate change and formulating energy policy and regulation in the UK. As with the STSC it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that many of the members of the ECCC would be drawn from MPs with a science background, either in the form of an academic qualification or from experience in a relevant field in the public or private sectors. Again, the credentials of its members make for some interesting reading.

The ECCC is comprised of 11 MPs and is chaired by Conservative Tim Yeo MP, who holds a MA in History from the University of Cambridge. Mr Yeo was a former cabinet minister for the Countryside and Environment in the government of John Major where he worked extensively on climate change policy before resigning amid revelations that he impregnated a Tory councillor in 1993. Joining Mr Yeo in the blue corner is Christopher Pincher, who has a BA in History from the London School of Economics, and Dr Phillip Lee, a former GP who studied Human Biology and Biological Anthropology at King’s College London and the University of Oxford, before studying Medicine at Imperial College.

Newly elected Tory MP Laura Sandys has a somewhat confusing repertoire of skills and experience, the details of which remain unclear, even on her website. After having completed an Open University ‘course’ (level unclear) in Environment and Development in 1993, she worked as a Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Defence Studies, King’s College London as well as the Ministry of Defence and also apparently as a journalist and policy strategist in Washington D.C. Former Soldier and Conservative MP Dan Byles has an equally impressive CV, including achievements as a mountaineer, polar explorer, sailor and as a double Guinness World Record holder. He has a BA in Economics and Management Studies from the University of Leeds.

Representing Labour are former welfare and employment officer at the Citizen’s Advice Bureau Robert Owen MP, who has a BA in Politics from York and Dr Barry Gardiner who has a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Cambridge, as well as degrees in philosophy from the University of St. Andrews and Harvard. They are joined by outspoken socialist Ian Lavery MP, who was a former head of the National Union of Mineworkers and has a HNC (Higher National Certificate) in Mining Engineering from New College Durham.   Labour MP for Glasgow Northwest John Robertson worked for British Telecom for 31 years, originally joining as an apprentice after leaving high school. He is, rather despairingly, also a supporter of the continued funding of homoeopathy by the NHS after signing an early day motion recently tabled by Tory MP and general crazy person David Tredinnick. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that homoeopathy is a fruitless and exploitative venture, even as far as alternative medicine goes, and there is no evidence that homoeopathic remedies perform any better than placebo. It holds therefore that the continued support of this industry by a MP, especially a member of the ECCC, is very worrying for the scientific community and rational individuals in the electorate alike.

Championing the increased use of sustainable energy, nuclear power and microgeneration is Labour MP Dr Alan Whitehead, who holds a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Southampton. Dr Whitehead has been instrumental in drafting a number of policies that are now incorporated into the Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Act 2006, including a requirement for the more effective compliance of building regulations for energy efficiency and the removal of the need to seek planning permission to construct microgeneration technologies on residential lots, including solar panels and small scale wind turbines.

So far, the members of the ECCC do not hold a single science degree amongst them (medicine excluded), although there is evidence that some MPs (Tim Yeo and Dr Alan Whitehead, for example) have some significant experience in the field of climate and energy policy and their influence on the direction of the ECCC is likely to be a positive one. Some others however seem completely unsuitable for a role on this committee, enter John Robertson MP, supporter of the very profitable and completely scientifically reprehensible sugar pill industry. It is also possible that the former head of the National Union of Mineworkers may experience a conflict of interest in when analysing the means for reducing our dependency on coal and other fossil fuels, although his influence in the extraction industry may prove valuable when difficult decisions on the fate of English and Welsh coal mines have to be made. Another possible conflict arises when considering the fact that Liberal Democrat Sir Robert Smith MP, who holds a degree in Mathematics, is also the joint vice-chair of the UK Offshore Oil and Gas Industry Group, a body with significant interest in maintaining the importance of oil and gas in energy generation as well as for domestic use. That said, the oil and gas industry are likely to be vital players in facilitating our transition to cleaner energy generation via improving technology and energy and resource extraction efficiency, and having member of their board in the ECCC is likely to improve relations and cooperation between oil companies and the architects of energy policy within the government.

So in conclusion, current or former scientists remain absent within the ECCC, despite the clear scientific remit of this committee. This is an uncomfortable situation, especially in light of the increasing evidence that more drastic action, grounded in scientific evidence, is almost certainly required to mitigate the worst of the effects of global climate change.

edit (13:51) : corrected some grammar and spelling mistakes.

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