Should there be more scientists in parliament?

Last night, I was part of a panel with Evan Harris, Philip Lee MP and Jenny Rohn, (chaired by labour science spokeswoman Chi Onwurah) on the question of whether we need more scientists in parliament. I was with Evan Harris on the ‘no’ side or rather the ‘let’s focus on the things that matter’ side.

My opening thoughts were along these lines:

I like scientists. Some of my best friends are scientists. And I wouldn’t for a second suggest that we cull those few scientists that we do have in parliament. I just think that this is rather a confused and not hugely important debate. When people demand more scientists in parliament, there is typically a mass of not-very-good motivations. I can think of six:

  1. Representation: Parliament should look like the population it purports to represent. If there were no scientists in parliament, that would be a shame, but there are other areas of diversity that we should worry about more.
  2. Scientists are experts: So are other people. And, as Martin Rees is fond of saying, all experts are depressing lay outside their own discipline.
  3. There is something particularly beneficial about the scientific way of thinking: Scientists may be open-minded, sceptical and evidence-based in some ways, but in other ways they are not. Scientific reductionism may indeed be a hindrance rather than a help in the messy world of politics. (Evan Harris and I agreed later that the tendency for some scientists to assert authority over debates outside their direct expertise is a big problem – Harris accused Lee of doing just this in what we might call Doughnutgate. Lee insisted he was misquoted).
  4. They stick up for science: The assumption here is that scientists understand the public value of science in ways that others do not. No evidence that this is true. Indeed, my experience is that scientists are likely to support funding for particular sorts of science and be relatively unsympathetic when it comes to others sorts, such as strategic, departmental research and development. And there are countless other areas of spending – e.g. investment in the creative industries, that are hugely strategically important and under-appreciated.
  5. They are clever: Yep. Science careers and qualifications are a pretty good signal that you can tie your own shoelaces.
  6. They are nice, progressive and probably left-wing. Sounds trite, but I suspect this reason is behind many people’s arguments.

The major point, however, is that putting pressure on individual scientists in parliament (or even in departments in the case of CSAs) may distract from the big problem, the threadbare policy institutions that are supposed to make sense of science on our behalf. There are big science policy debates to be had. Important quangos such as the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, the Sustainable Development C0mmission and the Food Standards Agency have been bonfired or singed. The Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology just escaped potentially-disastrous cuts. And the case for continued investment in public science has still not been won.

Which brings me to my other story.

In his opening remarks, Philip Lee mentioned his admiration for Charles Darwin. He particularly celebrated how, unlike other great Britons such as Churchill and Brunel, he didn’t “spend other people’s money”. So far so Tory. I picked him up on this, unfairly, given that it was a throwaway line, reminding him that Darwin was lucky to be rich enough to support his own research . I expressed my concern that his disdain for public spending pointed towards a bleak vision of a ‘Big Society science policy’. He took the bait and extended his argument. He described the importance of private funding for science is (indeed it is), before rhetorically asking whether great scientists such as Jenner, Fleming, Watson and Crick were funded from the public purse. If you’re going to ask rhetorical questions, you need to know the answers, which are, respectively: no, because he, like Darwin predated the professionalisation of science; yes, as a university professor and by the Medical Research Council; same again.

If I had been in the audience, I would have been more concerned by this poor understanding of the basis for science policy and its potential implications for the spending review than by the number of scientists we have in parliament.

(Incidentally, before the event, there was an online vote. 96% of people agreed that we needed more scientists in parliament. Evan Harris and I were confident that we could dent this rather Zimbabwean level of support. I think we got it down to about 60%, looking at the show of hands. A victory of sorts, certainly if viewed through lib-dem-tinted spectacles).

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About Jack Stilgoe

Jack Stilgoe is a lecturer in science policy at the department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London.
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14 Responses to Should there be more scientists in parliament?

  1. I, for one, was concerned by the cheap and utterly irrelevant political point-scoring with regard to renewables and nuclear power. Especially when said points were scored by misquoting absent government advisers.

  2. Steve McGann says:

    Jack,
    Great to meet you last night, and a really interesting debate – and subsequent blog.
    Two things stay with me. First, the sight of exemplar ‘politicians from a scientific background’ demonstrating exactly how – despite background – one can stray wildly off a debate agenda and adopt highly subjective or party-political positions using selective evidence! How does placing more of this specific demographic in Parliament guarantee more ‘scientific’ approaches to policy debate?
    Second, there seems to be a wilful refusal by some to acknowledge the huge infrastructural investment by the state towards any private enterprise. Not simply the scientific education of its workforce and research funding, but the transport systems that carry a pharmaceutical giant’s products to market, or the taxpayer funds that underpin spending on sectors like defence, and thus sustain private ‘innovation’. Added to this is surely the (publicly funded) teaching of the ‘scientific way of thinking.’ How else would we possibly develop our future ‘parliamentary scientists’? Was Philip Lee’s long medical education and career funded entirely out of private (non-NHS) work?

  3. I totally agree with you Jack, nicely put. It smacks to me of old fashion, not very well disguised, lobbying sometimes.

    However as you have also said, we REALLY need more MPs, civil servants and policy makers wherever they sit, who have had real jobs in the real world. They may indeed be scientists, but its important to see more of a spread from every type of skill set, demographic, region etc.

  4. I think its fair to say that more science is needed in parliament- not so that UK science is preferentially treated over other areas of the economy and society, but so that evidence-based decision making can become more prevalent. Having more scientists as MPs/Lords may be a way of achieving this but scientists, as people, will have the same attributes, good and bad, as those from any other background.

    What HoP does need, as Hilary states above, is a greater mix of experiences and backgrounds. The science in politics debate is often framed around an academic view of science, scientists and scientific thinking but it must not be forgotten that most scientists in the UK work in industry, business and the commercial sector. If governments truly believe that science and technology can be the bedrock of our future economy, it is the experience of professionals in these sectors, as well as academia, that are critical. Its not just scientific-thinking but knowledge of the science-using industries that is important.

  5. William CB says:

    Well it is not as if the status quo is great. Commons is being colonised by a clone army of career politicians. Scientists may not be ‘the answer’ but maybe they could be part of the answer.

  6. simondenegri says:

    Every sector thinks they are under-represented in parliament. And having more scientists in parliament would of course be a good idea. But it won’t solve the challenges around science, political debate and policy that were the subject of debate last night by the sounds.

    Last time I looked, the parliamentary resources that MPs can draw, and are provided with, are generally woeful compared to somewhere like the US Congress. Things like the recent POST budget campaign, while a cause for celebration, are also a symbol for how low our ambitions are to better equip parliamentarians. Roll on the parliamentary equivalent of the Science Media Centre.

    • I wouldn’t say the House lacks scientific resources, the problem is when Parliamentarians fail to use them. The Library provides excellent services, as do special advisers to committees etc.

  7. Jack Stilgoe says:

    Thanks all for some fascinating comments. Just quickly, I take all the points about scientists and diversity. But I side with Simon D, who points to the woeful inadequacy of current institutions. The HoC library and POST are good resources, but we are talking about something more important – not just informing the legislature but making sense of science throughout government and its agencies. By the time things reach parliament, it’s often too late.

  8. Scott Findlay says:

    Dear Mr. Stilgoe (et al.),

    Parliament may not need any more folks who are, by vocation, scientists. But it desperately needs folks who apply the (or possibly a, depending on one’s view) scientific method to the problems that parliamentarians wrestle with. And in particular, it needs (avocational or vocational) scientists who understand that all science is impregnated with normative elements (there are, alas, many scientists who labour under the delusion that science was conceived immaculately – normatively speaking, I mean). The signal failure of many people – including some very good scientists – to appreciate this has often landed us in the scientific soup.

    As Mr. Taylor points out in his post, of course scientists come with baggage. But then again, who doesn’t?

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  12. I do not agree that politicians must be representative of the population they purport to serve – we would need some kind of quota system to achieve this. Who would decide how to categorise representative groups? Which facet of a politician’s identity would be seen as preeminent: gender, educational background, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation?

    I would like to see more scientists in parliament, but this stems from a general desire to see politicians entering parliament from a greater variety of backgrounds. Our current cabinet is overstuffed with Oxford PPE graduates and does not feature even one MP with a background in science (unless you consider agricultural college scientific training – Patrick McLoughlin, Secretary of State for Transport).

    Whatever background an MP might have, I just need them to fight my corner and make this country a great place to live for all its citizens.

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