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:
- 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.
- Scientists are experts: So are other people. And, as Martin Rees is fond of saying, all experts are depressing lay outside their own discipline.
- 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).
- 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.
- They are clever: Yep. Science careers and qualifications are a pretty good signal that you can tie your own shoelaces.
- 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).