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Do we need more scientists in Parliament?

Posted by on November 12, 2012

ParliamentHaralambos Dayantis blogs about the Society of Biology’s upcoming debate on ‘do we need more scientists in Parliament?’

The first #policylates event at Charles Darwin House is only a few weeks away, where panellists will be discussing whether we need more people with STEM backgrounds in Parliament. The issue has already generated some discussion on the Psci-Com mailing list, and various debates in Parliament have touched upon the issue.

In a debate on cuts to the House of Commons’ operational costs on the 8th November, Adam Afriyie MP argued against cuts to the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) of which he is chair. Supporting Afriyie’s defence of POST, Andrew Miller MP (chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee) noted the importance of scientific advice in Parliament:

“There are hugely important challenges that none of us, whatever our backgrounds, are properly equipped to deal with. Even if one was, in a previous life, working in a STEM background, one inevitably falls behind when one spends any time in here.”

Miller also drew attention to a meeting of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee which is to be held on the 27th November, just two days before the #policylates debate. The meeting will bring in experts to address the issue of ash dieback in the UK, a significant growing problem. On the 29th itself, the Lords will be discussing the contribution of nuclear power to UK energy policy and the transposition of EU Directive 2010/63 into UK law, which relates to the welfare of animals used in scientific research.

With so many fundamentally scientific issues being debated in both Houses, it’s easy to see why some people are concerned by the lack of STEM-trained Parliamentarians. Although registration for the #policylates debate is now full, anyone who was unable to get a ticket can still share their views in the comments below and vote in the poll. You can also discuss the issue using the #policylates hashtag on Twitter, and the Twitter handles of the organisers and panellists are listed below. We will be live tweeting during the event (7pm on 29th November).


Society of Biology (@Society_Biology) and Haralambos Dayantis (@HCDayantis), co-organisers
Dr Jennifer Rohn (@JennyRohn) and Dr Phillip Lee MP (@DrPhillipLeeMP), who argue for the motion that we need more STEM-trained Parliamentarians
Dr Evan Harris (@DrEvanHarris) and Dr Jack Stilgoe (@JackStilgoe), who argue against the motion

7 Responses to Do we need more scientists in Parliament?

  1. Pooja

    First and foremost how a scientific mind works, this mind works as an unbiased observer, it’s free of ideology and vested interest. Can “any person” with this quality of mind become a good politician? I feel YES. The other point for this debate is because STEM throughout the world is weighed on lower scale, does “this” thinking need a radical change? If so how? Who are the audience? Audience is public including politicians. How can we bring about awareness among people? For this the STEM should first break the division within itself, join together, collaborate and reach out widely. Another question which triggers is by incorporating more scientists in parliament will they still maintain the serenity of their minds (which is very crucial) or is there a possibility of their change in thinking and following the herds (which is very likely to happen)? Can scientists (STEM) conduct regular programs for the politicians (despite their qualification) to help them maintaining the quality mind of thinking scientifically?

  2. admin

    We have produced a podcast in the run up to our first #policylates debate – Do we need more scientists in Parliament? Have a listen and give us your views

  3. Richard Campen

    In many ways it would be helpful to have more scientists in parliament, but I also agree with Michael’s comment about politicians needing to be more interested in science. However, there are often problems with scientific evidence that appears not to give the ‘right answer’ in relation to policy, and of scientific processes and conclusions that take longer than the short-term political (and then business) cycles. We also know of examples where politicians appear to ignore evidence presented by special advisers (BSE). To be fair to politicians, science most often does not have definitive answers (the ‘process’ aspect I referred to earlier), so without scientific training and understanding, they are forced to make decisions anyway as part of the business of being a politician (ie to deliver idealogies and policies, or to be seen to be doing something at least). This issue extends also to other stakeholders and the wider public. Ideally, what we need is closer working between the fields of science, social science and psychology. I say this because of our human ‘condition’ as social animals and the ways we think (imagined futures) and try to understand reality, and how we make decisions. Also, we share narratives – part of being social. I don’t know how we achieve this blend, but artificial and polarised role definition does not help. Science needs to be fully a part of social development.

  4. Michael Kenward

    While it would be nice to have more scientists in parliament, it might be better to focus on something more easily achieved. It would help to have more MPs who are interested in science and willing to understand a bit about how it works. You know, that evidence gathering business.

    One of the most scientifically alert MPs over the past half century was Tam Dalyell, who wrote a weekly column in New Scientist for many years. He was no scientist. Nor is David Willetts, who also knows his atom from his elbow.

    Ian Taylor, an earlier MP who became infected as a minister for science, has a degree in Economics, Politics and Modern History. He is now Chairman of the National Space Academy Steering Group.

    Even lawyers can become interested in science and can fight its corner. They just need to be “turned”.

    As it is, we have government health ministers who seem to think that homeopathy is a neat thing for the NHS to provide.

    Let’s have more science in parliament. But with people like Michael Gove thinking that it is some sort of communist plot to ask for “evidence” to support policies, don’t hold your breath.

  5. Michael Viggars

    Scientists demonstrate many skills that could benefit policy-making. They are trained to be as objective and as critical as is humanly possible which are skills that many would argue are lacking in politicians. This I feel is another issue entirely however.

    Interpreting academic literature is a tedious process and unless trained to do so one will never understand the full picture. Evaluating the outcome of a study is one thing but analysing the research methods and searching for a conflict(s) of interest is just as important. These are high-level skills that require a great deal of thought and research and should not be left to the ill-equipped.

    Science and scientists should be embraced in parliament in respected advisory roles. Politicians should act as mediators, gathering all the relevant information and making an informed decision. We live in a modern and evolving world and decisions cannot and should not be made on subjective “hunches”, “gut-feelings” or simply because one population throws a hissy fit. Everyone should be working towards an evidence-based future.

  6. Rebecca Nesbit

    Many policy decisions are based on scientific evidence, so it is clearly important that MPs have an understanding of science, and a trust in the advice scientists are giving them. It stands to reason that MPs are more likely to have these attributes if they have at least a degree in science. But qualifications aren’t the only way to learn about science and nor are they a guarantee that people will make decisions based on sound evidence.

    The lack of diversity in MPs’ backgrounds is widely acknowledged to be a problem, and this particularly shows at the top. Why put someone in charge of education if they have never worked as an education professional?

    We should of course be asking ourselves whether there is any evidence that scientists make better policy decisions (and better shouldn’t just be defines as ‘policy decisions that scientists like’). But how do you prove or disprove a scientists make better decisions hypothesis?

    • Emily

      I think the major problem is that many policy decisions are in fact NOT based on scientific evidence.

      I have spoken to numerous individuals who have worked with government or are civil servants. It seems the trend is policy first, then evidence second. Depressingly, I hear it is common for individuals to have their evidence/report dismissed because it doesn’t “fit” with the policy the government wants to push (I guess this gets reported in the press, too). How evidence gathering seems to working within government is, “I want to implement this policy, can you find me some evidence to support it.”

      This is why we need more scientific minds in parliament. We need people who understand that’s not how science works. Science is there to help the government make informed policy decisions, and it’s a shame how it is currently neglected.

      The academics I’ve had the pleasure of talking to (who’d worked with or within government) say that it is much easier to work with MPs who understand how science works, as they do not dismiss the evidence just because it does not match their “gut feeling”.