The future of science in Parliament

22 November 2010


Reported by Briony Bowe (CSaP Intern September 2010).

Science can, should and often does play a critical role in Parliament. And when you consider what Parliament does - make laws and scrutinise Government – that is an important statement. To discuss science in Parliament, we invited Dr Evan Harris and Dr Julian Huppert to deliver our fourth Distinguished Lecture. Click the link below to view the lecture, chaired by David Cleevely.

The Centre welcomed a packed lecture theatre of students academics and industry and policy representatives to its fourth Distinguished Lecture given by Dr Evan Harris former MP for Oxford West and Abingdon and Dr Julian Huppert MP for Cambridge. Together they gave an engaging and insightful talk about the role of science in Parliament. Drawing on their combined experience as two of the strongest Parliamentary science advocates over the past decade they discussed the developments that have already been made the problems that are still faced and some ideas to overcome these problems.

Dr Harris addressed the state of science in Parliament and policy. He applauded the changes we have already seen regarding a shift towards evidence based policy whilst looking at what more work is needed.

Addressing the question of whether the treatment and opinion of science as a discipline has improved in Parliament Dr Harris suggested that whilst a move to evidence based policy has been beneficial it brings with it risks. He cited examples of politicians misunderstanding misusing and in some cases abusing science in the justification of policy. Despite these worrying cases the introduction of the Statistics Authority demonstrates a welcome move towards reducing the misuse of statistics.

Dr Harris voiced his particular fear of “evidence based policy” becoming a rhetorical stamp rather than a statement of genuine policy procedure. To mitigate against this he suggested there is a need for scientists to be on hand to critique political statements in the manner of the Statistics Authority.

Turning to progress that has already been made Dr Harris cited the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee as a pioneer with two reports in particular making their mark. The report on abortion explained for the first time in Parliament why greater emphasis should be given to peer-reviewed scientific journals and also instigated the practice of requiring people to declare their interests when giving evidence to a Select Committee. The report on homoeopathy went further and set a standard for Parliament in terms of judging the quality of different sorts of evidence.

Concluding Dr Harris encouraged scientists and grass-roots campaigners to continue with the assertive and co-ordinated approach which has scored some notable successes and to go on standing their ground on matters of science policy and evidence in policy. He suggested that while more scientists in Parliament may be beneficial the focus should be on ensuring that as many politicians as possible attain an understanding of the scientific processes. He argued that it is the science community’s responsibility to persuade politicians to take advice where evidence comes into play and if not to at least respect the scientific method and know that there is a price to pay for getting things wrong.

Dr Huppert one of only two Members of the House of Commons possessing a science PhD gave a frank characterisation of the range of Parliamentary attitudes towards science. He divided Members of Parliament into three camps: those who understand science; those who do not; and those who are actively anti-science. Against this representation he discussed examples where science has been sidelined; for example despite recommendations from the Science and Technology Committee and the Government Chief Scientific Adviser the Health Secretary has pledged continued government funding for homeopathic hospitals and remedies.

Moving on to the Budget Dr Huppert argued that the flat cash science budget was in the context of the threatened cuts a good result. He argued that the scientific community’s co-ordinated clear and well-evidenced message on the value of science to the economy was well heard and played a vital role in the eventual decision.

Briefly covering a wider range of concerns Dr Huppert stressed how important it is to consider the cycle of poor teachers contributing to a lack of science university students and hence a future shortage of well qualified science teachers. He also urged caution when looking at the cap on immigration of skilled workers suggesting this may negatively impact on research teaching and the supply of international students.

He concluded with a message that progress is being made. Government understands the strategic importance of both science and innovation to the current and future economy. He highlighted the need to turn great knowledge into great products which then feed back into the economy. It is necessary he said to make sure science counts and is heard with politicians and journalists knowing who to ask and that there is a scientific community available to provide the knowledge they need.

The talks were followed by a lively question and answer session ranging across issues such as science careers the media government science advisers and science training for MPs. The grand conclusion was that we are on the right track but that we will never have an overwhelmingly scientific Parliament. The best way forward is to ensure as many politicians as possible understand the scientific method and if not that they will seek advice.

Banner image: Parliament by Simon Bleasdale