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Scientists do it better?

On the 29th of November, I went to a debate posing the question, ‘Do we need more scientists in parliament?’ The first in a new series of debates about policy hosted by the Society of Biology was fully booked, heralding a positive future for the series. Haralambos Dayantis, Science Communication graduate from Imperial College, organised the debate after exploring the subject for his dissertation and finding that many questions were yet to be answered. Given that the event was fully booked from early on, it seems that others are also keen to discuss the topic. An online poll conducted by the Society of Biology prior to the event was a landslide of 96% voting in favour of more scientists in parliament. I have to admit, my vote was also in favour, which, in hindsight, was a bit of a knee jerk reaction. This probably went something along the lines of, ‘Of course! Scientists have an evidence-based decision matrix and that will help sort out politics!’ I now think differently, but more of that later. The panel was balanced having an academic and a politician on each side who put their views across eloquently, despite some political posturing in the middle of the debate!

The debate

The panellists arguing for a greater number of scientists in parliament were:

* Dr Phillip Lee MP (Conservative MP for Bracknell, member of Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Environment Group)

* Dr Jennifer Rohn (Cell biologist, novelist, founder and Chair of Science is Vital, and much more) The main arguments for an increase in scientifically trained parliamentarians (NB: an increase only, not a vast majority necessarily) in a very concise summary are:

  • The country faces a large number of strategic challenges (climate change, an aging population, energy, access to food and water, healthcare) that require a scientific or engineering solution. The strategic problems we currently face have many aspects to them and scientists are trained in examining multiple variables and at finding a solution that takes account of them.
  • Many in parliament are career politicians, which can mean that discussions are of poorer quality as a result of reduced diversity in academic background.
  • More scientific representation in politics is required because scientific training provides skills that would be enormously beneficial in a political landscape alongside the lawyers, philosophers and theologians. Evidence-based decision-making, a good measure of scepticism to not accept things at face value, tenacity and analytical skills would all be advantageous for addressing policies.

This does not necessarily require professional scientists, just individuals with scientific training that equips them with learning how to examine a problem, determine workable solutions and analyse the results in a systematic way.

Debating against were:

* Dr Jack Stilgoe (Lecturer in Social Studies of Science, science and technology policy expert and blogger)

* Dr Evan Harris (former Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, writer on science policy)

Arguing against, yet not quite opposing – i.e. the argument was not that there need not be any more scientists in parliament, rather that focussing on that was detracting from the actual issues that we face so that we forget about solving the actual problems and just waste time arguing about how great scientists would be in politics. Dr Stilgoe gave a balanced view taking account of the merits of the arguments for increasing scientific presence in parliament and explained why he thinks that those arguments, although valid, are weak. You can explore his reasoning further in his own words on his personal blog. I particularly thought his quote from Lord Martin Rees, former president of the Royal Society, was relevant in this discussion, “every scientist out of their speciality is depressingly lay.” The main points from Dr Harris were that it is the actual policies that are put in place that matter; the point of focus should not be placed on who makes the policies but on whether the policies are serving the people of the nation. He also feels that the argument from the other side of the debate of the benefits of increased representation of scientists in parliament is weak – after all, many other professions may wish to be represented in politics but that is a very unlikely scenario. From his own personal experience in politics, he found that it is harder to convince scientifically trained members of the House of Lords, possibly due to a measure of prejudice about the evidence presented as they may have already come their own conclusions and be biased. A better use of resources would be to educate parliamentarians on technique in assessing scientific evidence and statistics.

Will they do it better? Well, yeah….but….no….but….

All the panellists agreed on one factor – insufficient scientific literacy due to fear that science is too difficult to comprehend, stigma attached to showing any kind of academic interest (during school years) or mere disinterest. One of the reasons why I am interested in communicating science is to diminish some of that fear factor – it really need not be scary but some people would benefit from innovative explanations or real-life links to it. The problems of stigma and disinterest are beginning to be tackled by the increasing amount of curricular enrichment of science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM) in schools. Academics are eagerly taking on the role of this enrichment to meet public engagement targets issued by their funding bodies, raise the profile of their research topics, and because it is fun and stimulating to discuss your research in novel ways. Enthusing and impressing the importance of science to successive generations will help to safeguard against scientific illiteracy in the government in the future. Although that does not solve the problems discussed about parliament right now but at least all governmental departments now have chief scientific advisors so it certainly seems like the importance of taking scientific advice is apparent to those in parliament.

It does come down to having a certain aptitude for doing the role as well though. If a scientist is going to be interested in becoming a politician and is able to thrive in the environment, of course they should enter into it. But mere training in a certain way of approaching problems, one that has many merits and the opportunities to gain a range of transferrable skills, does not translate to the individual being able to apply themselves to a different field. In the end, it is the person – whether their training was in the sciences, law, geography, or welding – that has the potential to make a difference. I also think that the arguments on the opposing side from Drs Stilgoe and Harris were valid and I agreed with them that the issue is to figure out making policies that focus on what we need for the future. Our energies should be focussed there rather than on how to get more scientists in parliament. If there are scientists out there that are eager and suited for the role, I am certain that they will find a way in.

However, following on from that point but somewhat on the flip side, I do think it is entirely possible for parliament to become more populated with scientists – a point that Dr Rohn made and one that I have touched on briefly in an earlier post – far more PhDs are attained than can be accommodated in academic positions. Many PhD projects are now funded with stipends that have a liveable allowance so more people are attracted to pursuing what may have been more of a luxury in the past. The severe bottleneck that these PhDs are faced with in terms of careers in academia necessitates they broaden their transferrable skill set and consider other options. Just because someone has a degree in science does not preclude them from an interest and flair for politics so I think it is likely we will see an increased representation in the future.

So, for me – an interesting and lively debate, entertaining also as all the speakers were eloquent and knowledgeable but also made the audience laugh whilst making their case. And it wasn’t just my mind that was changed by the debate – a rough poll taken in the room showed that the nearly unanimous vote on the Society of Biology website in favour (which was always going to be a biased place to put the poll) had changed to approximately a third in favour, a third against and a third undecided. A great start to the Policy Lates series and I look forward to attending future events!

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