Science in Parliament – the new landscape

Martin Griffiths is an adviser at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.

Science had a higher profile than ever in the run-up to the election, thanks to #scivote, the series of debates between Lord Drayson, Adam Afriyie and Evan Harris, and the launch of the Science Party. But in the immediate aftermath, the outlook for science in Parliament seemed gloomy.

None of the three science spokesmen retained their brief, with Harris even losing his seat, and long-time advocates like Brian Iddon, Doug Naysmith, Phil Willis and Ian Taylor all retiring. But there are still around 70 MPs with a STEM degree, including some interesting new faces, and we’re now getting an idea of who the main players in science in this Parliament will be.

Select Committees

For the first time, select committee chairs were elected by the House of Commons, with Andrew Miller defeating Graham Stringer for the Science & Technology Committee post. Miller, a former university lab technician, sat on the S&T committee from 1992 to 1997 and will also chair the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee (actually a cross-party interest group). In an interview with Research Fortnight he set out his two main priorities for the select committee: protecting the science base and promoting public understanding of science.

Four new Conservative MPs: Stephen Metcalfe, David Morris, Stephen Mosley and Alok Sharma will join the committee, though disappointingly only Graham Stringer put himself forward for the Labour vacancies in the first round of nominations. One Conservative, three Labour and one Liberal Democrat member remain to be nominated. Once it has its members, the committee can begin to get stuck into inquiries, ably assisted by its specialists Xameerah Malik and Farrah Bhatti.

In the Lords, it’s a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same. The 14 members of the Science & Technology Committee have been appointed, and while six members of the last Parliament’s committee have departed, all but one of the replacements has previously served on the committee. The one peer new to the committee is Lord Rees, a familiar face to scientists, and the chair will be Lord Krebs.

Getting the message across

Meanwhile the board of the Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology, Parliament’s in-house source of science analysis and advice, is yet to be chosen as this in part requires nominations from select committees. But POST staff have been busy in the mean time, preparing a briefing on the key science issues the new Parliament will have to consider, organising a ‘science induction’ session for new MPs and launching a Twitter account.

A distinguished panel including the new science minister, David Willetts, the chief scientific adviser Sir John Beddington, Phil (soon to be Lord) Willis and eminent scientists Lords Winston and Oxburgh discussed scientific uncertainty and evidence-based policy with an audience of MPs and parliamentary staff. The staff were struck by how keen the new MPs were to listen and how little they seemed to like the sound of their own voices!

The science section of the House of Commons Library was busy over the election recess too, contributing to a Key Issues for the New Parliament book for members with articles on carbon capture and storage and broadband access amongst many others.

Two new MPs, Julian Huppert and Therese Coffey may be of particular interest to scientists as they have chemistry PhDs. Huppert, who was a researcher in Cambridge prior to winning election, made a maiden speech promising to bring his scientific expertise to bear not just on science policy debates but across the range of fields Parliament considers and has already put his name to a host of Early Day Motions ranging from science education to battery farming.

A packed room in Portcullis House last week for the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Science and the New Parliament session confirmed that the momentum built up before the election is being maintained and we’re sure to see many interesting debates in the months and years to come.

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