A science agenda for Parliament

CaSE Director Imran Khan has written an opinion piece in today’s Research Fortnight, calling on the scientific community to provide better scientific advice to Parliament. You can read the full article below:

The last general election in 2010 saw only one research scientist elected to Parliament, alongside 156 business people, 90 ‘political organisers’, 86 lawyers and 38 media types. So you would hope that Parliament was served by an efficient source of scientific advice. You might even imagine an informal ‘science caucus’ bringing together MPs for science policy discussions that aren’t simply split along party lines. You would be disappointed on both counts.

The Parliamentary and Scientific Committee and the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (Post) are staffed by well-meaning, enthusiastic people. They should be the answer but their efforts are stymied by anachronistic structures and attitudes. Hopefully, this may be about to change. Both are appointing new leaders, and the scientific community should support them in pushing for wholesale reform.

To understand why this is needed, consider recent events. In 2009, the World Health Organization declared H1N1 influenza to be a global pandemic. In 2010, the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull sent an ash cloud over northern Europe, threatening the safety of air passengers. In 2011, the Fukushima crisis caused chaos for British workers and tourists as well as the Japanese.

When MPs debate the government’s response to such events they often do so from a position of relative ignorance. For instance, while working for an MP, I recall hunting down contact details for my old tutor who was an expert in influenza, so my boss could assess the importance of stockpiling Tamiflu.

Organisations such as Post should enable experts to inform such debates as soon as possible, rather than having politicians rely on the skills and contact lists of their staff. In reality, Post’s agenda is set months in advance, meaning it can anticipate trends but not respond to events.

The ‘science induction’ event it organised for MPs after the general election attracted barely a dozen attendees. Despite calls to try the format with parliamentary staff instead— who are probably even less scientifically literate than MPs— no action has been taken. It’s time they took a more active approach to science engagement in Westminster.

The failure of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee is even more surprising. While Post is held back by structures, the committee seems limited mainly by lack of ambition. It is an example of an all-party parliamentary group. These groups bring together MPs to discuss everything from mental health to cheese. The APPG for Football has published agenda-setting reports on the game’s governance, while the malaria APPG arranges for its members to get first-hand experience of disease control campaigns.

The Parliamentary and Scientific Committee hasn’t learnt from the success of some other APPGs. One of its main organs, for instance, is the quarterly publication Science in Parliament. But a 70-page journal is not the way to communicate science policy issues to busy MPs.

It also organises a series of discussion evenings. Having any actual MPs apart from the chairman attend these events is extremely rare. The entire aim of the committee should be to engage MPs in discussion, and yet the consistent failure to attract any seems not to concern the group. Parliamentarians interested in anything from abortion rights to urban development have avenues for non-partisan discussion of the relevant policy issues, but it’s not the case for science.

The committee dates back to 1939, and HG Wells was among its original instigators, so perhaps it’s understandable that its methods seem attuned to a more leisurely paced world than today’s. Less charitably, both the journal and the discussion evenings seem to be organised as a way for members of the science establishment to descend on Westminster and strut around.

Yes, it is hard to engage MPs. Parliamentarians are famously busy, required to be instant experts in myriad policy areas and few have a natural inclination for science. That should mean we redouble our efforts, rather than sit back.

Both the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee and Post do excellent work. The committee’s SET for Britain campaign is extremely successful at bringing young scientists into Parliament, while POST notes provide an astonishing archive of succinct, accurate science policy briefings. However, in a 21st century democracy, we should expect more. Both institutions must modernise and respond to the needs of today’s MPs.

Some important issues in science policy, such as funding and education, require long-term planning and cross-party dialogue. Others, such as responding to crises and debating legislation, require rapid responses and access to expertise. Somehow scientists have contrived to fail Parliament in both areas.

It must change. And, if all this seems a little too idealistic, let me misquote the Science Media Centre: politics will do science better only when science learns to do politics better.

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One Comment

  1. Dee Rawsthorne
    Posted 30/03/2012 at 11:14 | Permalink

    Couldn’t agree more Imran, great piece, so how do you see the roles of the CSAs and should we lobby them more and MPs researchers?

    We try all avenues and support as many initiatives as we can in Norwich but find it hard to get MPs to visit and really discuss the issues face to face – as you say they are very busy and and on Constituency days need to do just that be in their home patches. We’ve tried organising group visits during recess but these were poorly supported. We go to Westminster but these events are poorly supported too. However, we have great local MP support and feel this is becoming very effective and science is getting a louder voice, we’ve all got to just keep at it.

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