Do we need more scientists in policy? An initial resounding ‘yes’ becomes a more complex debate

With 96% of respondents to a Twitter poll voting ‘Yes’, it looked like last night’s debate ‘Do we need more scientists in Parliament?’ was going to be a foregone conclusion.

However, the event, the first in the new PolicyLates series of debates organised by the Society of Biology, turned out to be a far more nuanced discussion with some decidedly lively debate.

Arguing for an increase in the number of Parliamentarians with formal science training, were Dr Jennifer Rohn, head of a cell biology lab at UCL and an eminent science writer and editor, and Dr Phillip Lee MP, Conservative MP for Bracknell, part-time GP and Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Environment Group.

With the apparently more difficult task of arguing against the need for a greater number of scientifically qualified MPs, were Dr Evan Harris, former Lib Dem MP for Oxford West and Abingdon and an avid campaigner for evidence-based policy, and Dr Jack Stilgoe, a lecturer in science policy at UCL and member of the Government’s Sciencewise steering group.

Chairing the debate and keeping the speakers on topic was Chi Onuwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle Central, Shadow Minister for Innovation, Science and Digital Infrastructure, and a graduate of Electrical Engineering.

‘NO’: The focus should be the policies, not the people making them
Starting a round of opening statements, Dr Jack Stilgoe argued that the focus on increasing the number of scientists in Parliament distracts from the real issue; the ‘black hole’ that exists in Parliament over the issue of making sense of science. Much more focus, he argued, should be given to developing the institutions and frameworks needed to ensure scientific evidence can be properly considered within Parliament.

Dr Evan Harris echoed this stance, saying that the professional background of those in Parliament is not what matters, what matters is that the right policies are made. These ‘right’ policies, Dr Harris argued, are not always evidence based and the ability of an MP to make a choice on them is not guaranteed by a scientific background. In fact, Dr Harris stated, scientists in Parliament can sometimes be a danger, for example when the assumption is made – by other MPS, the public and the scientists themselves – that their expertise in one area make them an authority on all scientific issues.

‘YES’: Scientists are key to understanding addressing the major issues we face today
On the other side of the debate, Dr Phillip Lee MP argued that the current absence of people in Parliament with an understanding of science is a critical issue. All of the major issues facing us today – an aging population, energy production and food production – have science and technology at their core. At least a few more scientists are needed in Parliament to balance ‘all the theologians…and PPE graduates’ and ensure there is a sound understanding of the issues so that there can be effective moves made to address them.

Dr Jennifer Rohn also stressed the need for more scientists in Parliament. We don’t need benches full of them, she said, but there is a definite need for at least a few more. Science is often an invisible profession, and this is especially the case in Parliament, Dr Rohn said, but the input of scientists to policy-making is just as critical as that of theologians and business graduates. Scientists, she argued, would bring critical skills to policy debates, such as analytical and open-minded thinking, as well as a strong work ethic.

Scientific literacy, objectivity and the barriers to scientists in policy
The debate was then opened to the floor, with people querying the current state of scientific literacy in Parliament and what solutions the panel could see to improve this, whether through increased numbers of scientists or otherwise.

Dr Evan Harris answered that progress was being made, with Scientific Advisors now in every department and the language of an evidence-based approach being increasingly heard in Parliament. However, Dr Phillip Lee MP suggested that, although offered, scientific literacy training for Parliamentarians is not taken up because it is not seen as a priority. As a result, said Dr Jack Stilgoe, there remains too great a reliance on the word of what he termed ‘the great and the good’ of science – individual scientists with highly regarded opinions – rather than any progress to ensure greater scientific literacy amongst MPs. Dr Jennifer Rohn developed this idea furhter, saying that one of the key issues with the use of science in policy, is that there remains a lack of understanding of the nature of scientific evidence and research, with the result that politicians mistake debates around the evidence as an undermining of evidence. She argued that scientists within Parliament could help explain this to policy-makers.

In the next round of questioning, audience members asked whether involvement in Parliament could politicise scientists, and if this was one of the reasons there aren’t already a greater proportion of scientists in Parliament. The panel generally agreed that scientists wouldn’t be politicised by their involvement in Parliament, and Dr Rohn pointed out that even though scientists have different party politics, it has been shown that they are able to have effective and objective debates about scientific matters in relation to policy. She also felt that a major barrier causing the current lack of scientists in Parliament is the continuing influence of the traditional career structure in which it was frowned upon for someone who trained to PhD level in science to then leave academia. The effect of this thinking can still be felt, said Dr Rohn, and the move into politics from academic science is an expensive career upheaval most scientists are unwilling to make.

A change in opinion?
Drawing the discussion to a close, Ms Onwurah, who had made an admirable effort to remain an impartial chair throughout, re-polled opinion on the question ‘Do we need more scientists in Parliament?’ Although the majority still answered yes, at this count it was only about 1/3 of audience. A smaller – but notable – proportion answered ‘no’ and a further group were undecided, perhaps persuaded to re-think their opinion by the evening’s discussion?

The debate was live-tweeted by a number of attendees at #policylates. If you enjoyed following the debate, the evening’s Chair and most of the panel are on Twitter, and you can get updates further events at @Society_Biology and about the BES’s policy work at @BESPolicy