The science base in parliament

Last night saw the annual dinner of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Medical Research. The guest speaker was Dr Venki Ramakrishnan. Venki was awarded the the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and gave an incisive and refreshingly down-to-earth summary of the challenges and opportunities faced by UK science. The ensuing discussion was chaired expertly by the House of Commons Science & Technology Select Committee Chair, Phil Willis MP.

On the way home I penned some thoughts that occurred to me in the meeting with this blog in mind. But not least because as a politics and legislative studies graduate of Hull University I have a passion for parliament.

In no particular order then:

  1. I wish the harshest critics of parliament and MPs could have been present in the room to hear not just the high standard of debate last night but also the passion and commitment to do the right thing for UK science and sicentists.
  2. There have been a number of articles/blogs I have read in recent months (Mark Henderson in The Times/Ian Gibson in Research Fortnight) which have expressed concern about the ‘science deficit’ (my terminology) in the House of Commons after the General Election because of the anticipated lack of new MPs with a science background. Yet I’ve heard the same argument in every part of the health sector I have ever worked for – from dementia to mental health to the medical profession – and ahead of every General Election.
  3. It’s not that it isn’t important to have some component of the House with a relevant background but nor should we see it as a guaranteed way of ensuring that ‘our’ issue or issues will have prominence and be dealt with appropriately. Indeed, its been my experience that new MPs often want to move away from their previous career and pursue other topics. This is why they have sought a political platform.
  4. What we might need to consider more is how the overall tone and attitude of the new House of Commons towards science and related ethical debates on issues such as stem cell research might differ from now. The House has tended to take a permissive or liberal approach over the last five years. But can we expect the same after the next General Election? And I only say this not because I have done some major study of the views and attitudes of Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PPC) but because we only have to look towards events in the United States to see how science can suffer or benefit because of the standpoint taken by one or more of the President, Congress and the Senate – in this instance, benefit.
  5. The work of the current, excellent House of Commons Science & Technology Select Committee as well as other established groups such as the Parliamentary and Sceintific Committee will continue to be important in shaping the debate. And the proposal by the Shadow Science Spokesperson, Adam Afriyie MP, that all MPs should have some form of science training [sic] as part of a formal induction to life in the House of Commons has some merit.
  6. But my sense is that we should also be looking for more innovative ways to support MPs to access sound information and advice on science, research and related issues which recognises that their workloads are unlikely to get any lighter. Should there be the equivalent of the Science Media Centre operating in Westminster and Whitehall which has done so much to raise the standards of science reporting in the Uk media? Perhaps there is scope for providing small grants to MPs which they could spend on improving their knowledge in a scientific area or policy issue? What about developing really good internship or mentor programmes for science graduates to work in parliament and for parliamentary staff to get some experience of what it is like working in a lab or a science-focused organisation? And perhaps the many All-Party Groups that exist in parliament could collaborate more in putting together meetings, briefings etc for MPs around commons issues such as research?

No doubt some of this already happens to some degree but I can’t help feeling there are more extensive ways of improving the science base of parliament for the future.

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