Earlier this year, following changes in the rules of the House of Commons, I became the first chair of the Select Committee on Science & Technology to be elected by all MPs. The committee has started to look at the handling of emergencies by government. We’ve had a quick look at progress in the UK Space Agency and followed up our predecessor committee’s work on the East Anglia climate change controversy.
Controversy and confusion
For many years I have been interested in how complex issues requiring a good knowledge of science or engineering are explained to society as a whole and in particular to Parliament. This is made much harder when the anti-science community gets air time or column inches in our media.
In September 2009 the following appeared in a letter published in the Guardian: ‘There should be an immediate freeze on the commercial release of nanomaterials until there is a sound body of scientific research into all the health impacts.’ The context was one of those regular pieces of over-reaction or, more accurately, illogical responses to an event. An accident in a paint factory in China led the author to his conclusion rather than the slightly more obvious – perhaps we should consider Chinese standards of health and safety before rushing to buy their products.
It is no wonder that there is confusion in the minds of the public when controversial story lines appear like this. Why should Parliament be any different?
Clearly the science community needs to do more to improve public engagement on the complex challenges and opportunities facing us today. There are also several initiatives along these lines in Parliament.
Some 70 years ago, Parliament established its first ‘all party group’ by creating the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, designed to improve the interface between science and Parliament. I have the honour of chairing the group now as well as editing its publication, Science in Parliament. More recently the group has taken under its wing SET for Britain, a poster competition for researchers.
More recently in 2001, The Royal Society pairing scheme was established, helping to build bridges between parliamentarians, civil servants and some of the best science research workers in the UK. It works by pairing scientists with either a civil servant or MP. Pairings with civil servants have been included in this scheme since 2009 thanks to a partnership with the Government Office for Science.
All of these initiatives are vitally important but still we have faced the reality of MPs caving in to pressure groups on such issues as the MMR vaccination scandal. There is no easy answer when dealing with these issues but, given the fact that the comprehensive spending review will directly or indirectly impact upon almost every discipline, sitting back is not an option.
The Parliament elected in May 2010 has about 10 per cent of MPs with any STEM related background. (If you think that is worrying – that is nearly 10 per cent more than the US Congress!) But it is this figure that underlines why readers in the science community have a job to do.
One of my frustrations is that too little is done to improve the understanding of policy makers by scientists and engineers and they need to set out their case to individual MPs. There are scientists and engineers living and working in every constituency across the country. I would encourage each and every one to personally lobby their own MP to ensure that, as axes start to fall, Parliament is fully aware of the consequences and more broadly the relevance of their work to the wellbeing of our country.