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20/12/2014

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Lords Reform was a distraction

We need a scientifically literate parliament, argues Phil Willis.

We need a scientifically literate parliament, argues Phil Willis.

The recent attempts to reform the House of Lords ended, as expected, in a glorious shambles of disarray, acrimony and accusation. The ‘once in lifetime’ opportunity to create a largely elected second chamber was missed, not because there wasn’t an overwhelming desire amongst politicians to change the current arrangements but because the proposals began with an argument over form rather than function. What was so disingenuous about the whole debacle was the way self-congratulatory and self-serving arguments were used to bolster the status quo because we did not begin with an agreed hypothesis of what a reformed second chamber would actually do!

Deeply flawed

Inevitably, the significant group of eminent scientists who populate the red benches became the centre of this vacuous debate. According to a survey by Research Fortnight, of the 37 Peers who were known as scientists, only six would be prepared to stand for election. This would mean that scientific expertise of the likes of Lords Winston, Krebs and Rees would be lost, as second-class elected politicians with no scientific expertise at all took their places.

The argument was deeply flawed. The value of having such eminent people is not primarily for their specialist knowledge: ‘We’re all depressingly “lay” outside our specialisms’, Lord Rees commented. Their value lies in their broader intellect and their ability to apply scientific logic to their scrutiny of parliamentary business.

What is missing throughout parliament is not scientific expertise. That can be brought in when needed from a myriad of directions: learned societies, government scientists, expert groups and so on. What we really need are politicians who value science and who will apply scientific methodology to their work.  We need people who will examine policy by seeking evidence and, where it does not exist, develop an evidence base. This is far more important than believing a few eminent individuals can somehow redress the balance for a lack of scientific literacy amongst politicians.

Only the Bishops

The British disease of ‘making the best of a bad job’ quickly entered the reform debate with a belief that the 20 per cent of appointed peers (60 out of 300) would be able to compensate for  the ‘expertise deficiency’. Really? Given the current range of ‘experts’ in the Lords in virtually every area of life, from retail to religion, ethics to environment, medicine to manufacturing, all wanting representation, just how many scientists would be appointed? The answer is, depressingly few. Indeed, the only group of experts to be well represented under the new proposals would have been the Bishops with 12 of their number remaining on the benches.

Even the Campaign for Science and Engineering, who prepared an interesting report on the House of Lords proposals, fell into the trap by proposing that 30 per cent of the 300 should be appointed, rather than arguing that this was not the way to increase scientific expertise within the ruling classes.

Of course, the collective sigh of relief that accompanied the decision by David Cameron to drop the proposals was also misguided. What the scientific community needs is a more scientifically literate parliament, whoever is either appointed or elected. It is frightening to find a Secretary of State for Health who supports homeopathy; worrying to find departmental scientific advisers not being replaced; and disturbing to find only two out of 42 permanent secretaries, our most senior civil servants, with degrees in science and engineering. 

House of Lords reform was a distraction.  Putting science at the heart of our political system is a far more important mission.

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Lord Willis
Lord Willis of Knaresborough is a member of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology. Find him on Twitter @philwillis_exmp.
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