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Telling a tale

Phil Willis wants MPs to champion science

In 1997, Molly Scott Cato and her colleagues Busby and Bramhall conducted an interesting piece of research: I don’t know much about Science.  Their analysis of the new parliament showed that 30 per cent of MPs did not have an 0-level equivalent in any STEM subject, and only 56 had a degree with physics, chemistry, biology or maths. By comparison, 309 MPs (46.8 per cent) had an arts-based degree, including myself with a degree in philosophy! What is more, 80 per cent of MPs worked previously in careers that did not require any significant knowledge of science.

The study has not been repeated, but I suspect that science will be just as under-represented in the 2010 intake. In fact, it is likely to be even less represented. Many of the ‘science champions’ — Dr Gibson, Dr Iddon, Dr Turner and Doug Naysmith — will be leaving Labour’s ranks, whilst Ian Taylor (the former Science Minister) and Tim Boswell (the former HE Minister) will be retiring from the Conservative ranks — as indeed will I from the Liberal Democrats. This will leave precious few MPs willing or able to speak up for science in the tough negotiations ahead of the 2011 Comprehensive Spending Review.

There may of course be new, enthusiastic recruits, but a quick glance down the list of prospective Parliamentary candidates in winnable seats suggests not. It is therefore crucial that the science community raises its standard and gives politicians the clear evidence of the crucial role science must play in our future. There is a fantastic tale to tell — of past successes and a rich future — but someone must tell it with conviction.

Scientists and politicians

With a backdrop of the huge fiscal deficit, cutbacks in public expenditure and the rise in unemployment, the challenge for the 2010 government will be whether it has the courage and foresight to pursue the nation’s long-term future or only short-term goals.

For the science community the answer is simple. From climate change to energy, from food security to global security, the world depends on science for effective solutions. And it is the delivery by science of new technologies to solve these problems that will generate economic growth, so resolving medium- if not short-term problems of unemployment.

But politicians continue to treat science with suspicion and sceptism born of ignorance and a lack of engagement. To be fair, the current Labour government has made significant investments in our science base. The effect has been to repair the damage of past under-investment and, crucially, give the UK a global position in science second only to the USA.

More cuts

Yet the signs are not good. Despite the ‘ring fence’ round science budgets, recent announcements from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) have seen a 52 per cent cut in funding for nuclear physics, 25 per cent reduction in PhD programmes, the withdrawal from ALICE experiments at CERN and the phasing out of a number of space missions including the Cassini probe and the Venus Express orbiter. It seems inevitable that cuts to other areas of science funding will follow. Or does it?

President Obama has answered these questions for the USA emphatically. Speaking at the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) in Washington in April 2009 he said, ‘Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment and our quality of life than it has ever been before’ – and backed that up with a fiscal stimulus package of £480 billion that went directly to into research, green technologies, green energy and the scientific skills of young people. Few of our politicians would do this, because for most of our politicians see science as peripheral, not central, to today’s political challenges.


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Phil Willis MP chairs the Commons Committee on Science and Technology

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Phil Willis
Phil Willis MP chairs the Commons Committee on Science and Technology
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