Laura Howes talks to politicians who have made the move from the lab to the benches of power
The days of the gentleman scientist are long gone. Unless you are tinkering around in your shed, national and international politics are going to affect your research. Funding, immigration laws, governmental support for industry and high profile 'gate' affairs all impact on the practice of science. And the resulting debate between scientists and politicians can often descend into antagonism on both sides. But what about those who've left the lab and set up home in UK politics instead? How do they view the interplay between politics and science?
'In science if you propose a hypothesis and then you reject it, that's perfectly normal,' says Julian Huppert, Liberal Democrat member of parliament for Cambridge, UK. 'In politics it's very much more the idea that if you suggest something you have to stick with it,' he adds. 'So if you want to achieve things you have to get people to change things before somebody says it.'
Previously a group leader at the University of Cambridge researching the structure of nucleic acids, Huppert put his academic work to one side after being elected to parliament in the 2010 general election. He says that this career change was the culmination of a long interest in politics, evident even at 13 when he took part in the Model United Nations (a student simulation of the UN). After discovering he was a 'gut liberal', Huppert joined the Liberal Democrat party as a student campaigner, and then was elected to Cambridgeshire County Council in 2001.
Being elected to parliament has meant that Huppert's research group has been wound down, although Huppert is still listed on his department's website as on long term leave. 'I don't know how long I'll be doing this, that depends on the electorate,' he says. 'But I hope it will be a long enough time that it will be extremely hard to go back.'
Widening his impact
Despite his background, Huppert has been very clear that he doesn't want to restrict himself to scientific issues. 'I think there's a massive shortage of scientists and people who understand science in the House of Commons, but I don't like the idea that science becomes something only the science people can do,' he explains.
'To me science flows through so many things, so actually I use my training and experience in other committees.' For example, says Huppert, he joined the Home Affairs Committee - rather than the Science and Technology Committee as might have been expected - where he has contributed to sessions on the closure of the Forensic Science Service and immigration visas 'which make a huge difference to scientific employers'. He has also persuaded the committee to carry out a large inquiry into drugs policy and the scientific evidence behind it, as well as campaigning for libel reform.
Further away from science, he is heavily involved in transport issues including the promotion of cycling, the regulation of digital media and the scrapping of ID cards.
Asked what he's most proud of so far though and Huppert does return to science, and specifically the ring fencing of the science budget in the comprehensive spending review of October 2010. Huppert is keen to emphasise how important his private conversations with the prime minister David Cameron, the chancellor George Osborne, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and chief secretary to the treasury Danny Alexander were in achieving this. All the campaigning mattered, he says, from the pressure high level academics placed on government to the Science is Vital campaign and protest. 'But the one thing I could do which most other people couldn't do was grab a few minutes with these people,' providing further evidence that having scientific representation in government is important.
'I encourage people who are scientifically minded to get involved, but actually what we need from people isn't that they need to be qualified scientists, it's that they understand it. What you are looking for, ultimately, in lawmakers, isn't a detailed knowledge of four stranded DNA structures and the parameters that control them, it's understanding what science is about.'
Graham Stringer, Labour MP for Blackley and Broughton in Manchester, points out that it is not just science that is under-represented in government. 'You need, in all parties, as wide a base as you can possibly get. There are whole areas of life in this country that are almost unrepresented in [parliament]. Science is poorly represented, but in the last two or three intakes, the number of manual workers has been very, very low indeed.'
Stringer himself has a chemistry degree and worked on polyesters and polyurethanes as an analytical chemist until 1981. In 1979 Stringer was elected to Manchester City Council, the same day, Stringer notes, as 'that other chemist, Margaret Thatcher' became prime minister. Manchester council, which Stringer led from 1984-97, got him involved in national and international politics as well as making Stringer 'an expert on transport'. That led to him joining the Transport Committee when he became an MP in 1997, and 'while I still enjoy transport there's a limited amount of excitement you can get from the fourth time you discuss bus deregulation or open skies policy'.
So after re-election in 2010, Stringer looked around for another committee. 'I had avoided direct science,' he admits, 'but there was a space on the Science and Technology Committee. I went onto it and I've really enjoyed it actually, I wish I'd gone on it earlier.'
Returning to science
So why does Stringer enjoy the science committee so much? That comes, he says, from the 'intellectual fun' it offers. In addition, he explains, 'it's less party political and I think influences parliament more than the other committees. So it really does matter if the Science and Technology Committee comes to a unanimous view on something, which it usually does.'
But, concedes Stringer, science doesn't always survive well in the political arena. Although he believes that politicians do increasingly look at the evidence first, he sees a definite difference between when science is used to inform policy and when science itself becomes the political issue. When this happens you have to act quickly to prevent the debate from being taken over. That, he says, happened with GM foods and global warming.
Global warming is something that Stringer is perhaps more known for than he'd like, following the inquiries into the work at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. In November 2009, hacked emails from the CRU server were leaked onto the internet and used by climate sceptics to argue against the existence of global warming in an effort coined 'climategate' by the press. 'The debate ended up being: "Do you believe in global warming or not" - it's a highly politicised subject.' At the subsequent inquiry, Stringer was quite critical of the scientific methodology at the CRU and he admits that's made him 'a bit of a hero with some people in the global warming debate and a bit of a pariah with others'. But he insists he was just following the evidence.
But while a lot of media attention can seem focused on Westminster, the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh also plays a role. 'A lot of science policy is reserved for Westminster,' admits Elaine Murray, who has been Labour MSP for Dumfriesshire since the Scottish parliament began in 1999. However, she is very involved in fostering links between the scientific community and the Scottish parliament. Murray is also currently trying to resurrect the cross party group in science and technology, something she says can be difficult. 'Sometimes you have trouble getting some people from the smaller parties willing to get involved,' she admits.
Murray has a physical chemistry PhD, and followed that with some postdocs before working at the Institute of Food Research in Reading. However, it was after a career break following her second child that Murray moved into politics, first as an assistant to a member of the European parliament and then as a councillor, before becoming an MSP. Despite her involvement in science, including committees and helping organise the RSC's links day at the Scottish parliament, Murray is currently shadow minister for housing and transport and serves on the Finance Committee.
Murray, like Huppert, views a science background as an advantage even when working on non-scientific matters - owing to the way it trained her to think. 'Your approach to things is slightly different if you've had scientific training and perhaps I'm less frightened by numbers than those who haven't,' Murray explains. She often notices a difference in the approaches taken by MSPs with scientific and non-scientific backgrounds, she says.
But Murray also states that while it can be useful to have people with scientific training and background in politics, it is also a pity that people who have that training don't stay active in the field. 'I think there's an issue of particularly women staying in science,' she adds. 'But, if people have to come out of science I think it's quite useful having people with scientific training [in politics].'
While some do, many 'science-friendly' politicians do not have academic training in a science subject. Mark Lancaster, Conservative MP for Milton Keynes North and parliamentary adviser to the RSC, comes from a rather explosive chemistry background. 'Mine's a very practical background,' he explains. 'It comes from growing up in a family firework company and being a firework manufacturer all my life.
'My early memories are of peering over the lab bench and seeing my father mixing all these incredibly coloured chemicals and then sieving them, and the smell of sulfur and all this sort of stuff,' he continues. From the family business Lancaster ended up, perhaps appropriately, as a bomb disposal expert in the army, something that he still does as a reservist. This army background has meant that Lancaster has mainly been involved in the Department for International Development since joining parliament. But due to his work with the RSC he also acts as a liaison, hosting many events at the Houses of Parliament to get MPs to interact with a wide range of science and scientists.
Lancaster believes more should be done to hook people and get them interested in science throughout their lives. 'It's vital we try and re-enthuse the younger generations into taking science courses,' he says. But 'there are many different ways to go. We can't rely on one single thing, you need to be hooking people at every single level from primary schools to postgraduate and to the business world and the academic world.'
Politics vs science
While Lancaster is involved in increasing the dialogue between politicians and scientists, he admits there can be antagonism between the two. 'Such is the nature of the political world and that's the history of government isn't it?' he concedes, pointing out that no one is going to agree on everything all the time. 'But I do think there's a good level of engagement and any politician worth their salt will always listen to those experts,' he adds. 'We've got such a strong history in this country in the world of science and we continue to lead the world in so many fields that I think there's a strong degree of mutual respect.'
One area where Lancaster says he thinks more should be done is to support small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and start-up companies. 'Through the very nature of science,' he concludes, 'the early years tend to be a lot more investment than they are profit. I think that's where we do need to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship to try and make sure we continue to get that encouragement that will see businesses flow and continue the great tradition.'
Another MP with a love for science, but no formal scientific training, is Andrew Miller, Labour representative for Ellesmere Port and Neston. Originally a technician at the geology department in the College of Technology (now part of the University of Portsmouth), Miller started 'washing bottles' but by the time he'd left he'd built the x-ray analytical tools for the department. 'My spectrometer still exists down there,' he laughs, 'except it's sliced in two and it's in a museum cupboard.'
From there, Miller 'became more interested in people' and worked for a trade union, representing people working in various scientific and engineering disciplines. 'I was constantly challenging myself to keep up with the people I was seeking to represent.'
And Miller still keeps up with scientific matters now as chair of the Science and Technology Committee. 'Chairing the select committee has proved quite a challenge,' he explains. 'Every time we start an enquiry I've got to make sure that I'm tolerably up to date with the subject.'
Miller is another MP keen to stress that scientists can and should get involved in politics. 'My standard plea to the learned societies and trade associations is that parliament is not devoid of scientific ability, but we need your help.' Whether that's getting involved advising parliament, writing to your MP or getting involved in an MP-scientist pairing scheme. Between October 2011 and January 2012, Miller was paired with chemist Abbie Trewin at the University of Liverpool and he sings her praises.
'It's vitally important that practising scientists, especially those working in lead edge areas engage with their own MP and try and explain to their own MP the merits of what they're doing,' he concludes. 'If that became a natural part of the way scientists were, parliament would be so much better informed.'
No comments yet