Julian Huppert says all MPs should brush up on their science

Julian Huppert MP promoting scientific researchThe Independent today carries an interview with Julian Huppert, Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge, who is also the only scientist in the House of Commons:

Julian Huppert, a research biochemist who became the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge at the last election, said he was alarmed at the lack of scientific knowledge among colleagues.

In an interview with The Independent, he also accused political leaders of paying “lip service” to the importance of scientific proof and warned that looming cuts to university research budgets could provoke a “brain drain” from Britain.

Although there are other backbenchers with scientific backgrounds, Dr Huppert is the sole MP to have practised past PhD level, specialising most recently on DNA structures.

He said it was a real concern that the Commons – which is full of career politicians, lawyers and economists – lacked scientific expertise. Dr Huppert, a fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, argued that all MPs should be obliged to take a short science training course, covering areas such as how research is conducted, numeracy and the use of statistics.

“It would be really important for all MPs to have some exposure, because some of them will not have studied any science since they were 15 and it’s important to understand how to engage with it,” he said. “You would then have a lot of MPs who were able to understand the information they were being presented with.”

Accusing some MPs of being “anti-science”, he said: “They have a set of beliefs and they will argue that regardless of the science.”

You can read the full piece in the Independent.

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21 Comments

  • Thank goodness someone could take over the work of Evan. Anyway, yes, I wouldn’t be surprised if what he said was true – I’ve only studied science so far to the undergraduate level and even I can see a great deal of popular ignorance of science. A particular odious one is the fact that many otherwise intelligent people genuinely don’t understand that they can’t just “not believe” in an area of science – it is not politics or philosophy.

  • Cllr Andrew Waller 3rd Aug '10 - 9:51pm

    I agree entirely. There are too few scientists in politics to provide background to policy which would be of huge benefit to the future economy of the country.

  • Nadine Dorries springs to mind.

  • Patrick Smith 3rd Aug '10 - 10:11pm

    I suspect that it is more vital to the British Economy in the longer term for our committed research scientists in probing models and solutions to find safer environments and via greater mindset on `Global Warming’ and how to measure and plan for its impact on our planet.

    This surely could best be achieved by retaining more of our gifted scientists who should be valued higher than the greedy bonus ridden bankers, who caused a good part of the `Economic Recession’ that has now become the number one focus of concern and policy of the new `Coalition Government’?

    I ask however, if there is still the problem of the `Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution ‘ in politics at the top tables, highlighted by C.P.Snow, in his Rede Lecture, in Cambridge in 1959 ?

    Britain desperately needs to keep its best research scientists to solve problems.

    Children need to be taught the wonder and importance of Science in everyday life in the National Curriculum, especially from GCSE Physics and Chemistry, so that the present generation threatened by by the `brain drain’ is also refreshed.

  • What’s with that picture!

  • Anthony Aloysius St 4th Aug '10 - 12:38pm

    “What’s with that picture!”

    It’s the tie that worries me. At least I hope it’s a tie.

  • Chris Riley 4th Aug '10 - 1:11pm

    Stephen Moseley of the Science and Technology Select Committee was a chemist and the chair, Andrew Miller, used to be a geology lab technician (now that *is* the sharp end).

    And Lib Dem, Roger Williams, studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge, so he’s very nearly a scientist*

    And John Denham’s degree is also in chemistry – so there are scientists in the House

    *joke

  • Chris Riley 4th Aug '10 - 1:13pm

    Sorry, should have been clearer about Roger Williams – he’s on the Sci/Tech committee, with some rather big shoes to fill as the only Lib Dem on it now. Ironic that not being in Government made the Lib Dems more influential on this rather important (and effective) Select Committee.

  • Very encouraging and the responses too. However, can I be a bit pedantic and ask that we recognise the role of, what is usually refered to as, technology. As an engineer I would not claim to be a scientist. So called “cutting edge” or “blue-skies” research is important to illuminate new horizons of opportunity, but the majority of industry tends to work at a more mundane level and that is where the money is made. We need investment to aid the realisation of new technology in the most competitive way. I’m all for MPs undertaking a science training course – but much more to the point would be educating the news media. Too many journalist and commentators seem to lack any real understanding of science and technology or the scientific method.

  • More scientists please!
    If we had a few more scientists parliament might realise how vulnerable global warming is making our food supply, and do something about it. We also need more agricultural scientists, farmers and ecologists. World agriculture is already facing a crisis – the 10 year long Australian drought, and the recent Pakistani floods illustrate the point. At the moment the majority survive because market forces cause food to be transported to where it is needed, but increased storminess will destroy more crops and transport infrastructure. Planes and boats do not move in hurricanes.
    The actions of recent UK governments in winding up the Agricultural research and extension services is just one symptom of the scientific ignorance of our politicians. Parliament took the wrong advice about BSE, Foot and Mouth, Avian Flu, Swine Flu, Genetic Engineering, Organic Farming, Livestock Cloning, Electronic Identification of Sheep, Supermarkets…. All decisions they took revealed complete ignorance of both the science and the day to day working of the industry. Not only do politicians not understand the science, but they employ too few scientific or industry advisors, preferring to rely on part time advice with the wrong expertise. Sorry, someone has got to say it!

  • This is an extremely important point. Science, and more importantly the scientific method should play a big part in politics, so people can understand its about more than just peoples point of view. Another important point is how to get this importance across to the rest of the general public.

  • Andrew Suffield 5th Aug '10 - 5:01am

    As an engineer I would not claim to be a scientist.

    But you would know what a scientist is, and how to distinguish between a scientist and a man in a white coat hawking a shiny box that does not work.

    This is what MPs need to know, and sadly, usually don’t.

  • Christopher Merron 5th Aug '10 - 1:33pm

    James Ball – “as an engineer I would not claim to be a scientist”

    My definition of an Engineer/Technologist is “Applied Scientist”. However, the profession of Engineer seems to be commonly understood as someone who fixes things; like a mechanic or plumber; neither of whom need to understand the science behind the mechanics of the tasks they perform. An engineer, on the other hand, needs to be able to extrapolate from her/his scientific knowledge in order to solve practical problems. The science comes first doesn’t it? How then can you not claim to be a scientist if you claim to be an engineer?

    Our politicians need to give more weight to facts, evidence and statistics than they do to opinions; we would not have been embroiled in conflicts in the Middle East if they had done so in 2003. The lawyers in parliament should have known better; they are trained to weigh the evidence, though often they too are fooled by “expert opinion”
    My Latin dictionary tells me that Scientia translates into English as “Knowledge” and that is what I hope our politicians have and if not, should acquire; so I am with Julian.

  • Great comments! (Proof of pudding is that Chinese government is more technical and Germans/French still see engineers as having “ingenuity”).

    IT, too, has tons of concepts to digest & mis/information to filter but I never heard anyone consider a geek’s “professional opinion”, as lawyers like to call it. This costs business dearly because non-techies can’t be dissuaded from the marketing hype, at least without referring to “consultants”.

    But then again, why do schools call it ICT? “Information Technology” implies Communication almost by definition so the profession seems to lose credibility from the outset – despite the efforts of academics in Computer Science.

    Another example: BMS (Building Management Systems) is at forefront of fight against the energy wastage but few people have heard of it as a vocation.

    (PS Anyone know of a quick guide to stats like ANOVA, without the details of Wikipedia? Bet most of us could do with a primer or refresher course in same way as MPs and journalists!)

  • It’s all very nice that members of parliament should know some science and understand scientific method, but what about English, or History? Both disciplines are at least as important as science for political debate and understanding of the world. And my experience of scientists, even those who are at Cambridge (where I am currently a student), is that many of them are barely literate and woefully ill-educated in subjects beyond their particular specialism.

  • To help bridge understanding The Royal Society runs a useful pairing scheme for MPs.
    http://royalsociety.org/General_WF.aspx?pageid=7277http://www.bps.org.uk/the-society/policy&parliamentarywork/parliamentary/parliamentary_home.cfm&terms=mp+pairing+scheme

    Many professional bodies (like my own The British Psychological Society) run fellowship schemes which, given the paucity of scientists in the HoC, one hopes will be supported and extended by the Coalition Gov.
    http://www.bps.org.uk/the-society/policy&parliamentarywork/parliamentary/parliamentary_home.cfm

    Scientific understanding like any understanding needs to be underpinned by the political courage/ independance to make and stand by sometimes controversial/unpopular decisions. Having worked with, advised, and watched many politicians, I have seen many who were well able to understand the science, but lacked the courage to stand by it.

    Geek: Brace, Snelgar and Kemp’s ‘SPSS for Psychologists’ is a simple readable guide to multivariate stats. Richard Kemp is Psychology’s own Ben Goldacre – he promotes understanding in a way that is both clear and quite funny. no-one needs to be a psychologist for the book to be useful.
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0333986334/?tag=libdemvoice-21

  • Bob InghamBSc 7th Aug '10 - 5:59pm

    we english fail to treat INDOOR AIR QUALITY IAQ seriously

  • Tessa Gardner 23rd Nov '10 - 12:53pm

    Julian Huppert’s science credentials referenced on the Royal Society’s In Verba blog:

    http://blogs.royalsociety.org/in-verba/2010/11/23/scientists-in-the-seat-of-power-the-mp-scientist-pairing-scheme/#more-202

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