Opinion: Are you a STEM champion?

Do we need more scientists and engineers in government? The question is a tough one. Of course it’s easy to find examples of scientific illiteracy in parliamentary debate, and it can be frustrating for followers of politics to see policies adopted seemingly without any framework to test their efficacy in a structured and unbiased way (though there has been some progress in that area). On the other hand, MPs without science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) backgrounds can be great advocates for science and engineering, and are perfectly capable of debating technical issues with great insight and sensitivity – Conservative MP Jane Ellison, for example, handled the recent debate on mitochondrial donation admirably.

While it is simplistic (not to mention democratically questionable!) to aim for a target quota of MPs with a STEM background, we should also recognise the significant contribution that politicians with scientific and technical experience and insight can bring to politics: whether it is the ability to engage with the details of what is possible or appropriate in the regulation and surveillance of digital communications or simply having direct experience in sectors of the knowledge economy that we are all hoping to build.

Last year we picked 6 strategic seats where we judged that Lib Dem candidates had made the strongest case on their ability to stand up for science and engineering. To those of you who have already donated to the campaign – thank you! If you would like to support it, please head this way.

But there are plenty more candidates with a background or interest in science, engineering and evidence-based policymaking. To showcase this, the Team Science campaign is also building a directory of STEM Champions to capture the full breadth of expertise among our 2015 candidates.

Many of our PPCs have direct experience of some of our most pressing challenges. Lucy Care in Derby and Jackie Porter in Winchester both pursued successful careers in engineering and manufacturing when, even today, only 8% of professionals in the sector are women. Mark Mann in Oxford works on translating new technologies into industrial application – a vital capability in a knowledge economy that the UK still struggles with.

Several of our candidates have recently returned to university, either for further studies, such as Sarah Smith (Dover and Deal, currently pursuing a PhD in cognitive psychology) and Stephen Worrall (High Peak, studying for a PhD in Nanoscience); or to develop new skills, such as Chris Young (Glasgow West, moving from a Law background into Chemistry with Drug Discovery).

Many candidates, such as Jane Brophy (Altrincham) and Tad Jones (Nottingham) cite a desire to see more evidence-based policy in Parliament as part of their motivation to stand for election. This motivation must be particularly strong for Michael Mullaney (Bosworth), who is the candidate best placed to depose David Tredinnick: a Conservative MP notorious for supporting the use of astrology and homeopathy to treat serious medical conditions.

Are you a Lib Dem PPC with a STEM background that we haven’t included in our directory? If so, please drop us an email at teamscience[at]aldes.org.uk with a headshot and a short bio and let us know what policy you would want to fight for, if elected. And if you’re engaging with individuals or organisations in the STEM sector as part of the 2015 campaign, please share our directory and make sure they know how many Lib Dem candidates there are hoping to represent their interests.

* Ed Long is the chair of the Association of Lib Dem Engineers and Scientists and a local member of Tower Hamlets Lib Dems

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30 Comments

  • Helen Tedcastle 19th Feb '15 - 11:02am

    If some people want to stand for parliament in order to promote science then that is up to them. However, I would prefer my MP not to enter parliament in order to lobby for a particular subject or position. I would prefer to have an MP who stands up for the interests of all their constituents.

    There seems to be a particular agenda pushed here. For example this quote: ‘… cite a desire to see more evidence-based policy in Parliament as part of their motivation to stand for election.’

    Do MPs not deal with ‘evidence’ at the moment? Do they all simply rely on astrology and ignore scientists?

    Should MPs not question or challenge scientists, because they are not scientists? I have read some views precisely in that regard on LDV. This kind of reductionist and narrow thinking is not helpful to have in parliament, I would suggest.

    The writer of the article therefore, gives the impression that MPs do not deal in evidence at the moment. In fact, he can only cite one example of a Tory MP who does not meet the requisite criteria.

    The article is quite clearly advocating more MPs with a background in the positivist/cognitive-behavioural sciences to advance the kind of thinking and positioning dear to the heart of particular, notoriously intolerant ‘popular science’ writers.

    It is one thing to encourage young people in the take up of STEM subjects but quite another to put into parliament a lobby for behaviourism/positivism and a particular kind of secular-humanism, not known for its tolerance or breadth of understanding of different world-views.

    We are fortunate that there are already MPs with scientific backgrounds but most do not seem to have a positivist agenda. This is how it should be.

  • Tsar Nicolas 19th Feb '15 - 11:16am

    More scientists in politics will simply mean that more scientists ignore reality in order to promote their interests.

    Key issues – Fukushima – three full nuclear core meltdowns and barely a peep out of anyone despite mounting pollution and die-offs in the north Pacific.

    Arctic – hardly a peep out of anyone except for a brave few pointing to the fact that the increase in polar temperatures has triggered the release of methane hydrates from the permafrost.

  • Are you a STEM champion?
    Yes absolutely,..and so are my fellow colleagues in Ukip. Here is our Ukip policy for STEM students.
    – Subject to academic performance UKIP will remove tuition fees for students taking approved degrees in Science, Medicine, Technology, Engineering, Maths, on the condition that they live work and pay tax in the UK for five years after the completion of their degrees. –
    The point being of course, that we don’t *just* need STEM capable MP’s. We urgently need a STEM upgrade in the capability of all our citizens, surely?

  • Helen Tedcastle 19th Feb '15 - 12:33pm

    Ed, thanks for your feedback.

    I wonder whether you could elaborate on my other point about needing to get people into parliament motivated by ‘evidence-based policy-making.’ I wonder whether evidence is something unheard of in parliament? Or is it a particular kind of evidence? I have done research myself and know that researchers’ assumptions and selectivity of evidence to produce outcomes is not unheard of in research papers. There are papers out there with conflicting results – so what happens then?

    Hence, when a candidate is standing for parliament it is more essential to know about their philosophy , about what motivates, what they believe in, – not whether they would put peer-reviewed papers as the basis of their work. These inform work but shouldn’t be the driver.

    We already have MPs of this ilk eg: Liz Truss. Her obsession with evidence-based policy -making has led her into conflict with reality, for example, when she tried to impose Chinese maths methods on schools, formal learning for three year olds and re-introduced a badger cull because of the selected research papers she read. It all accorded with her ideology of course.

    Evidence-based policy-making must simply inform MPs not drive them or be the main motivator in their actions in my view. They have to take in a broad range of other factors – social, cultural and local needs.

  • David Cooper 19th Feb '15 - 12:48pm

    While ALDES perform a valuable role, it is unlikely that a candidate slate based on STEM background will lead to better decisions generally. Scientists and technologists (in which I include myself) are just as likely to non evidence based beliefs outside their area of speciality as anyone else. Witness the fact that 1996 Chemistry Nobel Laureate Dr. Richard Smalley is a creationist. In fact, believing that a STEM background provides better critical faculties is itself a leap of faith.

    A possible utility of this candidate slate is that it reduces the effect of the tens of other candidate slates, some of them based on much sillier criteria. So it’s mostly harmless.

  • Scientists have a training that leads to a strong tendency to make decisions that not only respect the evidence, also have the understanding of the implications of the evidence.

    Clearly this is not across the board, not all scientists have an adequate understanding of quantum Physics, but their training has given scientists access to the processes of Science at a high level. They readily appreciate that much of the opposition to Scientific conclusions, whether it be climate change, cellular biology or evolution do not engage at the same level. Often the opponents are simply in another discussion, leaving scientists to struggle to find a polite response.

    Clearly expertise is required in all areas of parliament and needs to be respected as such: there are lawyers and economists aplenty but a comparative dearth of scientists. Of greater concern is when those who have scientific expertise are derided for their informed contributions. This is why this initiative is merits strong support.

  • Helen Tedcastle 19th Feb '15 - 2:11pm

    Martin

    ‘ Scientists have a training that leads to a strong tendency to make decisions that not only respect the evidence, also have the understanding of the implications of the evidence.’

    And historians don’t? And geographers don’t? This is simply not an argument, because other subjects provide a rigorous methodology and training. You have made an argument for our MPs to be educated and informed, rather than an argument for a science lobby in parliament.

    ‘They readily appreciate that much of the opposition to Scientific conclusions, whether it be climate change, cellular biology or evolution do not engage at the same level. ‘

    I see. So people who do not have the scientific training or background cannot engage at the same high level and it’s likely that these non-experts will be opposed to climate change.

    Can you provide evidence of the numbers of MPs now who are not scientists yet opposed to climate change? They tend to come from one party I understand. As a non-science-trained graduate, I understand the evidence for climate change. Am I alone in this view? No.

    You seem to assume a level of gullibility which just isn’t there.

    ‘Often the opponents are simply in another discussion, leaving scientists to struggle to find a polite response.’

    Oh dear. This is exactly the kind of thinking which is so unhelpful. Such a holier than thou , arrogant attitude is a good way of ducking the challenge to your assumptions and reinforces my first comment about agendas. Thank you for that.

  • Stephen Howse 19th Feb '15 - 3:37pm

    The issue is that the problems scientists are trying to solve tend to require rather longer term attention, funding and solutions than the average career MP, ever mindful of the 24 news cycle and the need for instant gratification, is willing or able to think about.

    I for one hope that Julian Huppert, at least, holds on in Cambridge. It is useful to have an MP (or several) who has been a scientist and understands how scientists work and what they hope to achieve, just as it is useful to have MPs from other backgrounds.

  • Helen Tedcastle
    When speaking about the lack of STEM competence in parliament, I’m afraid Ed Davey is a clear case in point. Ed Davey completed his studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Whilst he may be an affable and nice chap, he believes that we can replace our fossil fuel driven economy with renewable (wind, solar, wave) energy and carry on Business as Usual.?
    As a retired engineer, I can tell you that it is *thermodynamically impossible, to maintain the economy and lifestyle we have enjoyed over the last 50 years, using only renewable sources of energy*. His Green Energy agenda is a fallacy, and a dangerous one at that, because we have a *STEM ignorant* population that believe him.
    As such, putting people like Ed Davey in charge of our future energy sources, is an act that is close to gross negligence. Frankly Helen, we need people in charge that know what they are talking about, and that includes a STEM proficient body of people at the helm of our rapidly shifting economy.

  • Then maybe it’s time to change the “lifestyle” now instead of later, because the entire point of calling non-renewable sources of energy “non-renewable” is to point out that they’re finite and are going to run out.

  • Tsar Nicolas 19th Feb '15 - 7:30pm

    David-1.

    Spot on comment. I knew I would agree with you on something eventually.

  • Ian Sanderson (RM3) 20th Feb ’15 – 8:19am

    Ian you are quite correct to say —
    “…Having heard Ed Davey speak on the subject several times, this is a distortion of the policy he advocates.”

    Unfortunately there is more to it than that. I have heard Ed Davey speak on the subject several times. The problem is I heard him before 2013 and I have heard him since.
    He has not made it easy for Liberal Democrats to defend him, because what he says this year, especially on nuclear power generation, is the opposite of what he used to say. Even up until the summer of 2013 he was dead against state subsidies for nuclear power and then he signed the deal for Hinkley C !!!

    I completely agree with you when you say —
    “… better insulation of buildings, better economy in use of fuel and better means of energy storage should all advance and make their contribution – especially if their development is being encouraged by governments and the EU.”

    It is a shame that more has not been done on basic insulation standards over the last 5 years.
    The poor are still shivering in houses and flats whilst paying over the odds to heat the air around their home as what little heat they can afford leaks out through under-insulated windows, doors, walls, floors and roofs.

    Worse still – why are builders still allowed to build new homes that are ridiculously inefficient in energy use?
    It possible to build homes that require virtually no heating at all — so why don’t we?

  • Sadie Smith 20th Feb '15 - 1:00pm

    Slightly baffled at ‘nothing about Fukushima’.
    Immediate review.
    Though 9.something earthquake rare even in Japan and most of the damage was done by the tsunami.
    There are design lessons but I hope anything planned now will have made significant changes since the old Fukushima design. It was an old design and not a brilliant location. Most buildings in Japan are engineered well.
    Tokyo blocks of flats swayed as designed.

  • Ian Sanderson
    I honestly don’t blame you for your genuine enthusiasm in wanting to see a Greener society, but in that Green pursuit over coming decades, you’ll also have to convince the public to accept a much lesser level of lifestyle? If we are serious about shifting to a less fossil,.. more.. renewable society, it will inevitably need a lifestyle shift closer to something akin to a Philippines or Cuban level of lifestyle.
    What Ed Long’s article tells us (as an aside), is that the failure in our decades of erosion in quality STEM education *right across society*, has led us into a child like ignorance of what can or cannot be achieved.
    We need to be honest with the public, because only folks with no STEM background can talk and dream about a ‘Star Trek’ future using wind, wave and solar. And the more quality STEM education we get ‘out there’, we will have less ‘techno dreamers’, and more ‘grounded realists’ ?
    And more importantly, we need less ‘techno dreamers’ and more ‘grounded realists’, in government.?

  • I think many here are missing much of the point of highlighting PPC’s and MP’s with a STEM background.

    Firstly, we are sending a strong message to our children: science and engineering not only matter but experience can enable you to take on leadership and decision making roles in public life. It is simply yet another manifestation of the same problem we see in industry where typically senior management posts tend to be occupied by people with little real technical background and understanding of their company.

    Secondly, in response to the question “Do MPs not deal with ‘evidence’ at the moment?” my answer is yes and no! The ‘evidence’ those who predominantly have a legal background is argument and presentation, not hard interpretation of facts. Having more STEM grounded MP’s would help arguments be more fact based, rather than belief-based.

  • Tsar Nicolas 21st Feb '15 - 1:56am

    Roland 20th Feb ’15 – 9:53pm

    I think many here are missing much of the point of highlighting PPC’s and MP’s with a STEM background.

    “Firstly, we are sending a strong message to our children”

    The whole point about raising Fukushima (three full core meltdowns) and the Arctic methane is that we may not have children alive to appreciate this message.

    Those studying the methane hydrate problem in particular are emphasising human extinction within one lifetime.

    http://arctic-news.blogspot.co.uk/p/global-extinction-within-one-human.html

    http://guymcpherson.com/2014/01/climate-change-summary-and-update/

  • Stephen Hesketh 21st Feb '15 - 3:51am

    JohnTilley 20th Feb ’15 – 9:34am

    Exactly what John says re Ed Davey’s position switch.

    Also the arctic permafrost methane and methane hydrate highlighted byTsar Nicolas (21st Feb ’15 – 1:56am). These are potentially mass extinction-causing problems known about and yet ignored for years by the population as a whole informed as they are by a strongly non-STEM media.

    More STEM candidates and MPs are needed from all parties simply because they/we represent a much under-represented area of knowledge and experience. It is ironic that in a science and technology based society, STEM-educated parliamentarians are out numbered by the faith based.

  • Stephen Hesketh 21st Feb '15 - 3:57am

    Excellent points also raised by Martin 19th Feb ’15 – 1:42pm.
    “Clearly expertise is required in all areas of parliament and needs to be respected as such: there are lawyers and economists aplenty but a comparative dearth of scientists. Of greater concern is when those who have scientific expertise are derided for their informed contributions. This is why this initiative is merits strong support.”

  • I finished my earlier comment —
    “..It possible to build homes that require virtually no heating at all — so why don’t we?”

    It is very relevant to Ed Long’s original article.
    If we had a Parliament stuffed to the rafters with scientists, engineers and technicians would my question be answered?

    Even Climate Change Deniers and other such Flat Earthers will not dispute the fact that we could build energy efficient homes at very little extra cost. Nobody disputes the facts. The evidence is poking us in the eyes.

    So why does Parliament fail to act effectively? Is it because of a lack of scientists?

    Or is it because of a lack of poor people in Parliament? If Parliamentarians and their families had to suffer and die from cold homes, from fuel poverty, perhaps then they might act ?

  • David Howarth 21st Feb '15 - 9:47am

    As a matter of fact, by my count, out of the 907 peope who have served as MPs in the last two parliaments, 79 have STEM degrees, 93 law degrees and 221 degrees in politics or economics. It isn’t true that there are far more lawyers than scientists. It is true that there are lots of PPE-types in the Commons, though that’s not really surprising in a political institution and it’s also the case that three quarters of recent MPs are not from that background.
    In addition, there is no evidence that MPs with STEM backgrounds vote any differently from other MPs (see Mark Goodwin, ‘Political Science? Does Scientific Training Predict UK MPs Voting Behaviour?’ Parliamentary Affairs 2014:1-22).
    Sorry to burst some of these balloons, but that’s the evidence!

  • “Those studying the … are emphasising human extinction within one lifetime.” Tsar Nicholas

    I was under the impression that we haven’t really deivted from the projections of the early 1970’s, just that we now have a lot more information. It was and still is my conjecture that we have a choice in the UK, for which the time is steadily running out: either we have a population of circa 35m in circa 2050 or we will have a sub 5M population, the nature of the storm approaching doesn’t allow for a population of 70+M…

  • Stephen Hesketh 21st Feb '15 - 6:19pm

    David Howarth 21st Feb ’15 – 9:47am

    David thank you for the figures. So 79 from science, technology, engineering and mathematics combined, 93 from the law alone. I know it’s our own fault for habitually lumping the STEM areas together but I think it still reveals an interesting disparity.

    Obviously majority groups such as women and ethnic minority groups are completely under represented but are there any other stand-out groups education or employment wise?

    Are there indications of numbers by parental class? As John Tilley touches upon, this would be even more interesting.

  • David Howarth 22nd Feb '15 - 11:06am

    @Stephen
    It’s very difficult to get reliable and comprehensive data on MPs’ parental backgrounds. The main sources, Who’s Who and Dods, don’t ask the right sort of question.
    On the lumping together of STEM subjects for the purpose of comparison with e.g. law, you might have a point. There are currently four or five times more STEM students than law students, but what I don’t know is what the figures were 20 or 30 years ago when current MPs were graduating – which was before policy became consciously pro-STEM.
    On rising occupations aming MPs, the most interesting is PR, advertising and marketing. There are 85 MPs in the current parliament who worked in those occupations before becoming MPs, up from 56 in the previous parliament.
    More predictably 135 MPs in the current parliament used to have a job working for an MP or MEP or as a Spad and 111 used to work in a paid job for a political party (55 had done both sorts of job).
    If you want to think about why there aren’t more STEM MPs, it might be significant that those with STEM degrees (and those with law degrees, as it happens) tend not to have worked in PR, advertising and marketing or to have worked as a researcher or Spad or for a party. The probability over the last two parliaments of any MP having worked in PR etc is 10.7%. The probability of a STEM MP of having worked in those occupations is 2.5%. For researchers or Spads, the overall probability is 18% but for STEM MPs it’s 7.6%. And for party employees the overall probability is 15.3%, but for STEM MPs it’s 6.3%.
    Whether the answer is to train STEM graduates (and lawyers) in PR techniques or, more radically, to refuse to accept the trend of modern politics – which ultimately means the trend in the electorate – to value images over thought is an interesting and difficult question.

  • Stephen Hesketh 22nd Feb '15 - 1:38pm

    @David

    Thank you for a typically informative answer. ‘Going the extra mile’ as some with the right training might say!

    “Whether the answer is to train STEM graduates (and lawyers) in PR techniques or, more radically, to refuse to accept the trend of modern politics – which ultimately means the trend in the electorate – to value image over thought is an interesting and difficult question.”

    Image over thought and or substance … indeed. I’d like to see ‘Life-skills and Citizenship’ as a curriculum topic. Everyone being better informed in this entire area would be a great positive and would reduce the ability of those in journalism, advertising and PR to misuse their skills to unfairly manipulate ordinary people regarding who and what they ‘choose’ to believe in, vote for, spend their money on etc.

  • David and Stephen

    I would not disagree with the drift of your comments.

    As for the social class of MPs and candidates — A good proxy for class is educational background.  
    The Sutton Trust regularly reports on this.
    The latest report showed a depressing lack of social mobility in the UK Parliament —

    “Private school and Oxbridge educations over-represented among likely new MPs”
    The educational backgrounds varied across the political parties, but none was close to the national average. Of the likely new MPs, 31% attended private schools, compared with 7% of the adult population, and 19% attended either Oxford or Cambridge universities, compared with 1% of the adult population.

    http://www.suttontrust.com/newsarchive/private-school-and-oxbridge-educations-over-represented-among-likely-new-mps/

  • David Howarth 23rd Feb '15 - 10:39pm

    @John
    That largely depends on what you mean by social class. If you think that there are precisely two classes and those two classes are the ‘posh’ and the ‘not posh’, having attended a private school will probably be quite a good proxy for parental social class. But if you think there are more classes than those two (for example working class, middle class and upper class), the private-state distinction will not be such a good proxy. It would lump together lots of working class and middle class parents.
    Attending Cambridge or Oxford is a worse proxy for ‘posh’ versus ‘not posh’ parental background than attending private school, since even in the late 70s and early 80s 50% of Cambridge and Oxford graduates had been to state schools. On the other hand, it might well be an OK proxy for ‘middle class’ versus ‘working class’ backgrounds.
    But then again, an even better proxy for ‘middle class’ versus ‘working class’ might be having any kind of degree. My impression is that there are large numbers of MPs from middle class backgrounds with degrees from universities other than Cambridge and Oxford. I would guess that we would gain more in accuracy by classifying them correctly as middle class than we would lose by incorrectly classifying as middle class their fellow graduates from working class backgrounds.
    But if you want to look at the parliamentary representation of the full panoply of British, or even just English, status groups (‘underclass’, working class, lower middle class etc etc) you need more than a couple of proxies.

  • Philip Thomas 23rd Feb '15 - 10:51pm

    Social class is difficult to measure and some measures just don’t work: no MP is going to be in receipt of significant state benefits, for example. Being an MP is itself a middle class profession (and being in the House of Lords is in a sense upper class by definition), but second job, or job before entering politics might be an indicator: education is a imperfect proxy for class background but not necessarily a good indicator of current class.

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