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Event Review: Do We Need More Scientists in Parliament?

17 December 2012
Appeared in BioNews 686

Do We Need More Scientists in Parliament?

Organised by the Society of Biology

Charles Darwin House, 12 Roger Street, London WC1N 2JU, UK

Thursday 29 November 2012

'Do We Need More Scientists in Parliament?', organised by the Society of Biology, Thursday 29 November 2012

Do we need more scientists in Parliament? The Society of Biology recently embarked on a series of public debates on science policy, launching with this probing question.

This was a highly popular event, requiring an overspill room to house all the attendees. Although it was held by the Society of Biology, it seems the topic was of particular interest to people from many walks of life. There was the expected mix of scientists (including me), but refreshingly the audience also included people working outside the scientific field.

Juice, nibbles and wine were available upon arrival, which created a lively atmosphere. After being suitably refreshed, we were ushered into the debate room and introduced to the panel. They included a mix of political party members and academics with varying degrees of scientific background. The evening was chaired by Chi Onwurah, Shadow Minister for Technology and Science, herself an engineer.

The debate was slow to begin, with each panellist introducing their perspectives and reasoning, and politely passing the microphone between them. Their arguments were straightforward and rational, but I felt they lacked passion.

However, the debate heated up when Dr Phillip Lee, a Conservative MP and part time GP, brought party policies into the discussion. Arguing for the other side, Dr Evan Harris, a former Liberal Democrat MP, couldn't pass up the challenge, and at times the debate risked descending into a political points match - one that the chair struggled to both control and keep out of.

The discussion weaved its way across several topics, taking a significant diversion towards what was, perhaps, a more important and relevant topic; the future funding of scientific research in this country. The politicians wrangled over public versus private funding, with Dr Lee declaring that Darwin privately funded his work. It seemed an odd choice, given that Darwin is not exactly current, and he was quickly shot down by Dr Harris, who pointed out most scientists are not rich enough to fund their own research.

The debate continued in this vein, being largely dominated by the passionate political party members. The sentiment behind their arguments was so strong that at one point Dr Lee hung his head in his hands in despair at Dr Harris' perspective, adding a comic tone to the proceedings.

Curiously though, the one active scientist on the panel, Dr Jennifer Rohn, ventured no opinion on this subject of funding, perhaps underlining how removed many scientists are from questions about the future of our financial support.

Following the debate, a reasonable amount of time was also set aside for questions from the audience. This was a good idea, and engaged us with the debate, but I felt it necessitated a little more planning. Multiple questions were taken at once, and each panellist allowed to respond. Unfortunately, this system often resulted in the panellists addressing each other's comments, rather than the audience's questions.

After the questions, we were asked to vote: 'do we need more scientists in Parliament?' When registering we were asked the same question in an online poll, and an overwhelming majority, 95 percent, had voted 'yes'. I was undecided. While the benefits to approaching policies with a scientific perspective are clear, how would such a thing be practically possible? And would it be ethical to deliberately favour politicians with one background over another?

At the end of the debate, while many still raised their hands for 'yes', the discussion had clearly influenced a reasonable number of people, myself included, swaying them to 'no'.

Being able to affect opinion is the hallmark of a good debate in my view, and this discussion succeeded in doing so, despite the clear bias of the audience. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening, and have high hopes for the forthcoming series of Policy Late debates, though I hope in future that they concentrate on more practical and relevant topics.

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