A Terrible Night for Science

7/5/10

From The Times Online

Last week, we predicted that May 6, 2010 would be a bad night for parliamentary representation of science in Britain. Many of the Commons's most effective champions of science were retiring or threatened with losing their seats, and they did not appear to be matched by many likely newcomers with similar credentials. The number of MPs with a science background, our research indicated, was likely to fall from 86 in the last Parliament to 77 in the new one.

It turned out to be much worse than that. This election looks to have had a truly dreadful outcome for science, regardless of which party or parties ultimately go on to form the Government. It has denuded the House of Commons of science's strongest advocates, and significantly eroded its scientific expertise.

The most damaging result came in Oxford West & Abingdon, where Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat science spokesman, lost to the Tories by just 176 votes, after a recount. His departure will be keenly felt, for no MP has done more to speak up for science and to campaign for its interests over the past 13 years.

Evan Harris has been front and centre on almost any scientific issue you care to name. He played a pivotal role in ensuring that the recent Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act was amended so as not to constrain science or medicine. He has led the campaign for reform of the libel laws, in light of cases such as Simon Singh's. He speaks up for the researchers who conduct animal experiments, and was a brave defender of Oxford University's new animal research facility (which was in his constituency under old boundaries).

He has held ministers to account over their use of scientific advice, particularly following the sacking of Professor David Nutt, and over funding problems such as those that beset the Science and Technology Facilities Council. And he is a scourge of homeopaths and other peddlers of unproven or disproved alternative medicines.

Taking these positions did not always make him popular, and he was targeted in his constituency by both animal rights and embryo rights groups. It is sobering to think that should the next Chancellor propose large cuts in the science budget, as is widely expected, he will not be around to scrutinise and dispute them -- especially as other champions of science such as Phil Willis and Brian Iddon have retired.

Even those who disagree with Harris on many issues should recognise that he has been an exemplary parliamentarian. Science has lost a great political friend, and the Commons has lost one of its finest members. It needs more MPs like Evan.

Harris's defeat was not the only bad result for science. Four other sitting MPs with a background in science -- all of them Liberal Democrats -- also went down to more or less unexpected defeats: Willie Rennie, Lembit Opik, Paul Rowen and Sandra Gidley.

Many more candidates with science backgrounds who had a strong chance of winning fell short. Losing Lib Dems included Lucy Care in Derby North, Kevin Lang in Edinburgh North & Leith, John Ball in Ealing Central & Action, and Peter May in Swansea West (Lib Dems). Losing Tories included Susan Williams in Bolton West, Bruce Laughton in Gedling, Maggie Throup in Solihull, Chris Philp in Hampstead & Kilburn, Rachel Joyce in Harrow West and Adrian Owens in Lancashire West (Con). And losing Labour candidates included Mike Robb in Inverness, Nairn, Lochaber & Strathspey, and Naz Sarkar in Reading West.

Very few MPs with a science background bucked the trend by winning close contests: Roberta Blackman-Woods held Durham for Labour, David Heath (Lib Dem) defended Somerton & Frome, and while Brent Central has yet to declare, Sarah Teather is reportedly ahead for the Lib Dems. Ian Swales, a Lib Dem engineer, did spectacularly well to land Redcar with a 22 per cent swing.

Our preliminary maths, based on the spreadsheet we published last week, suggests that 71 MPs will have a background or past interest in science. That compares to our prediction of 77 such MPs, and 86 with similar credentials in the last Parliament.

We also think that Harris's defeat means that only one active member of the last House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, Graham Stringer, has survived. Blackman-Woods was also a member, as were several surviving Tories, but they did not attend meetings regularly or at all during the last session.

One bright spot came in Cambridge, where Julian Huppert, a working computational biologist at Cambridge University, won comfortably. Let's hope that new MPs such as Huppert, Therese Coffey (Con, Suffolk Coastal, Chemistry PhD) and Stella Creasy (Lab, Walthamstow, Psychology PhD) can replace the Commons champions science has lost.

UPDATE

Lord Drayson just sent me the following tweets:

"Yes v sad to see Evan Harris lose his seat. He was an outstanding advocate for science and will be sorely missed.

"I also agree with you about the worrying loss of so much science expertise from the House of Commons."

http://timesonline.typepad.com/science/2010/05/election-2010-a-terrible-night-for-science.html

 

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© Keith Mann
puppypincher@yahoo.co.uk