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How Science and Engineering is Represented in the new Parliament

29 May 2015

Following the UK election, Henry Lovett, CaSE’s intern, takes a look at how science and engineering is represented in the new Parliament

With the official opening of Parliament, the dust has settled after the general election and MPs must get back to business. We think it is time to take a look at the changes to the representation of science and engineering in the House of Commons, as it is imperative that there is still a body of support for this vital sector.

In simple numerical terms, there has been a reduction in the number of scientists and science backgrounds in Parliament, from 103 to 91. We considered a background in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics or medicine) to consist of a related degree, a career in a relevant field, or membership of the Commons Science and Technology Committee. Of the major parties, only the Conservative Party have increased their science base, now having 52 MPs with a STEMM background (up from 45), while Labour can muster 32 (down 12) and the Liberal Democrats have plummeted from 10 to one. These changes are broadly in line with the overall differences in representation of each party after the election. The SDLP retain their single STEMM-interested member, leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell, while the Alliance Party has lost its presence in Parliament and with it engineer Naomi Long. The SNP surge includes some members with STEMM interests, giving them a total of four. The Liberal Democrat losses include their science spokesman, Dr Julian Huppert, who was the only MP with a background in scientific research. We hope this vital experience is represented again in the future.

It was known before the election that three members of the Commons Science and Technology Committee were standing down, including the Chair, Andrew Miller, who has been a well-regarded champion of science in Parliament. We have previously published Mr Miller’s thoughts on why new MPs should work hard for science and engineering. What was not expected was the electoral defeat of members Stephen Mosley and Pamela Nash, leaving only five members with experience of the last Science and Technology Committee still with seats. It will be interesting to see who is elected to sit on and chair the new committee. All that is known at the time of writing is that the Chairmanship will go to the Conservative Party for this Parliament. It should also be noted that committee member David Tredinnick, a long-time antagonist of the scientifically-minded, remains in Parliament along with others such as Nadine Dorries and Owen Paterson, who are known to have controversial views around science.

Despite some of these negative developments, there is still reason to be optimistic about scientists in Parliament. The field of medicine has multiple representatives, including new MPs Dr Tania Mathias (Conservative) and Dr Philippa Whitford (SNP). There are also new engineers such as Royston Smith (Conservative) and Christopher Green (Conservative), and other new MPs with varied backgrounds and educations around the sciences.

We are pleased to see an increasing diversity of science representation as well as in Parliament generally. Women now account for over a quarter of all MPs with STEMM backgrounds, and nearly a third of MPs overall. As with the representation of women and minority ethnic groups in the study and practice of the sciences, however, there is still further to go in terms of diversifying representation among MPs.

Science has also seen changes in ministerial appointments. Dr Greg Clark, previous Minster for Science, Universities and Cities has been moved to the Department for Communities and Local Government, being replaced in the universities and science briefs by Jo Johnson. Mr Johnson is something of an unknown quantity to the scientific community, but we hope he will become an effective and engaged minister. Unfortunately, and unlike previous science ministers, Mr Johnson will not attend cabinet. Therefore, we hope that science is effectively and enthusiastically represented by Sajid Javid, the new Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). George Freeman has retained his post as life sciences minister, shared between BIS and the Department of Health. The former Science and Universities minster David Willetts has stood down as an MP, meaning his expertise and experience has also been lost from the House of Commons. However, it is likely that he will continue to be an advocate for the support of science behind the scenes in the Conservative Party.

Other ministerial posts are also of relevance to science in this country. The appointment of Amber Rudd to Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has been welcomed by those who support action on climate change, as while Ms Rudd has no particular science background her record shows she is willing to engage with and listen to evidence. Across all departments, policy making will benefit from giving due weight to reliable evidence, policy trials and thorough analysis and evaluation.

It is important for politicians to be able to communicate effectively about policies, especially in complex areas such as science and engineering. The entry to Parliament of former technology journalist Matt Warman (Conservative) may mean we have an MP who can make this area more accessible to the public and help to increase popular support for science and research investment.

History has shown that a science background is not a requirement to stand up for it in Parliament, and the particular champions of science, engineering and innovation in this Parliament are perhaps yet to make themselves known. Antoinette Sandbach (Conservative) is a former Welsh Assembly member who has a record of raising science issues despite no science background. This is commendable and encouraging. We hope all of the new MPs will recognise the importance of science and engineering and interact productively with CaSE, and the wider sector, in the future.