Science and Technology Select Committee: devoid of women, devoid of legitimacy

The whole Science and Technology Committee should be disbanded, and the process of establishing it restarted, says Dame Athene Donald

September 13, 2017
Time to react protester

We frequently have the message “the will of the people” rammed down our throats by politicians in the present post-European Union referendum age, but we don’t hear much about “the will of the scientists”. In the wake of the absurd situation in which UK democracy now finds itself, with a Commons Science and Technology Committee devoid of (to use the words of universities and science minister Jo Johnson) “basic legitimacy”, because the line-up announced this week consists of eight men and (wait for it) zero women, I think that we need to be more vocal.

What should we require of such a committee? Diversity is just one basic tenet that I think should be adhered to. Some knowledge about – or at least an interest in – science/technology might be good, too.

David Tredinnick was a member of this committee from 2013 to 2015; yet he is a believer in the curative power of homeopathy (beyond a placebo effect presumably) and thinks that astrology has a role to play in medicine (according to his Wikipedia page). Those views are not a good recommendation for someone to sit on this committee.

Among the eight men announced on 12 September, Graham Stringer is a card-carrying scientist with a chemistry degree from the University of Sheffield. He is also a trustee of Lord Lawson’s climate-change-denying Global Warming Policy Foundation. This does not give me confidence that he is the right man to listen to evidence and form sound views on our futures. 

There are a couple of lawyers, including Norman Lamb as chair, and (perhaps inevitably) a PPE graduate from the University of Oxford.

But there are no women. And no formal eligibility requirements to be a member. We are putting our collective trust in a committee to make the best use of scientific evidence for the good of the country in the hands of a non-representative and randomly qualified bunch of male MPs.

I don’t feel that this is in anyone’s best interests. I am pleased to see that Lamb has recognised the inappropriateness of the situation and has written to the party whips asking them to think again: there are still three places to be filled so there is scope to redress the gender imbalance.

I don’t think that this will necessarily do very much for the scientific expertise of the membership. Furthermore, although it might fix the numbers, I am not convinced that scrabbling around twisting three female MPs’ arms to join the committee is very desirable. It is easy to imagine them feeling not entirely comfortable being strong-armed like that. It is demeaning to be told we need you “because you are a woman”; I speak from experience.

Personally, I am in favour of the whole committee being disbanded (except for the chair, who was chosen separately) and starting again with a more thoughtful approach to the composition of the committee. We will see what the whips and Lamb decide to do.

This government claims to set great store by the strength of the UK’s science and innovation (although I am hardly convinced by the non-concrete, non-costed statements in its recent Brexit science position paper); it also frequently talks the talk about the importance of diversity. The issues do not seem well joined up here.

The Campaign for Science and Engineering has a useful list to help a whip who wanted to check who – male or female – knows something about science, or has at least expressed a long-term interest. I am sure that having MPs with a diversity of experience is desirable – it would be hard to insist on a first or higher degree in an accredited science subject as a sine qua non for membership. But do we have to move towards a quota system? A quota of science graduates, a quota of women, a quota of black and minority ethnic academics and so on.

I would hate to see this, but if our venerable Parliament can’t do a better job, perhaps that’s needed.

Having read the rules for how select committees are selected, it seems to me that for each of them there is a similar danger of imbalance and lack of knowledge in the membership. There is no requirement set out for any kind of monitoring of the lists that the parties put forward to check that they aren’t all from Eton, or based in the Home Counties, or any other form of undesirable homogeneity. There is nothing to require that people have any demonstrable skills or interest in a relevant area, although one might hope that they would not be voted for by their parties if they didn’t.

However, having once had to present the work of the Royal Society’s Education Committee to the Commons Education Committee at its request, I was horrified to find that I had to spend the first quarter of an hour explaining to members what the Royal Society was. It did not feel like an auspicious start to my presentation. They clearly did not feel that it was part of their brief to have this sort of background information.

In higher education, I guess that we are not fed up with experts, as at least one politician has claimed to be. I hope that we are equally not fed up with arguments in favour of diversity. But somehow we are losing the battle on the first point. Parliament seems barely to have noticed the second on its own doorstep.

Dame Athene Donald is professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge, and master of Churchill College, Cambridge.


Editor’s note
Shortly after this blog was published, Conservative MP Vicky Ford took one of the three remaining places on the committee. 

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Reader's comments (2)

The principles of the diversity brigade seem to be rather flexible. If there weren't any women it would apparently be "devoid of legitimacy"; One could ask why, as many people have under Prof Donald's Guardian article. (By the way, it's now been announced that Vicky Ford is on the committee). But when it comes to any diversity in terms of opinion, Prof Donald seems to be against it - see her sneering remarks about Graham Stringer.
Your statement that Lord Lawson and “his” Global Warming Policy Foundation are “climate-change-denying” is not true. Lord Lawson, as he points out every time he is questioned on the subject, does not deny the reality of climate change, but simply questions its magnitude and potential effects, and the same goes for Graham Stringer, whose disagreements with the “consensus” are scientific disagreements. It is extremely disappointing to see distinguished scientists repeating this error.

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