Peer (and MP) review

June 21, 2012

I wonder if the Campaign for Science and Engineering knows enough history to recognise Benito Mussolini's model of a "corporate state"? ("Loss of science expertise feared", News, 14 June.) The group demands that at least 30 per cent of a reformed House of Lords' membership should be appointed (not elected) to ensure "scientific expertise" is not lost from Parliament. Mussolini wanted every area of work to be incorporated as a distinct cell within one controlling state structure.

This is incompatible in the long term with the one-man, one-vote democratic choices on which the UK ultimately depends. Our voters are free to choose representatives on the basis, say, of their haircut, fashion sense or accent, as well as any "expertise" they feel is important. If they want, a few years later they may prefer a different haircut - or even reward good performance for constituents and national impact in parliamentary debates and committees!

A weakness in our democracy is the low and declining level of participation by my fellow scientists. Cambridge City is lucky to have Julian Huppert, an MP who was a research scientist, but we need scientists who are willing to travel to Westminster and give less expert MPs the benefit of their evidence. In the US, legislative ignorance of, say, climate science is a major barrier to coherent action. In the UK, I have found that all-party parliamentary groups welcome researchers for "the science bit", and there is also a range of consultations and topic-specific forums that are crying out for scientists' insights. The only essential requirements are to speak English (not jargon) and to practise putting an idea across in 20 to 30 seconds. If peers and MPs want more than that, they will ask for more...but most chairs have to operate in tight time slots and want to involve a variety of contributions.

An alternative route for impact on policy is open to early-career researchers: a period attached to a government department. Mechanisms for this can differ between disciplines and ministries, but professional bodies offer advice on accessing the opportunities. Yes, we need more legislators who appreciate scientific evidence, but we also need more scientists who understand how our laws are shaped.

Woody Caan, Professorial fellow, Royal Society for Public Health

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