Ignorance lays Parliament open to 'nonsense debates'

Andrew Miller admits that busy MPs avoid science policy as it is too challenging. Paul Jump reports

July 29, 2010

Many MPs do not get involved in science policy because the issues take them "seriously outside their comfort zone", a senior parliamentarian has admitted.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Andrew Miller, the new chair of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, said busy MPs' widespread ignorance about scientific issues made Parliament prone to "nonsense debates" such as that over the MMR vaccine, where "populist non-science became used by a number of MPs".

Speaking after the committee's first hearing last week (see box below), he said he hoped the committee's reports would educate MPs and thereby improve public understanding of science.

The Labour MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston said his committee would announce next week which issues it would investigate, including the impact of the recent Budget.

He admitted he had been "astonished" that the Conservative-led government had reserved the chairmanship of the committee for a Labour MP, and said he hoped this did not imply that science was not a key priority for the government.

Mr Miller said the committee had deliberately soft-pedalled universities and science minister David Willetts, preferring to get a sense of his "general philosophy".

He was impressed by the minister's enthusiasm, frankness and refusal to reach for "quick fixes" or to blame everything on the previous government.

The latter, he said, was "illustrative of the fact that when you sit in the (science minister's) seat, it is very unlikely you will come to a diametrically opposite set of conclusions (to your predecessor)". But, he added, "it may be that the Treasury will."

Mr Miller, who also sat on the committee in the 1992 Parliament, began his working life as a technician at Portsmouth Polytechnic, before representing technical staff as a trade unionist.

He dismissed criticism that the committee was light on direct scientific expertise, adding that "there is also merit in any committee being a cross-section of society".

He pointed out that the committee's former chair, Phil Willis, had not been a scientist, but had done "a first-rate job in helping the committee to work in a consensual manner and hit some of the difficult targets like homeopathy quite hard".

Earlier this week, the government's response to the committee's homeopathy report dismissed its call for the NHS to stop funding homeopathic treatments. The response says it is better to require clinicians to explain to patients that evidence for the effectiveness of homeopathy is "weak or absent".

paul.jump@tsleducation.com.

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