Research intelligence - A geneticist in the House

Cambridge academic and Lib Dem MP Julian Huppert is a champion for science in the new Parliament. Paul Jump reports

August 12, 2010

Julian Huppert admits that he feels the weight of expectation placed on him by a scientific community desperate for advocates in the new UK Parliament.

The election in May of Dr Huppert, a University of Cambridge geneticist, was one of the few bright spots for science in a general election that saw many of its previous champions either retire or lose their seats.

The Liberal Democrat is one of only two members of this Parliament with a science doctorate (the other is Therese Coffey, the Conservative member for Suffolk Coastal, who has a chemistry PhD) and the only one to have worked as a researcher.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Dr Huppert said that "every science organisation in the country" had been trying to contact him since the election.

He accepted that he has "no choice" but to take on the role of their advocate. "It is something I care about, and it is a role I'm happy to do some of. I just wish there were more people to share the work."

One scientific battle he would rather not be fighting is that against homeopathy.

Yet he got his largest cheer so far from the science community when he tabled a scornful amendment to an early-day motion submitted by David Tredinnick, the homeopathy-supporting member of the Health Committee and Tory MP for Bosworth.

The motion praised a South African study purporting to provide evidence for the effectiveness of a homoeopathic cure for insomnia, but Dr Huppert pointed out a number of serious flaws that had been flagged up to him by Twitter users.

He said Mr Tredinnick's failings were far from unique in the House of Commons and admitted that he has been disappointed by most MPs' lack of concern for evidence.

"Just yesterday I was collared by an MP who took issue with evolution and said we shouldn't look at evidence for these big things. It was an astonishing and quite frightening comment," he said.

Nor, he added, is the situation helped by the press' depiction of every political change of heart as a humiliating U-turn, even when it is based on new evidence.

More than just 'the academic MP'

Dr Huppert welcomed the government's new guidelines on scientific advice but said he wondered how much access to ministers the chief scientific advisers actually have.

He is also concerned that the Treasury lacks a chief scientific adviser, which, he argued, makes it less receptive to the scientific arguments made by other departments.

But he insisted he does not favour a technocracy, because value judgements - the stuff of politics - are crucial in deciding how to weigh up evidence.

He shares the science community's fears about the long-term damage that deep cuts to the research budget would do to the UK's research base, and also worries about the government's proposed cap on immigration, which he called "very short-sighted".

He expressed concern over current rules on temporary visas, noting that there had been "case after case" of foreign academics and students being denied entry to the UK, including 5 per cent of delegates to one recent Cambridge conference.

Dr Huppert said the demands of being an MP made it entirely unrealistic for him to continue his research while in office.

He admitted that although there are parts of academia that are "fantastic", he would not miss the grant application treadmill, which he said "has to end".

A faster response rate to applications would help, he said, because it would allow academics to concentrate on obtaining funding for their best idea, rather than "peppering ideas around" in the hope that one of them wins funding months later.

"If your really good idea got rejected, you could tweak it and apply again," he said.

Another bugbear of his academic life, he said, was the amount of time he had to spend keeping up with the ever-expanding literature. He suggested that assessments of research quality should put more emphasis on quality rather than quantity of papers.

But he has no intention of spending all his time in Parliament speaking out about such academic issues. Becoming an MP, he said, has presented him with a "great opportunity" to make more of a difference, and he is anxious to avoid being "pigeonholed" as "the academic MP".

He cites human rights as another of his passions and, significantly, chose to sit on the Home Affairs Committee rather than the Science and Technology or Health committee in his first Parliament.

"If my aim had been to spend all my time talking about science policy, I could have just stayed in academia and not commuted to London," Dr Huppert said.

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