Only one of the 650 MPs in the House of Commons was a scientist before getting into politics, and there aren’t very many more who even have much of a track record of a substantial lay interest in science. So the quality of the support that’s available to parliamentarians and their staff is pretty critical if they’re to make informed contributions on policy issues with a strong scientific component.
I’m thus delighted to hear that Chris Tyler, who’s currently executive director of the Centre for Science and Policy at Cambridge University, has been appointed as the new director of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST). He’ll do a fine job, which, if he gets the right backing from the parliamentary authorities, could significantly improve the quality of debate.
POST has been around since 1989, and produces regular briefing notes on issues with a scientific dimension which are more often than not excellent background reading. What it isn’t, though, is particularly flexible.
As Imran Khan, of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, argued recently in Research Fortnight, it ought to be well placed to respond quickly to the news and parliamentary agenda, to offer immediate advice to MPs and to help them to find appropriate experts. It could provide a service for politicians akin to what the Science Media Centre does for journalists.
Chris was an important contributor to the book, who’s thought deeply about the relationship between science and politics and draws on experience that includes a spell as specialist adviser to the Commons Science and Technology Committee. He understands the importance of the flexibility that Imran highlights, and I don’t think he’d have taken the job without a mandate to deliver it.
The problem with the lack of scientific expertise in British politics is not, for the most part, that it allows MPs who are “anti-science” to dominate proceedings. There aren’t many David Tredinnicks in the Commons. Rather, it’s that most MPs are indifferent to science and poorly briefed, and wouldn’t really know where to start to engage with it. With few colleagues who are comfortable in the field, it isn’t a subject they encounter often enough to work out whether they even have a position.
That’s something that a more dynamic POST could change for the better. Provided he’s allowed to do things his way, I have every confidence that Chris will achieve that.