Matthew Ashton:

Comment: MPs either don’t understand – or care about – science

Comment: MPs either don’t understand – or care about – science

By Matthew Ashton

You have to wonder why governments bother to employ scientists at all. Sometimes it might just be easier and cheaper for them to toss a coin in the air and make their decisions based on that. They could always give it a fancy title – 'professor Coin' perhaps – to give it added legitimacy. It would be better than the current system of consulting hundreds of experts and then ignoring their advice.

Last week saw two scientific stories of interest. One was a new study concerning the possible increased number of deaths resulting from building a third runway at Heathrow. The other involved a large group of scientists pointing out the flaws in the government's current badger cull plan. Both made a splash in the media, but going on past evidence it's debatable how much influence they'll have on Whitehall policy. Certainly the momentum on the badger cull now seems unstoppable.

This seems to be part of a wider trend. For the past 30 years scientists have been lauded for their achievements and then dismissed when they question official policy. Far too often governments use scientific advice like a drunkard's lamppost – more for support than illumination. They quote it endlessly when it agrees with them and discretely ignore it when it doesn't.

A good example is drugs policy. For years our endless war on drugs has been driven more by tabloid headlines then scientific evidence, with newspapers getting to define the terms of the debate. One person dying of something will be endlessly trumpeted as proof of its danger but smoking and other harmful pursuits will be self-righteously protected under the banner of individual freedom from the poisonous interference of the so-called 'nanny state'.

Even if all the scientists in Britain spoke out tomorrow agreeing on a particular issue, there's no way the government would act without first checking the editorial pages and polls to see which way the wind of public opinion was blowing. In a similar fashion climate change policy appear to be based on what will produce a good photo opportunity rather than years of careful research.

Of course governments do have to take in a wide range of factors and opinions when making decisions. Winston Churchill famously commented that he wanted experts on tap rather than on top. However the scientific advice should at least underpin it. Equally politicians should be braver to defend legitimate scientific reports that produce unpopular results. The trouble with this is that in many cases it's doubtful if they've read them.

A favourite stock phrase endlessly rolled out in debate shows is that 'the evidence shows'. I'd be willing to bet that nine times out of ten the person uttering it hasn't actually read the evidence, just a short summary of it, and even if they had read it they probably didn't understand it.

Paradoxically politicians are always talking about the importance of the sciences to Britain's future. Hence the massive push taking place at the moment to get more students to study mathematics, engineering, physics, chemistry and biology at school and university. But if you look at the make-up of the House of Commons it still seems to be dominated by lawyers, PR people and policy wonks. A few more scientists amongst the ranks of our MPs wouldn't go amiss.

If it weren't for the fact that it would be incredibly unpopular amongst MPs, it might be useful to make every member do a one year Open University science and mathematics course when entering parliament for the first time. Apart from the fun of seeing politicians take exams, it might solve their seeming inability to do basic mathematics, and stop them from mis-quoting statistics. Alternatively it could stop them confusing speed and velocity, which I saw during a TV interview a few years ago. At the very least some scientific study might give them a bit more respect for the scientists they supposedly hold in such high regard.

Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.

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