Julian Huppert and Evan Harris on Science in Parliament


Thursday, November 25th, 2010. 5:00pm


Julian Huppert MP

Cambridge MP Julian Huppert

On Friday the 19th of November I attended a public lecture organised by the Centre for Science and Policy titled: “The future of science in Parliament” The speakers were Cambridge MP Julian Huppert and ex. MP Evan Harris.

Cambridge’s previous MP David Howarth is now an Associate Fellow at the Centre for Science and Policy and was present at the event as was City Council leader Sian Reid.

Evan Harris

Evan Harris kicked off with some silly statements which MPs had reputedly made:

  • Alan Milburn who was Secretary of State for Health saying: “within three years all GPs will be above average”.
  • Patricia Hewitt who was Secretary of State for Health saying: “Home childbirth is safe, and we’ve commissioned research to prove it”
  • An MP commenting on research finding women who have an abortion are 30 per cent more likely to develop a mental illness and saying this meant 30% of those who had an abortion would develop a mental illness.
  • Nick Clegg describing an Institute for Fiscal Studies report as “utter nonsense”

Amusingly ironically Mr Harris apologised for not having had time to provide citations for any of the above examples; and cautioned that some might be apocryphal. Mr Harris did point to one example of an MP making a stupid statement which is in Hansard:

On the 14th of October 2009 David Tredinnick MP, a Conservative, said:

In 2001 I raised in the House the influence of the moon, on the basis of the evidence then that at certain phases of the moon there are more accidents. Surgeons will not operate because blood clotting is not effective and the police have to put more people on the street.

Turning to evidence based policy making Mr Harris said the government ought make policy based on science and not mumbo-jumbo. He cautioned that while this concept was gaining traction it was important not to let people get away with claiming evidence based policy making when this was not in fact what they were doing. (I hope Cllr Reid was listening, local LibDems on the city council have a very odd view of making evidence based decisions, which appears to often boil down to accepting officer recommendations – on the grounds that they are backed up by the “evidence” of the officer report; ie. its an excuse to seek to shift responsibility. )

Mr Harris spoke about the sacking of Professor David Nutt, when he had been government’s chief drug adviser. He said there was a need to ensure there were robust systems in place for the treatment of independent scientific advice. He lamented that when he was a member of the Science and Technology committee the committee had not been mature enough to investigate the debacle.

Mr Harris said scientists had to get into front foot campaigning. He said scientists were often in the position of defending things, like the need for (limited, well regulated) animal research, or genetic modification.

Mr Harris introduced his new project, a “Parliamentary Fact Checker”; he said he wanted to see “consequences” for MPs saying something in parliament which was not supported by evidence. He wants those MPs making such statements, or those who reject a scientific approach to the world, to have what they say highlighted and challenged. Mr Harris said he wants to start by proving his service through finding flaws in what MPs actually say; then move to offering an “overnight” checking service intended to pre-vet speeches etc. for scientific howlers (faster than the current service offered by the HoC Library or POST which he said take months to get to grips with an issue).

I think working with TheyWorkForYou would be a good way to do this and get the results distributed. There is already an annotations feature on the site; and it would be possible to build other “light” websites on top of TWFY providing alternative routes to access the information contained within it.

Julian Huppert

Mr Huppert started by saying he was one of two MPs with a PhD, the other being Conservative Therese Coffey who represents Suffolk Coastal.

Julian Huppert jumped into the subject of homeopathy; explaining that the government funds homeopathic “remedies” and a couple of homeopathic hospitals. He recounted how he had countered David Tredinnick’s Early Day Motions on homeopathy with a robust criticism on the research on which he based his assertions. (See my article on this escapade)

Mr Huppert urged those present who lived in South Cambridgeshire to make an appointment to go and see their MP, Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, who is responsible for the government continuing to spend taxpayer’s money (and money the Government is borrowing) on homeopathy. In one of a number of surprising statements Mr Huppert made he encouraged people to make appointments to see Mr Lansley in person, saying that MPs took more notice of constituents who were prepared to meet them in person than those who just wrote them emails.

Mr Huppert said he took those who met him in person more seriously as they were prepared to give up their time to see him so clearly cared passionately about whatever it was they had come to lobby him about. Personally I’ve always written to my MP (in the case of Julian Huppert tweeted him) because I’ve thought that would be the most efficient use of their, publicly funded, time, and also make it easier for them to act, for example by forwarding my email to the appropriate person.

Mr Huppert then went on to accuse journalists of being lazy. He illustrated his point by asking if there was anyone from the Cambridge News in the audience; a call which prompted no response.

Mr Huppert said the Government were running a “Say no to Chemists” campaign. (This BBC News Article explains)

Mr Huppert said his fellow MPs didn’t just have problems understanding science, but many also had problems understanding technology. He said that proposals for a compulsory science course for MPs had been diluted to a one hour voluntary seminar, which only MPs like him and others already well versed in science attended. Mr Huppert said that David Willetts MP “showed signs of getting it”.

Recently Mr Huppert has been tabling written questions asking how often ministers had met their Chief Scientific Advisors. He noted that the Prime Minister had refused to answer. Another minister responded the day after she had met her CSA for the first time.

Mr Huppert said he was trying to get the Treasury to have a Chief Scientific Advisor, but they didn’t think they needed one.

Turning to the comprehensive spending review, and the cash freeze for science funding Mr Huppert said that at the last minute the quartet of Cameron, Clegg, Osbourne and Danny Alexander were in Chequers when they got a phone call saying there was a spare £200m; they decided to put it to science partly to keep campaigners quiet.

Mr Huppert then went on to make his most newsworthy statement of the evening. I’ve written a whole article on the fact Mr Huppert said he had been banned from speaking on the subject of Tuition Fees by his party whips. Mr Huppert tweeted later in the evening to retract his statement and say he was only joking. The BBC have since reported that all LibDem MPs have been asked by their whips to keep a low profile on the subject.

Another revelation from Mr Huppert was that during the American presidential election at which Bill Clinton was elected he had a bumper sticker. (Mr Huppert doesn’t drive).

Questions

Questions were taken, by the session chair, almost exclusively from the first couple of rows of the audience. Mr Huppert jokingly declared an interest, in that he knew one of the questioners, he seemingly jokingly addressed him as “dad”; I have no idea what was going on there.

One area raised was science careers with one questioner noting only 3.5% of UK PhDs end up with an academic position. (If all the rest were ending up working in science outside academia that would be fantastic, but I think the implication was that many highly trained people end up not being employed in an manner which makes best use of their abilities.)

Nuclear Power

I would have liked to see Mr Huppert talk about his own, current, approach to evidenced based decision making. In the latest edition of Cambridge University’s alumni newsletter Mr Huppert had been asked for his views on nuclear power. His initial response was: “Long term, the answer is clearly nuclear fusion”, I think got that right. He went on to say:

I would certainly not rule nuclear out. It has a lot of benefits but it also has a lot of problems. This is why we must work out the cost of nuclear – the timeliness, the safety, and how you deal with issues such as residual waste – compared to other decarbonised forms of power. That’s the analysis that has to be done and is, I believe, being done. Therefore, I take an agnostic position. If it turns out that nuclear is the way forward, great. If it’s not, then we shouldn’t do it.

I have two problems with that, one is that I don’t think its in-line with what he was saying during the election where I thought his position was anti-nuclear power. The second problem is the use of evidence based policy making as an excuse not to make a decision. You can always call for more evidence, more research, more analysis but we need our representatives to be able to make a judgment based on the information in-front of them. I think keeping the lights on is one of Government’s key roles and our MP ought be able to tell us how he would like to see that done in the next few decades. My own view is that the Conservative led, rapid building of new nuclear power stations on the existing sites is the right policy.

Policing

Policing is another key area where I think evidence based policy has great potential to ensure that resources are targeted most appropriately.

As a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee I think Julian Huppert has the opportunity to ensure that the new elected police commissioners are able to make decisions well informed by high quality data, for example from hospitals, the fire service, insurance companies and the police themselves.

I suspect my questions would have been far to practical and real to be of interest to the audience of high-brow academics (the event was held in a Cambridge college).

Accessing Scientific Research from Parliament

Cambridge MP Julian Huppert records in his register of members’ interests that his Fellowship at the Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge, from which he is on long-term unpaid leave, gives him use of a computer. Presumably the reason the use of a computer within the university is of value to him is the access it gives to resources, such as scientific literature, which is very expensive for the general public to access.

Open access to the outputs of research, particularly publicly funded work, was briefly mentioned by both speakers.

I have made a freedom of information request asking Parliament about their arrangements for MPs and others to access scientific journal articles.

See Also

As far as I am aware this was Mr Huppert’s first pre-announced public appearance in Cambridge since his election. (It has been reported that he has also addressed a student protest)

10 comments/updates on “Julian Huppert and Evan Harris on Science in Parliament

  1. Richard Taylor Article author

    Chris,

    You are right. Evan Harris said that Huppert was the only MP who had ever worked as a practising scientist.

    There are a number of people who are MPs who are, or have been, medical doctors.

    There’s also Hywel Francis who has a PhD in History. There may be more.

  2. David Cleevely

    Richard

    Thanks for a very useful account of the meeting. We will be making the video available, so you can I hope use the time saved by providing more interesting things on the blog.

    As for questions being taken from the first two rows, as chair I was anxiously scanning the whole room for people who wanted to ask a question. Usually when I do that people see that I am looking and raise their hands. In this case – rather oddly I thought – the hands were raised in the first 6 rows only for most of the time available. The (as often happens) there was a rush and then two of the questions became more like statements. I was then unable to take questions from elsewhere. I think the fact that there were a lot of people standing at the back in relatively low light didn’t help.

    You aren’t the only one to mention this, so we’re changing the way in which we bring people in to auditoriums in future to make sure the front rows are packed before we fill up further back (people can’t seem to forget the student days of filling the back rows…). I will also make sure I encourage people to raise hands clearly and check that we have established eye contact!

    thanks

    David

  3. Richard Taylor Article author

    At about 16:40 this evening Julian Huppert tweeted to say he was preparing for another “Science in Parliament” lecture. This left me just enough time to put dinner in the oven on a timer and jump on my bike and cycle down to Cambridge University’s Mill Lane lecture rooms for the event which was open to the public.

    Oddly the event was organised in association with the Cambridge’s University Centre for Science and Policy just as the one the previous week had been. It was the only one of a series run by the Darwin College Students Association which is open to the public which perhaps suggests that Mr Huppert has specifically requested that the public be allowed to hear him speak – something which is very commendable.

    Mr Huppert gave a speech which was a cross between those given by him, and ex. MP Evan Harris the week before, taking the best bits from each. Huppert left out the “joke” about being gagged on tuition fees though.

    I tweeted the event live. Some of the elements I highlighted included:

    • Mr Huppert saying he was working on a “charter for entrepreneurs” aimed at making the environment for starting businesses better.
    • Mr Huppert saying person on a control order turned up in front row of public seating at House of Commons and started talking to people about how ineffective the orders were and what it was like to be on one.
    • Mr Huppert spoke against the Government policy on immigration caps. He said he wanted to tackle bogus students (and bogus colleges) but didn’t want to damage UK higher education. He said he had secured an exemption for those with sporting or scientific potential but wondered how in practice the UKBA would identify young scientists with good prospects. He said it was silly that there was not cap on Ministers of Religion entering the country, but there was on scientists and suggested scientists would be more useful.
    • Mr Huppert said the House of Commons library was the best he had ever used; and said the Cambridge University Library wasn’t very good. (I was shocked when I came to Cambridge at how rubbish the library services were compared to Imperial where I did my degree). For most of the time I was at the university it was in a dispute with scientific publishers which meant there was no access to many journals.
    • Mr Huppert Cambridge criticised select committees for reporting what most of their witnesses say rather than evaluating evidence. (We’ll see if his Home Affairs Committee does any better!)

    Mr Huppert was introduced by a student who repeatedly called him the MP for Cambridgeshire and an member of the Government; this wasn’t representative of the general level of knowledge of the audience though who appeared very well informed. Mr Huppert corrected the “member of the Government” bit but let the “Cambridgeshire” error go.

    He said Parliament was bizarre; particularly its buildings – he said there were more than twenty secret routes between Portcullis House and the voting lobbies

    Nuclear Power

    I had the opportunity to ask a question; I asked Mr Huppert if he thought a focus on evidence based policy making gave politicians an excuse not to come to a decision saying they needed to wait for more evidence. I suggested to Mr Huppert that his own position on Nuclear Power was an example of this, and we needed MPs who were willing and able to come to decisions based on the evidence available to them at the time.

    Mr Huppert said that his position on nuclear power was that he had no strong personal views on the subject; but that the evidence at the moment was leading him to accept it. He said that the case for new-nuclear was stronger a decade ago than it was now.

    Other Questions

    Mr Huppert opened up the questioning to any topic at all.

    Scientific Careers

    He was asked about scientific careers. He recounted a number of problems (eg. short term contracts) but the only thing he suggested as a possible fix was quicker turn-around by research councils on grant applications (which he said currently take six months). I thought that was shocking; clearly Mr Huppert has been lucky and had a very smooth and rapid ride to the top of academia, but he doesn’t appear to have really grasped the problems that have been faced by others and what could be done to put them right.

    Mr Huppert came close to taking the “we need more evidence” cop-out when he suggested that when Andrew Miller, MP, Chair for the Science and technology Select Committee speaks in a forthcoming event in the series (an event not currently marked as open to the public) they ask him to initiate an investigation into the problem.

    I certainly know that on my degree course, which was excellent in that it gave insight into the research work being conducted in the department, one of the key career thoughts of mine, and my co-hort was that if at all possible we wanted to avoid becoming post-docs!

    My view is that we need to get people into directing their own research as quickly as possible. I think we need to put a stop to template PhDs, and a stop to people tuning up at departments saying they want to do a PhD, but with no idea what it is they want to do.

    I think research councils should award funding based on the merit of the proposal; and they need to get rid of the support of a university head of department as a pre-requsite, and get rid of the requirement for ever-increasing time-served as a post-doc before becoming eligible to apply for a grant as a principle investigator. The power should go to the researcher with the idea; and departments ought compete to get funded researchers to work with them.

    I think research councils need to be much better at vetting institutions and keeping track of what they get out of the money that they spend. I could go on, but this subject deserves a series of articles to itself. i think at the moment we’re not generally retaining the best people in science jobs; we need to make the whole system (and the whole country) more meritocratic.

    Access to Ministers

    Mr Huppert was asked if he had more access to ministers and more influence as a government backbencher than he would have had in opposition. Pointing out he hadn’t experienced opposition Mr Huppert said that a key way he accessed government ministers was while voting alongside them in the lobbies. He said he had been able to get a half hour meeting with a minister within a few weeks; whereas his predecessor Mr Howarth had taken many months to secure a three minute meeting with a minister.

    Access to Civil Servants

    Mr Huppert complained about the divide between civil servants and MPs and the fact he isn’t able to go and speak to key civil servants; he has to talk to departments through ministers. As a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee he complained that when going to a meeting in the Home Office he had to go through the full security screening protocol, he certainly wasn’t able to simply walk in there and speak to people.

    Comparison with other Countries

    The audience for the talk appeared to be pretty multi-national.

    Huppert was asked to compare the UK with other countries; he said as he didn’t have first hand knowledge of other legislatures that was difficult, but pointed to a survey saying 50% of Americans wouldn’t elect someone who was otherwise the best candidate, as president if they didn’t believe in god. Mr Huppert said he was the chair of the UK Parliament’s Humanist group and that there were about 70 members so that didn’t appear to be a problem in the UK.

    How he Got Involved in Politics

    Mr Huppert was asked what drew him into politics; he said it was the UN and international affairs. He said that was an area though which was interesting but it was hard to get action so he started taking more interest in domestic politics, watching Prime Minster’s questions from the age of 17. (I would tweet drawing attention to that, but I was one of those who used to watch them after school before New Labour moved them to midday meaning I couldn’t watch them any more; I also saw one of Margret Thatcher’s in person – and I’m younger than Mr Huppert). He reported the TV coverage has sound from just the microphone nearest the speaking MP so you can hear the questions; but when he is in Parliament in person there is just a “wall of noise” and he often cannot hear questions or answers. (Mr Huppert often sits very close to the action).

    What if the Scientifically Rational Answer isn’t the Popular One

    Mr Huppert was asked a couple of variations of this question. Others asked about the influence of the reality of economics also having an impact.
    No real answer was given; though hints towards the idea that we need to better educate the population were made.

    Tuition Fees

    Mr Huppert was asked about tuition fees. He re-statated his promise to vote against increasing the cap on fees. He said he may find himself voting along side Conservatives who don’t want a new cap either – but their reasoning is they want no cap at all and universities to be able to charge what they want.

    (Clearly now Mr Huppert has spotted this coming a mile off he needs to do what he can, eg. lobbying the speaker, and putting down appropriate amendments, so that the vote is on something clear cut).

    Asked for his alternative to an increase in fees Mr Huppert said funding higher education out of general taxation. (I agree, but I would have added reducing the number of people going to university – there’s no point funding people with poor A Levels to do worthless courses). Mr Huppert suggested a Graduate Tax as a way from getting from where we are, to his ideal position. He said the LibDems had outlined a proposal in their manifesto to scrap tuition fees within 6 years.

    Asked about Nick Clegg and the fact he appears to be saying he made the wrong decision to say he would vote against a rise in the cap, and that was not the best thing for the country, Mr Huppert said he wished Clegg and Cable had done more to explain their views to the county. He said that the role of a minister in a coalition government was not clear and that he thought Clegg and Cable had toed the coalition government line too closely and ought to have said what they really believed. Huppert said that Clegg had failed to “give the narrative” explaining his change in view.

    (As Mr Huppert was speaking the BBC issued a newsflash Clegg Undecided on Fees Vote)

    Overall I thought the quality of the speech and the Q&A at this event, with an audience of what I got the impression were mainly graduate researchers with a smattering of more senior academics and members of the public was much higher quality than had the previous event monopolised by the establishment.

    I would urge Mr Huppert to tweet, or otherwise draw attention to, his future public appearances giving a bit more notice than he did today. There was plenty of space in the lecture theatre and given more notice and perhaps a plug in the local paper more people might have attended.

  4. David Cleevely

    Richard

    Useful comments again. We at the Centre for Science and Policy support the Darwin Students (and any other student societies if we can). They do a good job in generating a lively debate (clearly better in your view than ‘establishment’ meetings!).

    If any student societies or other students want to get involved could they please contact the CSaP? We welcome participation (and open discussion).

    best

    David

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