O'Really?

May 8, 2015

MPs with Science Degrees: How did Science & Technology do in the UK General Election 2015?

In case you missed it, the people of the United Kingdom have just democratically elected 650 Members of Parliament (MPs) to run their government for the next five years [1,2]. How many of these newly elected MPs have science backgrounds? Like many, I was inspired by Mark Henderson’s book The Geek Manifesto [3] back in 2012 after reading an article which argued that (quote) “with just one British MP having a scientific background, the people who run the country clearly need some expert advice”. So when I heard the news that the MP concerned, Julian Huppert (a.k.a. the “only scientist in the commons”) had lost his Cambridge seat, I lamented accordingly on twitter:

My lament was retweeted quite a bit, then Roger Highfield at the Science Museum in London challenged the interwebs to find if it really was true:

The sciencey MP factoid was quickly questioned by some random bloke on twitter called Richard Dawkins:

… and lots of people weighed in (see below)  – as they usually do on twitter. Thankfully Margaret Harris at Physics World, set the record straight and drew attention to the impressively large Physics Vote. Viva La Relativity!

Who knew there were so many physicists involved in the election? Not me. Turns out, the article about only one science MP, is a bit misleading. Julian Huppert was the only MP in the last government to be a “primary science worker” – that’s not quite the same as studying science at university. Julian was the only MP in the last government with scientific background at PhD level:

Members of the UK Parliament with science and technology degrees in 2015

So with help from twitter, the list of MPs with science degrees looks something like this (will update as needed):

  1. Heidi Allen MP for South Cambridgeshire (BSc in Astrophysics)
  2. Steve Baker MP for Wycombe (BSc Aerospace Engineering, MSc Computer Science)
  3. Gavin Barwell MP for Croydon Central (BA Natural Sciences)
  4. Margaret Beckett MP for Derby South (BSc Metallurgy)
  5. Karen Bradley MP for Staffordshire Moorlands (BSc Mathematics)
  6. Tom Brake MP for Carshalton and Wallington (BSc Physics)
  7. Julian Brazier MP for Canterbury (BA Mathematics)
  8. Andrew Bridgen MP for North West Leicestershire (BSc Genetics)
  9. Alan Brown MP for Kilmarnock (BSc Civil Engineering)
  10. Therese Coffey MP for Suffolk Coastal (BSc & PhD Chemistry)
  11. David Davis MP for Haltemprice & Howden (BSc Computer Science)
  12. Robert Flello MP for Stoke-on-Trent South (BSc Chemistry)
  13. Liam Fox MP for North Somerset (Bachelor of Medicine)
  14. Mark Hendrick MP for Central Lancashire (BSc Eletrical Engineering)
  15. Carol Monaghan MP for Glasgow North West (BSc Physics)
  16. Liz McInnes MP for Heywood & Middleton (BSc Biochemistry)
  17. Chi Onwurah MP for Newcastle Central (BEng Electrical Engineering)
  18. Chris Philp MP for  Croydon South (BSc Physics)
  19. Alok Sharma MP for Reading West (BSc Physics & Electronics)
  20. Alec Shelbrooke MP for Elmet & Rothwell (BEng Mechanical Engineering)
  21. Graham Stringer MP for Blackley (BSc Chemistry)
  22. Stephen Timms MP for East Ham (MA Mathematics)
  23. Philippa Whitford MP for Ayrshire Central (Bachelor of Medicine)
  24. Sarah Wollaston MP for Totnes (Bachelor of Medicine)
  25. Valerie Vaz MP for Walsall South (BSc Biochemistry)
  26. Nadhim Zahawi MP for Stratford-on-Avon (BSc Chemical Engineering)

So there are at least 26 MPs out of 650 total who have some kind of STEM educational backgrounds, and hopefully several more. Thankfully, much better than none – but still not that high considering the proportion of STEM in the general population. This article MP’s Degrees: What do they know? claims there are many more scientific MPs, but it depends what you mean by Science of course. Over at the Science Campaign, they have counted 83 politicians with a background or “interest in” science. Doesn’t everyone have an interest in Science & Technology at some level? If so, there are 650 out of 650 MPs (100%) with an interest in science and technology then? As for MPs who have an actual science education, your mileage may vary, especially if you think Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) are all sciences. Wannabe sciences? Yes. Actual Sciences? No.

In an ideal world where politicians create policies based on evidence, rather than finding evidence to fit their policies, how many scientists and technologists do we actually need in our government? Would it actually help make for better policies?

[Update: Jo Johnson MP for Orpington (BA Modern History), is the newly appointed Minister for Universities and Science [4], a post formerly held by David Willetts. Apparently, Johnson doesn’t know anything about Science. Does it matter?]

References

  1. Castelvecchi, D. (2015). Why the polls got the UK election wrong Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature.2015.17511
  2. Gibney, E. (2015). What the UK election results mean for science Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature.2015.17506
  3. Anon (2012). Books in brief: The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters Nature, 485 (7397), 173-173 DOI: 10.1038/485173a
  4. Gibney, E., & Van Noorden, R. (2015). UK researchers fret about downgrading of science minister role Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature.2015.17535

Thanks everyone who weighed in on twitter:

September 26, 2012

Fellows of the Wiki Society? The Royal Society in London experiments with Wikipedia

wiki wiki

The wiki-wiki (quick) shuttle bus in Hawaii by xordroyd. Creative Commons licensed picture from Flickr.

Regular readers of this blog might remember that back in June of this year, I suggested that the Royal Society should employ a wikipedian in residence. After emailing, blogging and other ranting, Paul Nurse got in touch with me to say that the Society was sympathetic to the idea and would investigate. His email is reproduced below:

From: Paul.Nurse ate royalsociety.org
Subject: Re: An Open Letter to the Royal Society: Please employ a wikipedian in residence
To: hulld ate cs.man.ac.uk
cc: Aosaf.Afzal ate royalsociety.org

Dear Duncan

I floated your idea about Wikipedia in the Society and it is being looked at to see what might be possible. Thanks for your suggestion.

Best wishes.

Paul

Time passed and the English summer dripped by in it’s typically rainy fashion. Then, earlier this month, Francis Bacon (not that Francis Bacon, but this Francis Bacon) contacted me, to say the Society is organising an edit-a-thon. With help from Uta Frith, the society is going to investigate the possibilities of wikipedia using Women in Science workshop as a pilot project. See Women of Wikipedia edit planned on BBC News.

This is great news and the event was fully booked in less than a day. It’s good to see a venerable society embracing new and disruptive technology in this way.

Compare and contrast the Royal Society with the Wiki Society

It is informative (and entertaining) to compare and contrast the Royal Society with wikipedia as the two organisiastions share some aims but are very different beasts:

wikipedia.org royalsociety.org
Purpose A place where every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. To recognise, promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity
Funding The Wikimedia foundation is a non-profit organisation that relies on donations to keep it going A registered charity in the UK, funding comes in the form of gifts and legacies from a range individuals and organisations
How to Join Egalitarian: any idiot one can click on the edit button to become a fellow of the wiki-society (FWS), also known as a wikipedian Elitist: Each year over 700 candidates are proposed by the existing Fellowship. From this pool, 44 Fellows, 8 Foreign Members and up to 1 Honorary Fellow are elected by a rigorous process. You have to do some pretty remarkable science or engineering to become an FRS
Age Only 11 years old in 2012, not even a troublesome teenager (yet). Has wisdom beyond its years. Over 350 years old, some of it’s members invented the modern world and continue to shape it today
Location Virtually the wiki-society is anywhere there is an internet connection. Physically, the head quarters are in San Francisco Based just off The Mall in London, many members cluster in the supposed Golden Triangle of London, Oxford and Cambridge. Other fellows are scattered around the provinces with expats and Foreign Members dispersed around the globe.
Who’s a member 35 million editors, not all of whom are active. About 1500 living fellows including Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Harry Kroto, Tim Berners-Lee, Paul Nurse, David Attenborough and over 80 Nobel prize winners. Thousands more deceased members including Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Robert Boyle etc
Profile Ordinary: Most wikipedians are ordinary and reasonable people, but internet trolls, spammers, snake oil sellers, lunatics, bigots, pedants, global village idiots, OCD sufferers other interesting characters are quite common on wikipedia Extraordinary: Most Fellows are extraordinary but reasonable people, some may also be Mad Scientists [citation needed]
Praised for Many things, see praise for the wikipedia and wikimedia projects. Funding excellent scientists and their Science. Engaging the public and young people in science through various events.
Criticised for The worlds biggest database of half-truths and white lies, see criticism of Wikipedia. Patrolled by annoying or partial editors and administrators. It can be frustratingly difficult to verify sources and wikipedia often lacks scientific credibility [1]. Being a nepotistic old boy network with an absence of women and very little in the way of youth. Ouch. Too many members have or currently work in, Oxbridge and London, possible geographic bias.
Origin The name wikipedia comes from the Hawai’in word for quick Wiki, see picture top right. The Royal Society is named after the British Monarchy, set up with help from Charles I. The name is a bit of a misnomer as you don’t need to be a royalist to join – republicans are welcome. In Middle English, the word Royal means s-l-o-w, traditional and painfully conservative [citation needed].

So there you have it, the Wiki Society and the Royal Society are unlike each other in many ways but they share a common goal of spreading knowledge. Perhaps the scientific content of wikipedia will be greatly improved through edit-a-thons and other events like this. Hopefully, the days where wikipedia will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about David Beckham but (at the time of writing) has absolutely nothing to say about leading scientists like John Aggleton, Garret FitzGerald and Margaret Robinson are numbered.

Thanks to Paul Nurse, Francis Bacon, Aosaf Afzal and Uta Frith for making it happen. If you can’t attend the edit-a-thon, watch this wiki-space via the twitter hashtag #WomenSciWP: interesting wiki-things might wiki-happen.

References

  1. Wodak, S.J., Mietchen, D., Collings, A.M., Russell, R.B. & Bourne, P.E. (2012). Topic Pages: PLoS Computational Biology Meets Wikipedia, PLoS Computational Biology, 8 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002446

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