Only scientist in Commons 'alarmed' at MPs' ignorance

The only scientist in the House of Commons has called for all MPs to be required to take a crash course in basic scientific techniques.

Julian Huppert, a research biochemist who became the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge at the last election, said he was alarmed at the lack of scientific knowledge among colleagues.

In an interview with The Independent, he also accused political leaders of paying "lip service" to the importance of scientific proof and warned that looming cuts to university research budgets could provoke a "brain drain" from Britain.

Although there are other backbenchers with scientific backgrounds, Dr Huppert is the sole MP to have practised past PhD level, specialising most recently on DNA structures.

He said it was a real concern that the Commons – which is full of career politicians, lawyers and economists – lacked scientific expertise. Dr Huppert, a fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, argued that all MPs should be obliged to take a short science training course, covering areas such as how research is conducted, numeracy and the use of statistics.

"It would be really important for all MPs to have some exposure, because some of them will not have studied any science since they were 15 and it's important to understand how to engage with it," he said. "You would then have a lot of MPs who were able to understand the information they were being presented with."

Accusing some MPs of being "anti-science", he said: "They have a set of beliefs and they will argue that regardless of the science."

Dr Huppert said political leaders tended to come up with a stance and then tried to make the evidence fit it, rather than being driven by the science. He cited the previous government's decision to make the drug mephedrone a banned substance after claims about the role it played in the deaths of several young people.

"What we saw was a policy based on media reports, rather than based on evidence, and that does happen too much, " he said. "As a researcher I will come up with a hypothesis, which I may talk about to people, I'll then do some experiments and test it and will then change my hypothesis based on what I find. If you do that in politics, that's a U-turn and a defeat."

Although he absolved the Science minister, David Willetts, from criticism, he said a "tricky" relationship had developed between MPs and scientists. "Generally, they are two separate camps who do not communicate," he said.

Dr Huppert gained a seat on Cambridgeshire County Council when he was 22 – the same age at which he gained his PhD. He pursued the two careers in parallel until the election in May, when he succeeded fellow Liberal Democrat David Howarth, who stood down as the MP for Cambridge to return to academia.

Dr Huppert said: "Science in some senses is what I am good at, but politics is what I care about." He also hit out at suggestions that university research budgets could fall victim to the public spending squeeze being undertaken by the Government.

He acknowledged that savings had to be made because of the nation's "disastrous" financial plight, but said that other countries have been responding to the global economic downturn by increasing their investment in science.

"Britain does a lot of very good research for very little money, but at some point people will just say: 'I have had enough.' People could maybe survive say a 10 per cent cut – I'm not saying it is ideal – but people might be able to do that.

"If it's more serious than that, a lot of people will say: 'Hang on, why am I doing this? Why am I not applying for a professorship in the US?' At some level it becomes an irreversible blight on science, which would be tragic."

Not only would top-rate scientists leave the country – but foreign high-fliers would be deterred from taking up posts here, Dr Huppert warned.

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