I Don’t Know2016-12-31T08:50:08+00:00

I Don’t Know Much About Science

Political Decision-Making Involving Science and Technology

Molly Scott Cato, MA, MSc, Chris Busby, PhD, Richard Bramhall

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Executive Summary

This report considers the processes which lead to government decision-making in areas which involve technical or scientific knowledge. It starts by analysing responses to a questionnaire, sent to all Members of Parliament in 1997. This asked MPs to put down their scientific or technical qualifications or other expertise in the area of mathematics and science. In addition, all MPs were classified in terms of their background and qualifications, using publicly available data. Results indicated that about 30 percent of all MPs had no formal qualifications in basic science or mathematics (i.e. ‘O’levels). In addition, over 80 percent of MPs were from backgrounds and professions where no scientific knowledge was necessary or assumed.

The question is raised that such a state of affairs might result in decisions being made where harmful processes became permitted as a result of lack of knowledge or ability to sift through scientific reports. Some examples are given of cases where this may have occurred, for example BSE, GM food and Chernobyl radiation. The example of the Commons Backbench Environment Committee is explored and it is found that there are presently eleven members, none of whom has a degree in a hard science subject and two of whom do not have ‘O’ level mathematics.

In a general discussion, the problems of making decisions on technically or scientifically complex matters are illustrated using recent developments in the area of philosophy of science, collectively known as ‘science studies’. In particular, it is argued, by reference to a number of contemporary issues, including health risks from nuclear power, BSE and genetically modified foods, that the present advisory committee system of scientific advice to government is fundamentally flawed. This is because no expert committee can, according to the discoveries made by ‘science studies’, be truly independent of bias, a problem exacerbated by the large sums of scientific funding available from multi-national corporations. Thus ‘the best available scientific advice’ given out as a platform for government decisions is presently only the consensus of a committee which usually holds a quite specific, and not always balanced, position on the topic in question.

In order to overcome this problem, a novel structure of oppositional committees is advocated. This system is based on the adversarial model of parliamentary democracy and the British legal system and would involve the MPs’ consideration of reports or presentations prepared by two different scientific groups separately commissioned to research the arguments in support of or opposing a particular project or suggestion. This type of approach, which is similar to the STOA unit approach to scientific advice given to members of the European Parliament, makes use of both the strengths of MPs, that of exercising judgement in areas of human cues and communications, and those of scientists, those of weighing and making judgements about questions involving complex scientific information. In addition the report proposes the funding of ‘citizen scientists’ to explore the public health aspects of new technological developments

I don’t know much about science . . .

We listen very carefully. I am not a scientist. A lot of this has to be informed by the science. We have listened to what the medical community, what the Chief Medical Officers and others have to say to us. Then we take the appropriate steps.

Mr Alan Milburn

(Minister for Health)

I don’t know much about science, but I know what I like.

Martin Amis

1. Introduction: Technological Decision-Making Requires Technical Information

‘The government’s position is based on the best scientific advice’. This statement is uttered frequently by politicians seeking to bolster unpopular decisions. But how reassuring is it? The decision to allow beef contaminated with BSE to be fed to vulnerable people, resulting in the deaths of more than 50 UK citizens to date, was based on the best scientific advice. So is the decision to continue to operate the Sellafield reprocessing facility, although the scientific advice which suggests that the levels of radioisotopic contamination and human exposure causes no harm was developed before DNA had been discovered and is looking increasingly insecure.

Developments in technology have now reached the level where the introduction of new processes, substances, or practices may have unforeseen but catastrophic consequences for life on earth. In addition, as the Chernobyl accident has shown, events in one country can cause death or disease, or economically disastrous consequences in a different country many hundreds of miles distant. Who is regulating technological development? We live in an age when industrialists have access to more novel processes, materials and substances than ever before and so decisions about the regulation and direction of production within our economy are inevitably highly technical. Who, apart from a few scientists closely associated with the development of these processes or substances, even begins to understand the possible consequences of their use? And these very people are least likely to be objective when decisions are to be made over holding up the use of the products of their research, especially where large sums of money are involved.

What do these considerations imply for the future of a democracy within which most citizens are apparently incapable of judging scientific facts for themselves? Must we, and the politicians we elect, rely on the expertise and independence of scientists? And to what extent can this independence be achieved when so much university research is now funded by corporations?

We need to be sure that our elected representatives can make a judgement about the quality of scientific advice, but are they educated and equipped to do this? How much scientific education is it reasonable to expect of our MPs? Can anybody do the job effectively without even O-level maths? Our findings show that a proportion of MPs may be doing just that.

2. How Much do MPs Know about Science?

2.1. MPs’ Scientific Qualifications

In order to examine the area of scientific policy-making, we first conducted a survey of MPs. We sent a questionnaire to all MPs, outlining our research project and asking them what scientific, mathematical or statistical qualifications they possessed, or whether they had any experience or had worked in any capacity which they felt might help them understand scientific matters. Had they, for example, conducted any research in a scientific or medical field? We asked them if they had obtained O-level Maths or studied any O-level science subjects at school. About 150 replied with completed questionnaires. Some refused to respond. A few were angry, and stated that they did not need to have any science or maths qualifications to make decisions about scientific matters as they either had advisors or they could consult people who did. We next went to the main publication containing CV information on MPs, Dod’s Parliamentary Companion, and used this information to classify them in terms of sex, age and their general area of expertise or life experience. For this we used the 11 categories shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Categories for classifying MPs’ area of knowledge and expertise

 

Area of main experience

Classification label

No details

0

Politics only

1

Media and PR

2

Blue-collar industrial

3

White-collar industrial

4

Computing/ admin./ secretarial

5

Civil service/ trade union/ NGO

6

Lawyer

7

Education/ academic: non-science

8

Education/ academic: science

9

Management/ business/ finance

10

Health

11

Agriculture

12

Mixed

13

 

In analysing the questionnaire returns, the educational levels of MPs were classed by stages from no O-levels in science through to PhD level in science using the scheme shown in Table 2. These classification procedures were mainly applied in a negative sense, to establish the proportion of MPs in the sample with little or no experience or qualifications in the area of science, medicine and mathematics.

Table 2. Scientific knowledge level of MPs: categories in questionnaire sample by qualifications or work experience

Level of expertise Science score
O-levels Number of science or maths O-levels; 1 for each
A-levels Number of science or maths A-levels; 1 for each
Science degree Yes = 1 (subject in words); no = 0
Science higher degree Yes = 1; no = 0
Science researcha 1 = hard; 2 = soft; 0 = none
Scientific work 1 = pure; 2 = applied; 0 = none
Scientific publications 1 = occasional; 2 = frequent; 3 = 10+; 0= none

aHard sciences are physics, chemistry, mathematics, and medicine; soft sciences are computing and economics.

The results of our analysis of MPs’ knowledge and expertise, based on the category labels given in Table 1, are presented in Table 3. In Table 4 we show the scientific qualifications of the MPs in the sample who returned the questionnaire. In Table 5 we return to the total database and attempt to indicate the university degree status of all MPs by science, arts or no degree.

Table 3. Classification of MPs’ areas of expertise

 

Category

Value

Frequency

Percent

No details

0

2

0.3

Politics only

1

21

3.2

Media and PR

2

66

10

Blue collar industrial

3

30

4.5

White collar industrial

4

42

6.4

Computing/ admin./ secretarial

5

24

3.6

Civil service/ trade union/ NGO

6

95

14.4

Lawyer

7

75

11.4

Education/ academic non-science

8

108

16.4

Education/ academic science

9

16

2.4

Management/ business/ finance

10

92

13.9

Health

11

36

5.5

Agriculture

12

9

1.4

Mixed

13

11

1.7

Missing

0

33

5.0

All

All

660

100

 

It is clear from comparing the results of the sample of those 93 MPs who returned the questionnaire that the sample was biased strongly in favour of those who did have science or maths qualifications. For example, 42 per cent of the questionnaire respondents had science degrees of some kind compared with an estimated 20 per cent for the population of all MPs. This makes it even more interesting that in this sample, 28 per cent of the respondents had no qualifications in science or maths whatsoever, not even maths ‘O’level. We might estimate from this that at least one third of all MPs are not scientifically or mathematically literate. People who do not have O-level maths may find themselves struggling with concepts such as ratios and percentages, never mind such technicalities as statistical significance of research findings or the more arcane niceties of inferential statistics.

Does this matter? For many of the political decisions that have to be considered, perhaps not. But in a world that is increasingly affected by scientific and technological knowledge, those who are unable to understand basic scientific or mathematical concepts are at a great disadvantage. In particular, they are prisoners to advice which is given by scientifically literate civil servants, expert committees, and lobbyists whose interests may be tied to transnational corporations. And such advice is increasingly biased towards permitting questionable or hazardous procedures and processes where the result is likely to increase profit or employment.

A good example is afforded by the recent decision to withdraw the contract for the operation of the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), Aldermaston, from Hunting Brae Ltd and give it to a joint team from British Nuclear Fuels, the present operators of the Sellafield reprocessing plant in Cumbria and Lockheed Martin, a US firm with experience of operating nuclear plant. Both the old firm, Hunting-Brae, and the new firms have poor safety records, but the decision to bring in BNFL/ Lockheed was made at the time of international scandal following BNFL’s admission of routinely falsifying safety data on MOX fuel elements which had been sent to reactors in Japan and Germany. At the same time, evidence became available showing that the US government were refusing to give Lockheed Martin any more contracts because of their consistently poor safety record and management attitude to nuclear safety. For this reason, a BBC TV ‘Panorama’ reporter interviewed Defence Minister Baroness Symons in a programme televised on 27 March and asked why the government was using companies with such poor safety records to administer a nuclear plant where nuclear weapons were fabricated. Had she read the reports criticising the safety records of the companies?

In her response, Baroness Symons said:

I wouldn’t necessarily understand the individual bits. I have the humility to say that I am not a nuclear scientist, but there are those who are and who understand the reports in full. I have to rely on those with real expertise.

The implicit assumption made is that these ‘nuclear scientists’ who understood the individual bits would be unbiased either as a consequence of their connections with the nuclear industry or following their education or experience in the field of nuclear physics. It is unlikely, for example, that Baroness Symons consulted with experts who may also have ‘understood the individual bits’ but whose provenance or background was with Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, or the Nuclear Awareness Group in Reading, the town most likely to be affected by the operation of the plant.

 

Table 4. Science qualifications of the sample of 93 questionnaire respondents

 

Qualification

Number

% of sample

Science ‘O’ levels    
0

26

28.0

1

6

6.5

2

12

12.9

3

49

52.6

Science ‘A’levels    
0

46

49.5

1

7

7.5

2

12

12.9

3

27

29

4

1

1.1

Degree    
No

51

54.8

Yes

42

45.2

Higher degree    
No

74

79.6

Yes

19

20.4

Scientific publications    
None

72

77.4

Few

11

11.8

Some

2

2.2

Many

6

6.5

No answer

2

2.2

 

2.2. MPs’ employment background

There is also the question of the culture of the MPs who make decisions in the area of science. Two professions dominate our legislature: lawyers and academics or teachers. Perhaps for a law-making body that is keen to tell us how to behave this is not surprising. But are these people best equipped to make decisions about practical matters? At very minimum, their respective cultures of certainty or proof differ greatly from those of science. A close third to these two dogmatic professions comes the media and PR sector. Between them these three career backgrounds account for 40 per cent of our elected representatives in the House of Commons. Other, more practical backgrounds are consequently under-represented.

This is a distinct pattern from the population at large, where only 1 per cent are employed in ‘legal activities’ and another slightly over 1 per cent work in marketing, consultancy, and the media. So these two sectors, which represent only 2 per cent of the working population of Great Britain (Digest of Economic Statistics 1996: Table 6.2; UK figures unavailable), contribute 21 per cent of members of the House of Commons. In the UK population as a whole, 8.4 per cent of employees work in the educational sector, so, although this sector is over-represented amongst MPs, it is not as massively over-represented as the communications sectors. Under-represented sectors include particularly production and construction, which account for nearly 23 per cent of the UK workforce, while amongst MPs only 11 per cent have a background in industry as whole, whether white- or blue-collar.

Table 5. University education of all MPs: results by type of degree

core

Frequency

Per cent

No degree (0)

173

26.2

Hard science (1)

56

8.5

Soft science (2)

74

11.2

Arts (3)

309

46.8

Not known

48

7.3

Total

660

100

Note: Hard sciences are physics, chemistry, mathematics, and medicine; soft sciences are computing and economics.

Table 5 shows that only 8.5 per cent of MPs have a degree in a ‘hard’ science subject; while another 11.2 per cent have a ‘soft science’ degree, this includes some social science subjects which are so soft as to have barely any technical content. Arts degrees are vastly over-represented: nearly half of MPs have one, with a further quarter of MPs having no degree at all. This leads us to question further how scientific advice on policy issues is generated and is converted by scientifically illiterate MPs into statute. In order to better illustrate the problem, we will next focus on the government Backbench Environment Committee and ask how it might consider scientific advice given to it in areas where the consequences of policy might result in hazard to human health.

 

2.3. The Commons Backbench Environment Committee

The Environment Committee is routinely required to consider information of a mathematical and scientific nature and to make decisions which could affect the health and well-being of very large numbers of people for a very long period of time. The environment is where we all live and where our children will have to live in the future. Technological developments regularly occur where possible subtle toxic or environmental effects of by-products released from a production process (dioxins, CFCs, radioactive discharges) or in some cases, subtle long-term toxic or mutational (cancer) effects resulting from exposure to the new agent itself (BSE, GM foods), may occur. The Environment Committee has to advise on draft legislation which ensures that progress in efficient use of resources is not blocked by irrational fears. We need to accept that history teaches that many of these fears are later discovered to be all to well grounded. Who do the committee listen to and how can they decide? We will first look at the make-up of the present Environment Committee (Table 6).

Table 6. The Commons Backbench Environment Committee

Name Scientific education Career background
Andrew Bennett (Chair) Refused to respond Social Science degree
Thomas Brake 3 science O-levels; maths and physics A-level IT Manager
Christine Butler O-level maths Pharmaceutical, NHS, lab technician. Sculptor, management
John Cummings O-level maths Miner and colliery electrician
Brian Donohoe O-level maths and physics Apprenticed engineer; Hunterston nuclear power station; ICI
Gwyneth Dunwoody None Film production
Louise Ellman O-level maths Education; Social policy/ local government
James Gray 3 science O-levels;

maths A-levelShipping brokerBill OlnerNoneApprenticed engineer; skilled machinistHilary BennO-level mathsRussian studies.Alan Whitehead4 science O-levelsEducation; public policy

Source: Constituency offices; authors’ questionnaire; The Vacher Dod Guide to the New House of Commons (1997).

The information on qualifications was not easy to obtain. Several members of the committee objected to being questioned and one refused to answer. As far as we could ascertain on the basis of repeated phone calls, of the eleven members of the committee, not a single one has a degree in either physics, chemistry or biology. There are two with ‘A’ level maths and one with ‘A’level physics, none with post-O-level qualifications in chemistry or biological sciences. Examination of the MPs’ areas of expertise and qualifications enables us to see that those who were selected onto this committee could have been more scientifically qualified. We would not wish to disparage the contributions made by the members of the Environment Committee. But it is their job to scrutinise legislation in this area and presumably to take responsibility when errors occur. It is surely unfair to expect such responsibility to be taken in highly technical areas without adequate background knowledge.

What is the problem with this lack of scientific education? Surely we do not want our democratic representatives to be academic-oriented scientists or technocrats. But on the other hand, it is clear that without sufficient grounding in the basics of mathematics and/or science our politicians simply cannot judge the quality of the scientific information they are given. This makes them vulnerable to one-sided lobbying. It makes them accept information on the basis of the credibility of the person communicating it. In this world, Professor Plum must be more right than Dr Foster and no one listens to Mary Green. What should be done to ensure the best outcome? We will return to this, but at this stage we suggest that, as a minimum, the ‘other side’ of any issue should be presented at an early stage in the process. Whatever their scientific education we can assume that politicians are adept at reading human cues, since this is a fundamental requirement for success within a political structure. So the politician’s role might be to judge the validity and integrity of information presented. This would presuppose only a basic level of scientific knowledge on the part of the MP. But it raises new questions. Who is to provide the scientific information, and what is that information worth?

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