Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Evan Harris: parliament loses a champion for science

Waking up to the news that Dr Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat science spokesperson, had lost his seat in last week’s election by a tiny margin was devastating. I can’t even remember how or under what circumstances I met Evan, but for anyone who works, as we do, on the frontline of some of the biggest scientific debates of our times, it is only ever a matter of time before you get to know this MP well. As the Science Media Centre emerged out of the ashes of the GM saga the remit was clear: to encourage more scientists to engage more effectively on contentious issues like GM. Opening in April 2002, a series of issues faced us that were clearly our reason for being: the MMR/autism controversy, the high profile campaign of opposition to animal research and the controversy over the use of embryos in stem cell research. Finding scientists to speak out on any of these issues was initially a huge challenge, yet Evan seemed to have made every one of them his own; arguing on behalf of the scientists involved in every public forum he could access. And that brave and dogged support of scientists working on the most controversial issues has remained a constant – seemingly impervious to either party politics or the search for vote-winning populist policies that dominates so much of politics.

It was eagle-eyed Evan Harris who first spotted the line in the draft Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill that revealed that government may move to ban human-animal hybrid embryo research in response to public revulsion. It was Evan who organised the first meetings of scientists to contest the proposed the ban, which grew into one of the biggest and most successful scientific collaborations on a scientific controversy. A year later, when Parliament voted in favour of allowing research on human-animal hybrids, few in science failed to acknowledge the exceptional contribution of one politician to this amazing transformation in public and political opinion.

Arriving in the office after Evan’s defeat I discovered that my personal sense of dismay was widely shared with hundreds of scientists, science press officers and science journalists, all emailing and texting to express their shock that science had lost one of its foremost champions in Parliament. It’s clear that this is not a partly political issue, with one of the first supportive comments received coming from Lord Drayson, the Labour government’s Science Minister who has sparred respectfully and humorously with Evan at all three pre-election science candidates' debates. Perhaps one of the more poignant comments came from Professor Brian Cox, who admitted aloud that he and the scientific community should have waded in to fight for Evan’s seat given the importance of having such a champion in Parliament. His comments reflected some of the interesting articles written about science in government in the run up to the election, with respected journalists like Mark Henderson and Roger Highfield speculating whether we should or could corale the ‘science vote’ as a force in British politics. This question arose from the fear that the Commons has now lost many of its greatest science champions, with MPs such as Phil Willis, Brian Iddon and Ian Gibson having stood down. Phil Willis himself has written of his alarm that Evan Harris would be one of the only remaining active members of the Science and Technology Committee that he has chaired that has played such an influential role in scrutinising science in government. Now not even Evan remains.

There will of course be new MPs with a science background entering Parliament, but I should say that I am not a believer that you have to have a science degree to be an advocate for science – as I have argued before in relation to some of our best science reporters! Phil Willis has no science background but found a passion for it, which led to science defining his political career. Conversely, nor do I believe that having a science background is any guarantee that an MP will take science to the heart of the commons.

In general, the SMC tends to avoid science policy and politics, as it’s rarely the stuff of tabloid headlines, but because purdah left us quieter than usual - and in the spirit of election fever - I had more time to absorb myself in the interesting stuff being written on science and politics by Research Fortnight, the Campaign for Science and Engineering and others. I will probably duck out now as normal life resumes, but I do hope that scientists do as Brian Cox and others suggest and enter into a debate about whether scientists need to be a little less passive about the fate of science at election times.

In the meantime we watch and wait to see who we will have as Science Minister. Those who know me will know that I feel the same about Lord Drayson as I do about Evan Harris and indeed these two men have many things in common in terms of their love of science and their proven ability to take a brave and principled public stance on issues that many choose to keep quiet about. If anyone were to ask my opinion on this, I’d say they could do worse than keeping Lord Drayson as Science Minister – it would be popular with scientists and make the loss of so many other champions for science from the Commons a little easier to bear!