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May 12, 2010

Lords reform – would it be bad for science?

The BBC is reporting that one of the concessions the Liberal Democrats have extracted from the Conservatives as the price for their participation in the coalition government is an immediate reform of the House of Lords.

The reforms would reportedly create a fully elected upper chamber, elected by a system of proportional representation. This would, of course, be a step forward for democracy in the mother of all parliaments. It seems bizarre, to say the least, that in 2010 there are still a few peers who owe their position to the circumstances of their birth or the fact that they are a Bishop in the Church of England.

But could this proposed reform have a sting in the tail for science and research?

Just before the election, I commented on the retirement of so many science advocates in the House of Commons. With the defeat of Liberal Democrat science spokesman Evan Harris, the picture is even grimmer. A few of the new faces look promising, but science will never be a major issue in the Commons.

Would an elected House of Lords do any better? As it stands now, there are several eminent scientists who are peers, including zoologist John Krebs, Royal Society president Martin Rees, and neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, who make important contributions to debates on science issues. Would any of them be interested in standing for election?

Losing the ability to appoint peers could also hamper the government’s ability to fill gaps in important, but sometimes-technical policy areas such as science. Over the past 13 years, the two most effective science ministers, David Sainsbury and Paul Drayson, have both been Lords. And Peter Mandelson’s return as business secretary was smoothed by his peerage.

It would be a shame to lose this ability to appoint competent technocrats to roles such as science minister. Few ambitious MPs see the role as a useful stepping-stone to higher office, but it was a perfect fit for someone like Drayson, who had a genuine passion for the issues but little interest in party politics.

We will have to wait and see what the coalition government has in mind, but if the reforms do come into force, the science community will just have to hope that enough competent and interested people choose to run for election in both houses to ensure a healthy level of scientific debate in parliament.

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