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July 09, 2012

Our scientists should be able to handle a little democracy

by Ehsan Masood

A mostly elected House of Lords it seems will need to hold back some seats for scientists and others with expertise in research.

That is one of the conclusions from a survey carried out in May by my Research Fortnight colleagues, led by our news editor Laura Hood. We asked 37 peers with research expertise (including scientists, engineers, social scientists and medics) if they would stand in an election in order to keep their place in the chamber. Thirty-one said they wouldn't.

Of the 37 surveyed, an eyebrow-raising 15 said the House of Lords should remain unelected, another 15 said it should be partly elected and just five backed 100 per cent election. Another two were not clear on their stance.

Of the brave six willing to submit themselves to an electorate, three were cross-benchers and three came from political parties. Of the total 37 that we surveyed, 17 were cross-bench peers and 20 belonged to a political party.

To be fair, age (as in being too-old) was the primary reason given by the 31 who said they wouldn't stand for election, but many also said that they have little interest, time or the finances to get involved in campaigning--and that is the troubling bit.

Under the current proposals, 90 members of the Lords will still be appointed (360 would be elected to 15-year terms), so it's possible that many of the current group of scientists and others will remain. The troubling bit is that so few realise how important it is for the Lords to move to an elected model, and why it is important for them to move with it.

Yes, it is vital for any legislature to include people with deep subject knowledge and experience who can properly scrutinise and improve legislation. No argument there. But equally important is for those who represent us to know why they are seen to deserve the right to represent us; that they have legitimacy in the eyes of voters.

Opponents say that Lords reform is not a voter priority. But we shouldn't be surprised that it isn't. The state of democracy in the world's mature democracies isn't exactly in rude health. In many elections fewer than half of those eligible turn out to vote. If the numbers who turn out keep falling, it could be very bad news indeed. It'll be bad news because those who claim to represent us will have less and less of a mandate to do so. And at some point, those in the majority who choose to opt-out of the democratic process may end up questioning the basis for state authority, including the basis for laws and for taxation.

There are countries, many countries where tax collection rates are low and where respect for the law is thin. These are also countries where voters have little trust in their governments and little trust in their parliamentary representatives.

But even if democracy isn't quite your thing, here's another reason for more researchers standing for election.  We all want the sciences and the arts to be more valued and respected. But respect needs to be earned; it cannot be imposed. And it will be earned if more people with expert knowledge and those with professional research skills can immerse themselves, not only in the detail of policy, but in the detail of how being a parliamentarian can improve day-to-day lives for constituents.

That is why many of those chemists and computer scientists currently sitting in the Lords would do well to (even attempt) to take to the stump and commit themselves to represent electorates to those in power.

 

 

 

 

 

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