Science in the House of Lords: expertise worth saving

To the House of Lords for a science seminar. The upper house of our Parliament may be unelected – and therefore a target for democratic reform – but it certainly boasts a strong array of scientific talent.

Helene Hayman, who chairs the house in her capacity as Lord Speaker, is holding a series of seminars for peers and journalists, to highlight the chamber’s expertise in important policy areas. Economics came first, science is second and foreign policy will be next.

John Krebs, the zoologist and former head of the Natural Environment Research Council and the Food Standards Agency, started the seminar with a review of food science issues. Then Susan Greenfield, neuroscientist and director of the Royal Institution, explained her fears that children who grow up immersed in “screen culture” (from computers, television, mobile phones, etc) will undergo psychological changes including shorter attention span, reduced empathy and excessive risk-taking. And Bob May, population ecologist and former president, talked about climate change.

After this trio of formal opening contributions, we heard from an array of distinguished scientific peers, who contribute regularly to Lords debates, scrutinise and amend legislation (such as last year’s Embryology Act) and write the excellent reports produced by the Lords Science and Technology Committee. (The committee’s next report, due out next month, will be about gene testing and genomic medicine.) All but one are life peers; the exception is John, Earl of Selbourne, one of 90 hereditary peers who still serve in the House.

I asked a slightly unfortunately worded question about how all this scientific expertise could be preserved if and when the House of Lords is reformed to make it “more democratic” by introducing directly elected peers. Baroness Hayman ticked me off: “It is important not to start from the premise that an institution can only be democratic through direct elections,” she said. Openness and accountability are equally important.

Jack Cunningham, who chaired two inquiries into reforming the House of Lords, made clear his opposition to a wholly elected upper chamber. “If they want some of the real strengths [of the Lords] to survive and develop, they can’t take that route,” he said. “People will have to choose whether they want a pale reflection of the lower chamber.”

I had favoured a wholly elected House of Lords, without really thinking through the issues. By the end of today’s seminar I agreed with Lord Cunningham – and most of his fellow peers – who feel that it would be a tragedy if all the house’s expertise in specialist fields such as science were sacrificed to what he called the “democratic imperative”.

I still think the Lords should be reformed but I now prefer a hybrid system, with about half the house elected on long mandates and half appointed from people who have exceptional expertise and experience to offer, rather like today’s life peers but less political.

Parliamentary Copyright

The Lord Speaker on her Woolsack (Parliamentary Copyright)

The world of research

The science blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.