The Need for Hard Science Skills in Politics

John Hemming is a Liberal Democrat MP standing for re-election in Birmingham Yardley. He has a degree in physics and background in IT.

I recently addressed a gathering of Physics graduates from my old Oxford college, Magdalen.  I pointed out that in fact there were more graduates of Magdalen in the House of Commons (10) than there were physicists (3).

I think the absence of hard science graduates is a problem for politics.   A lot of politics relates to things which are measured by numbers.    For example the National Grid currently estimate the peak demand for gas at 502 million cubic metres of gas per day, but estimated the peak availability over the weekend at 428 mcm/d.  To me that is a problem.  To politics it is “business as usual”.  Until the lights go out government ministers don’t worry.   I worry that we were recently exporting gas from Medium Range Storage when we are actually quite short of stored gas.

Perhaps the worst numerical mistake of the government  was in calculating the adoption target.  A calculation was done working out how many children were adopted from care in comparison to the number of children in care.  From a mathematical perspective that worked out a percentage of children per year over children.  That obviously fails from a dimensional analysis perspective.

The real world consequence was that  whereas the majority of  children under  10 in England were leaving care through adoption in fact the government were reporting a figure of around 6% of children adopted from care.  This caused academics to indicate that adoption from care was a relatively rare placement. For example this article by Alan Rushton states “3800 children were adopted from care: this is 6% of children in care for more than 6 months” and Nevertheless, it would be wrong to think that any wholesale moving of children from birth families into adoptive families is taking place. Adoption from care concerns just a small proportion (6%) of all looked after children in England (Department for Education and Skills, 2005) and so remains a relatively uncommon solution to the needs of these young people.”

This broken mathematics has resulted in a skewing of judgment in care proceedings which results in large numbers of children being wrongly removed from their natural families.  Often the children are traumatised by this as well as the parents.  Last week two babies were born in Spain to families who left to avoid their unborn children being removed at birth and adopted.   The care system has basically been broken by an error of mathematics.

This to me as a physicist is a big issue.  However, the mathematics sadly is too complex for many newspaper editors to understand and as a consequence I have been unable to place the story in the press. If we had more physicists and engineers in politics perhaps one could hope that such errors would be more widely recognised and corrected before they have too much of a damaging outcome.

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  1. Posted 09/03/2010 at 18:47 | Permalink

    I couldn’t agree more about the need for more people with scientific education, both in parliament and in the media.

    Lib dems seem to come out quite well, with both Phil Willis and Evan Harris on the Science and Technology committee.

    I do find it very odd, though, that John Hemming signed an Early Day motion, tabled by an MP who believes in astrology, that deplores the report of the Science and Technology Committee which reached the (self-evident) conclusions that pills with no active ingredients are placebos. Most physicists I know seem to believe that Avogadro’s number is right. That seems to be to be a curious way to support science,

  2. Matt Lewis
    Posted 10/03/2010 at 15:07 | Permalink

    Absolutely agree with David Colquhoun’s comment regarding Early Day Motion 908 and homeopathy.

    While there is a case that can be made for using placebo treatments such as homeopathy on the NHS in cases where there are no known effective treatments, EDM 908 does not make that case. Instead, it casts doubt on the validity of the Science and Technology Committee’s conclusions about the efficacy of homeopathy. For a look at the statements made in the EDM, see this blog post.

    Any MP supporting EDM 908 is marking themselves out as scientifically illiterate. I was thus astonished to learn that John Hemming studied physics to undergraduate level. I can only guess that he was essentially a mathematical physicist, and he has not thought carefully about experimental/observational elements of science which are so important in evidence-based medicine.

  3. Michael Power
    Posted 24/03/2010 at 14:23 | Permalink

    I would be interested to know why you think that the Science and Technology Committee’s review of the evidence on homeopathy is flawed.


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