At the General Election, Oxford West and Abingdon’s MP of 13 years, Dr Evan Harris, lost by 176 votes. I hasten to emphasise that this is not a political blog – I am an independent without a vote! But his narrow loss set me thinking about the place of expertise in Parliament. Evan Harris was a GP and is an expert on science, medical ethics, and how they relate to everyday life. We have so few scientists in the Commons (rather more in the Lords) that the loss of any one of them is to be regretted. On the need to engage science and public policy, one should listen to this year’s Reith Lectures, given by a member of the Lords, Lord (Martin) Rees, Astronomer Royal. Dr Harris was also, by all accounts, an excellent constituency MP for the city and the university. It has been suggested that there was vigorous campaigning against Dr Harris personally by the local pro-life and animal rights factions. That is their right, and it is noteworthy that the Animal Protection Party scored 143 votes in Oxford, more or less the number that lost it for Dr Harris.
In the Lords, a scientist or a medical ethicist would not only be valued for their contributions, but would feel perfectly free to express their views without fear of rejection by the voters. How can one secure much needed scientific contributions in the Commons, when views about controversial scientific issues may be so disliked by constituents that the MP risks losing his or her seat? This is another argument for retaining appointed Lords, like Lord Rees, so that outspoken and expert advice can remain on offer. Dr Harris is just the sort of person we need there.