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Lack of technical expertise in Parliament can limit STEM debates

A study from the University of Bath has found that the under-representation of STEM backgrounds in the UK Parliament is likely to limit debate on STEM-related issues. The researchers have called on political parties to step up their efforts to recruit candidates with a technical background to increase “cognitive diversity” in the legislature.

 

Of the 541 MPs with a higher education diploma in the parliament from 2015-2017, only 93 (17 percent) graduated in STEM subjects (14 percent of all MPs). In comparison, 46 percent of the 2019 graduate pool earned STEM degrees. The most recent influx of MPs has slightly increased STEM representation, although it remains low at 103 MPs (16 percent of all MPs).

For a long time, Parliament has been dominated by experts in the social sciences, arts and humanities. A conventional path in politics – with education consisting of attending an elite private school and a BA at Oxford or Cambridge University – is historically entrenched in the British Parliament.

Only one modern prime minister had a STEM background; Margaret Thatcher studied chemistry at Oxford University. Further back in history, Neville Chamberlain and Stanley Baldwin both received technical training in metallurgy at Mason College (the forerunner of the University of Birmingham), and William Gladstone and the Marquess of Salisbury studied mathematics at Oxford University (the former did so). with classics). In other words, only nine percent of British Prime Ministers had any formal training in STEM subjects.

In recent years, the issue of scientific literacy has become more relevant as lawmakers need to have an understanding of statistics and scientific methodologies to make better decisions on issues like Covid-19 and climate change.

The Bath researchers examined the impact of a STEM background on the behavior of MPs through an analysis of Private Members Bills (PMBs): legislation proposed by a member of the house rather than the government.

They found that politicians with STEM backgrounds were more likely to raise policy issues related to STEM topics. Those with both a science degree and professional experience in a science-related field spent 10 percent more on their PMB proposals than MPs without this background. This effect is stronger for the co-sponsors of PMBs than for the primary presenters.

 

“We know that diversity is important in Parliament and this is about gender, ethnicity and age,” said Professor Hilde Coffé. “The diversity of educational and occupational backgrounds is less well recognised, but the dominance of the social sciences is also important, especially as policymakers face increasingly complex challenges supported by science and data.

“Political parties have a role to play here in broadening the candidate pool and actively recruiting people with a STEM background to stand for election. For those already in Parliament with a social science background, we need to do more to upskill them to ensure they have good science literacy and knowledge. But ultimately we need a diverse Parliament with different expertise and experiences. By achieving this, we can improve the robustness of policy making.”

The analysis also revealed an interesting gender distribution regarding STEM issues. While men with a STEM background had a 30 percent chance of proposing at least one STEM PMB, women with the same education and experience were significantly more likely to do so (72 percent chance). The researchers suggest this may be due in part to the fact that women in STEM have to overcome significant norms and barriers, resulting in them placing more vocal emphasis on STEM issues.

Co-author Joshua Myers noted: “The differences we found between the behavior of male and female MPs from a STEM background were significant and surprising. It seems that women from a STEM background are much more likely to become passionate STEM lawyers in parliament than men. This is probably partly due to more female MPs having obtained degrees in life sciences subjects, which lends itself to better engagement with the health issues that are high on the policy agenda.

“However, it also highlights the importance of intersectionality — the interactions between each individual’s different background characteristics — in understanding how our elected representatives prioritize different policy issues.”

The researchers also found that the level of education in an MP’s constituency also influences the association between having a STEM background and the proportion of STEM PMBs submitted.