A few weeks ago, the new membership of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology was announced. It included no women.
A number of science campaigns issued statements calling for more scientists to be in parliament, with some even threatening to boycott the committee. I agree that it is outrageous to have a scrutiny committee with no women in 2017, but I don’t think this approach is helpful or shows much understanding of how Parliament and politics work. Instead, I want to encourage female politicians – regardless of whether or not they are scientists – to come forward and to participate in a topic that to many is difficult, scary and seemingly technical. To do this however, we need to take a hard look at what the committee does -and should do. I argue this case in an article published by The Guardian this week:
On Saturday, hundreds of Labour women – politicians, stakeholders and activists – from across the country met in Brighton, in advance of Labour party conference, for the annual Labour party women’s conference. This year was special, because for the first time it had a formal voice in Labour’s policy-making processes. But as we debated issues ranging from housing and the NHS to the economy and fair pay, I kept thinking about the irony of the recent announcement by the parliamentary select committee on science and technology that the committee will not have any female MPs sitting on it this year.
As someone who studies the impact of science and technology on society, it was clear to me that whatever issues motivated us to get involved in politics, they were going to change dramatically over the next five to ten years thanks to science and technology. Digital technologies are already making it harder to fund public services, as they enable companies to benefit from “stateless profits”, depriving the public purse of much needed tax receipts. It will be impossible to come up with a realistic business tax policy for the 21st century without engaging with this. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the advent of robots is going to rapidly transform industry, healthcare and the job market in ways we have never seen before; we need to think deeply about what this means for the skills and education we should offer future generations. And the way highly paid jobs in the tech industry are usually men’s jobs means that the gender pay gap is likely to widen as these industries grow in the future. In short, in the 21st century, science and technology is one of the most powerful drivers of change and shaper of our society. And we cannot govern the country if we don’t understand how to govern these technologies.
So during the coffee breaks, I sought out Labour women to sound them out about volunteering for the committee. In response to the committee announcement, in the past few weeks a number of science campaigns and bloggers (such as Athene Donald’s recent piece for the Guardian) have called for more female scientists to stand for election, or listed the MPs they consider to be suitably qualified to sit on the committee. Aware of these campaigns, a number of women told me they weren’t qualified to do the job as they weren’t scientists and didn’t want to sit on a committee where they would read out questions written in advance by a committee clerk.
But the view that we need to fill the committee with scientifically trained people completely misses the point of a scrutiny committee. If science and technology is shaping our world in profound ways, then the best people to scrutinise it are the people who experience the effects, not those creating them. Because we know that the values and visions of those designing the technologies become deeply embedded in the technologies themselves, and in the societies shaped by them. We cannot have our future built upon the dreams of a handful of technical experts. Nor can we allow decisions that will change every aspect of our lives in the most profound ways, to be made by a small group of men. This is why we need women – and people from all walks of life – to sit on the science and technology select committee.
And since science and technology is more than a driver of the economy – it is powerful shaper of our world too – the role of the science and technology select committee has to be about so much more than checking that the government is putting enough into the science budget, or using evidence in the right way. It has to be about scrutinising and holding to account the individuals, the institutions and industries that are building our futures. To do this we don’t need a bunch of parliamentary scientists. We need people with diverse experiences, from a variety of backgrounds but passionate about the future.
So, as Labour conference continues in Brighton this week, amongst the discussions of workers rights, the economy, the NHS and public sector pay, I will continue to lobby female MPs to step forward. But I will be persuading them not just to sit on the science and technology select committee, but to take a strong hand in driving the committee to really scrutinise the role of science and technology in our world – and the kind of world we are building with it. It will be a big step for someone, but the reality is, if you really care about shaping Britain in the 21st century, then there cannot be a more important place to be.
(Image Copyright Parliamentary Estate).