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Lack of technical expertise in Parliament may limit STEM debates

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A University of Bath study has found that the under-representation of STEM backgrounds in the UK Parliament is likely to limit debate on STEM-related subjects. The researchers have called for political parties to put more effort into recruiting candidates with technical backgrounds in order to increase “cognitive diversity” in the legislature.

Of the 541 MPs with higher education degrees in the 2015-2017 Parliament, just 93 (17 per cent) took their degrees in STEM subjects (14 per cent of all MPs). In comparison, 46 per cent of 2019’s graduate pool took STEM degrees. The most recent intake of MPs has slightly boosted STEM representation, although it remains low at 103 MPs (16 per cent of all MPs).

Parliament has long been dominated by experts in social sciences, arts and humanities subjects. A conventional path into politics - with education consisting of attendance at an elite private school and a BA taken at Oxford or Cambridge University - is historically entrenched in the UK Parliament.

Just 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 underwent technical training in metallurgy at Mason College (the predecessor to the University of Birmingham), and William Gladstone and the Marquess of Salisbury studied mathematics at the University of Oxford (the former did so with Classics). In other words, just nine per cent of British Prime Ministers had some formal education in STEM subjects.

In recent years, the question of scientific literacy has become more pertinent as legislators should have a good grasp of statistics and scientific methods in order to make improved decisions about matters such as Covid-19 and climate change.

The Bath researchers investigated the impact of a STEM background on MPs’ behaviour through an analysis of Private Members Bills (PMBs): legislation put forward by any member of the house rather than by the government.

They found that politicians with STEM backgrounds were more likely to raise policy issues related to STEM subjects. Those who held both a scientific degree and professional experience in a science-related field devoted 10 per cent more of 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 matters in Parliament and this cuts across gender, ethnicity, age,” said Professor Hilde Coffé. “Diversity of educational and occupational background has been less well-acknowledged, but the dominance of the social science matters too in particular as policymakers are facing up to increasingly complex challenges underpinned by science and data.

“Political parties have a role to play here in widening the pool of candidates and actively recruiting individuals with STEM backgrounds to stand for election. For those already in Parliament with social sciences backgrounds, we should do more to upskill them to ensure they have good scientific literacy and knowledge. Ultimately, though, we need a diverse Parliament with different expertise and experiences. Achieving this can help us improve the robustness of policymaking.”

The analysis also raised an interesting gender split regarding STEM issues. While men with STEM backgrounds had a 30 per cent likelihood of proposing at least one STEM PMB, women with the same education and experience were significantly more likely to do so (72 per cent likelihood). The researchers suggest that this could be in part due to women in STEM having to overcome considerable norms and barriers with the result that they are more vocal highlighting STEM issues.

Co-author Joshua Myers commented: “The differences we found between the behaviour of men and women MPs with STEM backgrounds were stark and surprising. It seems women with a STEM background are far more likely to become passionate STEM advocates in Parliament than men. This is likely partly a result of more women MPs holding degrees in life sciences subjects, which lend themselves to better engagement with the healthcare issues which predominate on the policy agenda.

However, it also highlights the importance of intersectionality – the interactions between the various different background characteristics of any individual – in understanding how our elected representatives prioritise different policy issues.”

The researchers also identified that the level of educational attainment in an MP’s constituency also affects the link between having a STEM background and the proportion of submitted STEM PMBs.

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