Shall the geek inherit the Earth?

Features editor

A bright orange book is causing some waves at the moment. Written by Mark Henderson, until recently science correspondent at The Times, it’s called the Geek Manifesto, and it concerns a subject which will be familiar to readers of The Engineer: the lack of science know-how in politics.

While we’re all familiar with the problem — out of over 600 MPs, only one has a background in research science and just a handful in engineering. But this isn’t Henderson’s main concern. The real issue, he says, is that there’s a lack of understanding of what science really is — a system of enquiry, rather than a body of knowledge — and a lack of willingness to make policy according to evidence, rather than just ideology or the results of focus groups.

Engineers, of course, are completely familiar with the idea of evidence-based decision making — no decision can be made without evidence that it’s correct, and that evidence is generally based on data, whether gathered through computer simulation or through direct experiment. Politicians argue that other factors have to be brought to bear, including public opinion — gained, all too often, via the barometer of the media, which is as unscientific a method as you could possibly imagine.

Politicians have always been suspicious of scientists — Winston Churchill famously said that they should be on tap, not on top. It might be because there’s always the possibility that the evidence is going to disagree with the politics. In a discussion on Radio 4’s Start the Week programme, former Home Secretary David Blunkett said that there’s always a temptation to try to find a scientist who agrees with you in the first place. But there’s no doubt that there isn’t enough evidence used in politics, and the example of engineering would be a good one for study.

It’s all very well for us to say that there aren’t enough scientists and engineers in politics, but the problem with that is that politicians are a self-selecting pool — you can only vote for the people who stand, and only people who are interested can run for office in the first place. The way politics is at the moment, you can hardly blame engineers and scientists from being discouraged from going into the bear pit. But perhaps if the current crop of politicians take the time to read The Geek Manifesto (copies are currently being sent to every MP’s office as a result of an online pledge campaign) and, even better, take some of its ideas on board, it might change the atmosphere around policy-making enough to make it a more attractive place for those of a technical mindset.

On the other hand, the record of scientists as MPs hasn’t always been a glowing one. No less a figure than Isaac Newton was an MP (for Cambridge University, back when it had one). He spent a year in the House of Commons, and spoke once. He asked someone to close a window.