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Only 9% of GE2017 contenders have a STEM degree: why this is a problem

Science and technology are vital to the UK’s future growth - and central to many other issues likely to dominate the policy agenda for decades to come, from cybersecurity and climate change to the future of work. Indeed, for years, Westminster has championed initiatives encouraging more students to choose STEM degrees (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), to ensure the UK labour market and wider economy can adapt to and benefit from rapid technological and scientific developments. But are our parliamentarians equipped with the knowledge and expertise in STEM to deal with the pressing technology and science issues that will radically change the way we work and live?

Our research into the main contenders for each seat in the upcoming general election suggests that the next parliament will not be. According to our estimates, only nine per cent of candidates running for the major parties this cycle have an academic background in STEM fields. This is in stark contrast to the 41 per cent of graduates that completed a STEM degree in 2016 (statistics provided by HESA, the UK’s higher education statistics agency). For the methods behind this research, see the dedicated methodology section at the end of this blog.

Science and engineering representation does not appear to have improved since last term: among those who entered parliament in 2015, nearly ten per cent held a STEM degree, marginally higher than the share of contenders for seats this election. The previous cabinet did count three ministers with STEM degrees (four did PPE) - though none held science or technology-related portfolios. So far there has only been one prime minister with a degree in STEM: Margaret Thatcher, who studied chemistry (Harold Wilson is a partial exception having worked as a statistician during the war).

While candidates with backgrounds in the science and engineering disciplines lag behind, other fields are particularly well-represented. Fifteen per cent of candidates have a degree in law, 16 per cent in political science, ten per cent in history (compared to just four per cent of 2016 graduates, per HESA statistics). Among the STEM candidates, those with medicine, dentistry or public health backgrounds make up the highest share, with 3.4 per cent. Other more popular STEM fields are chemistry, engineering and biology. The pie chart below shows the breakdown of degrees by category.  
 

Figure 1: Breakdown by degree field 

Why we need more scientists in government

Topics addressed in Westminster show a discouraging lack of attention directed to technology and science issues. An important issue like encryption featured in only five debates held in the House of Commons in the past year, cyber security in 26, and the potentially groundbreaking gene-editing technology CRISPR was not mentioned at all. For comparison, Brexit - not surprisingly one of the most discussed topics - came up in 472 debates (of an estimated total of 1,600), and was the subject of 948 written questions. This lack of engagement is mirrored in the election manifestos published over the last week: some of the most important challenges we will have to grapple with over the coming decades, such as climate change and the radical transformation of our labour market due to automation, barely feature (with some notable exceptions).

For many of these issues, there is not much time to lose if we want our parliament to play an active role in shaping and regulating developments. A topic like artificial intelligence requires a multidisciplinary approach - a legal and technological perspective, economists to see the opportunities and ethicists to see the potential dangers. If not all of these perspectives are adequately represented in parliament, we risk designing policy that fails to anticipate future challenges and opportunities.

MPs are currently briefed on science and technology issues through, for example, PostNotes - short policy briefings on emerging science issues - and select committee outputs. These resources are useful in informing MPs without a grounding in STEM about the context and main questions surrounding a topic, but deeper knowledge is necessary to drill into the detail behind increasingly opaque and complex technologies. Generalists (many of whom take a keen interest in technology and science topics) are invaluable when it comes to placing an issue into a wider context, but additional knowledge is needed to understand what is in the metaphorical black box. Striking the right balance is key.

We do not just need MPs with a STEM background in parliament to help bring more diverse voices into the policymaking process, but also to be champions for a scientific approach to facts and truth in a time where evidence-informed policymaking is increasingly under threat.

A problem around the world

It is not just Westminster where we see this kind of underrepresentation of STEM degrees among politicians. Though German Chancellor Angela Merkel holds a PhD in physical chemistry, the number of STEM-degree holders in the Bundestag is not much higher than in the United Kingdom, with 11 per cent of the members of Germany’s highest political body having a background in the exact sciences or engineering. In the recent Dutch elections nearly ten per cent of candidates had a STEM degree. In the US Congress scientists, doctors and engineers are particularly rare: only around five per cent studied a STEM field.

A notable exception is the European Parliament, which shows a more diverse range of academic (and professional) backgrounds - perhaps not surprising, given the large variety of different national contexts represented within the 751-member-strong body. Particularly in Eastern European member states we notice a substantial number of politicians with a background in STEM, particularly among older MEPs. An impressive 20 per cent of MEPs have a degree in science and technology; 17 per cent have direct professional experience in science and technology sectors. The European Parliament is also noteworthy for its high share of PhDs, at 22 per cent.

This large STEM contingent in the European Parliament is not without significance: Brussels is particularly influential when it comes to decision making around, for example, internet, competition and environmental regulation and policy - topics that have a direct bearing on how whole markets develop, and benefit from a deep understanding of technology and science topics. Responsibility over most of these areas - from data protection to pesticide regulation - is likely to flow back to Westminster post-Brexit. The expertise lost by leaving the European Union will need to be compensated elsewhere.

What should we do about it?

One important way of improving Westminster’s ability to implement the kind of robust policies needed to effectively respond to and anticipate emerging science-driven challenges, is bringing in more direct expertise and knowledge into parliament. To do this, we need more scientists and engineers to actually run as candidates, as well as better support for those currently in parliament.

We need more scientists and engineers to actually run as candidates, as well as better support for those currently in parliament

Following the election of Donald Trump in the United States, a pro-expertise backlash has led to numerous initiatives advocating for a more fact and evidence-informed approach to policymaking in Washington and beyond. One such initiative is 314 Action, which hopes to encourage more scientists to run for office, and provides training and support to help promising candidates with the process. 314 Action (after Pi), is modelled after similar non-profits such as Emily’s List, which has helped many women - another demographic group less likely to run for elected positions - to enter politics. While this type of PAC model is not something that has a clear equivalent in the United Kingdom, training programmes of this kind might be very effective to encourage more STEM talents, for whom joining politics is often not a career path previously considered, to put themselves forward as candidates.   

Another interesting example from the United States is the Congressional Innovation Fellowship, which embeds technology experts for up to a year in the US Congress, where they assist members of Congress with creating legislation and the complete policy process. This type of arrangement is mutually beneficial: not only does the presence of experts help improve the quality and relevance of the technology policymaking process in the US’ most important legislative body, but also helps improve understanding of Washington DC processes in the tech and science community, so strengthening ties. A similar model could be explored in Westminster.

What we need above all is more politicians, from all backgrounds, to make the case for science and technology, and their importance for a flourishing society

But what we need above all is more politicians, from all backgrounds, to make the case for science and technology, and their importance for a flourishing society. Standard bearers for science most certainly need not have an academic past in these fields to be an effective champion - non-STEM politicians have an equally vital role to play. Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s (a PPE-graduate himself) famous 1963 Labour Conference speech is a reminder of how politicians from all backgrounds can make a powerful case for the essential economic and societal importance of science and technology: “if [the] country was to prosper, a "new Britain" would need to be forged in the "white heat" of this "scientific revolution”, a sentiment that redefined how the public saw science for decades to follow.

Methodology

All analysis in this blog is based on data collected from a variety of public data sources, such as official party websites, Wikipedia, local news articles and LinkedIn, and is therefore subject to errors. We will publish the full dataset behind this analysis as open data in the coming days, and encourage you to get in touch if you notice any mistakes or would like to think about other topics we could explore using the dataset.

Candidates: We collected information on nearly 1,800 candidates, looking only at candidates that represented parties that held at least one seat at the time of dissolution of parliament on May 3 2017, and whose parties’ won at least eight per cent of the vote in the 2015 General Election in the constituency they are running in (this to ensure we take into account a set of candidates that will reflect the likely makeup of the final parliament). Candidates were taken from official lists published by the respective political parties: the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party in multiple home countries; Plaid Cymru in Wales, the SNP in Scotland, and Sinn Fein, the DUP, the SDLP and the UUP in Northern Ireland.

For this analysis, we collected the following variables: full name, gender, ethnicity, constituency, date of birth, place of birth, whether or not they are a sitting MP and if so since when, secondary school, undergraduate university and degree, post-graduate university and degree, current or last job before joining parliament and whether a candidate previously worked in politics.

Unfortunately, we do not have complete data on all candidates running in this election - for about 30 per cent of contenders (per the previous definition), we miss partial or complete data. Lacking data availability is problematic, as it complicates this type of analysis and hampers the democratic process. We encourage parties to be more transparent about releasing information about the backgrounds of their candidates, and provide this data in an easy to use format. This lack of availability is fairly consistent across parties, and we still consider our dataset to be a representative sample of the candidate makeup of each.

Definitions of STEM: We use HESA’s official STEM classifications to identify which degrees should be counted as STEM and which should not. We consider a candidate a STEM graduate when he or she completed either an undergraduate or postgraduate university degree in a STEM field.

The STEM statistic is based on the share of all candidates who meet the contender cut-off (won at least eight per cent in 2015, and are part of a party that had at least one seat by the time of the dissolution of parliament), not just those who attained a university degree.

STEM distribution appears to be fairly consistent across parties’ lists - STEM candidates are not more likely to run in safe seats or marginal seats, and are equally distributed across genders (i.e. neither male or female candidates are more likely to have a STEM degree).

Degree breakdown: We categorised degree fields manually (the open data set includes the original degree title), and picked a category using the following rules:

1) post-graduate degrees are favoured over undergraduate degrees (i.e. a history undergraduate and law postgraduate is classified as “law”

2) When a candidate completed multiple degrees (i.e. double majored in political science and classics), we count both degrees as a .5, rather than 1, when calculating the overall share of each field. This ensures we do not end up with a number over 100 per cent.

NB:  Previous work shows the importance of combining STEM and arts for creativity and innovation. Insofar as so few candidates have STEM backgrounds, an even lower number would have degrees in STEAM, we have decided to only include STEM candidates in this analysis.

The methodology and the judgement calls we made while generating the dataset will be discussed in more detail in the upcoming blog that will accompany the soon-to-be-released open dataset.

Author

Katja Bego

Katja Bego

Katja Bego

Data Scientist

Katja is a data scientist in the technology futures and explorations teams at Nesta. Her work focuses on using novel data sources and techniques to identify and analyse emerging tech...

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Jack Pilkington

Jack Pilkington

Jack Pilkington

Explorations Intern

Jack worked in our Explorations team.

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Charlotte Goujon

Charlotte Goujon

Charlotte Goujon

Innovation Policy Intern

Charlotte worked in our Innovation Policy team.

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