Killer questions for election hopefuls

I was back at the Wellcome Collection last night, for a Eurekalive! debate, organised by The Times, with a panel of experts including Brian Cox, the CERN physicist and presenter of the excellent Wonders of the Solar System; Alom Shaha, film-maker and physics teacher, Gabrielle Walker, broadcaster and author, and Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust.

The theme of the evening was science and the general election. I prefer to decide which candidate to support on individual, rather than party lines. I’m planning to email my local parliamentary candidates to find out their attitudes to issues that matter to me, including science. So I asked the panel for some ‘killer questions’ to put to candidates, to find out whether they were scientifically literate. See if you can spot the panellist who actually answered my question!

Gabrielle Walker said the big issue was climate change. ‘We have really got a very short space of time. The next five years of the next Parliament is crucial. I would ask them, what do you propose do to about climate change? And what are you doing to engage the public?’

Mark Wolport: ‘I don’t think it’s necessary that they should be chemists or physicists. Do they understand the importance of science and its place in society? MPs are used to voting on the issues, but in science there’s often a right answer. You can vote as much as you like, but there’s a right answer.’

Brian Cox: ‘They don’t need to know about or be scientists, but they need to know when there’s a solid peer-reviewed view that is concrete. It’s knowing when something is a peer-reviewed, settled view.’

Alom Shaha: ‘Ask whether creationism should be taught alongside evolution in schools; what they think about animal testing; where they stand on the time limit for having an abortion; about alternative medicine. That will give you an idea about their scientific literacy.’

So thanks to Alom Shaha in particular, for some great ideas for questions. I’ll be asking about climate change as well, and might just throw in my personal killer question to find out about attitudes to science: Do you support NHS funding for homeopathy?

Scientific literacy is not a party issue, but understanding the scientific method can make a big difference to how our politicians make policy. Any other suggestions for killer questions for those who would rule us in 6 weeks’ time?

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