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‘Not a tribal politician’

Image: Chris Andrew [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Norman Lamb, chairman of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, tells Cristina Gallardo how he hopes to navigate Brexit.

Luck partly explains how Norman Lamb, a pro-Remain Liberal Democrat MP, became chairman of the science and technology committee. In the horse trading that follows a general election, the election result and negotiations between whips inform which party will chair which select committee. That is how, “without much logic or rationality” as Lamb puts it, he became chairman of the committee that will scrutinise science policymaking in the period leading to Brexit.

Lamb, who is the only Lib Dem to head a committee in the Commons, was appointed in July, after which eight more committee members were announced on 7 September. Because none of them were women, the appointments provoked a flurry of criticism; a woman member has since been announced and two places remained unfilled at the time this went to press.

But it is Brexit that will preoccupy Lamb. He worries that the process of the UK leaving the European Union will mean that chairing a select committee will become far more difficult, as it will be tougher to reach consensus on inquiry reports and recommendations to government. Nevertheless, he feels that he has the right skills.

“I have spent many years in Westminster promoting more cross-party working. It is instinctively the way I prefer to work. I am not a tribal politician. I’ve got friends and people that I respect across parliament, and I think that was partly reflected in the vote for the chairmanship,” he says.

Lamb is fully aware of the added importance of Brexit to his role, and is quick to stress that he wants researchers to feel that their voices are heard in the negotiations. He wants the UK to continue participating in Horizon 2020 and successive Framework programmes, and to ensure that whatever replaces freedom of movement “doesn’t put impediments” in recruiting “the best people”.

The position paper on science collaboration after Brexit, published by the UK government on 6 September, “wasn’t particularly revealing”, he says. “It is sort of a collection of high-level aspirations, a lot of which is unobjectionable.”

Lamb has been fast to engage with academics—including the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, the vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK and the advocacy group Campaign for Science and Engineering. He has written to the government to demand urgent clarification of the UK’s status in Framework 9, which is due to start in 2021.

Lamb grew up in a household in which scientific evidence got special recognition—his father, the climate researcher Hubert Lamb, was an early proponent of anthropogenic climate change. An awareness of the importance of evidence stayed with him through his career in politics and law. One of his priorities is to invigorate evidence-based policymaking, starting with mental health.

“I am fascinated about the whole idea of adverse childhood experiences—young children who suffer trauma or neglect—and the evidence that exists about its impact on later life. This includes education attainment, unemployment and their potential to drift into the criminal justice system. I would love to conduct an inquiry into what evidence there is about the impact of the experiences and the interventions that work.”

Lamb’s interest in mental health deepened when his eldest son was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder aged 16. At the time of the diagnosis, Lamb had been working on mental-health policymaking as shadow health spokesperson. Between 2012 and 2015 he served as a junior minister in the Department for Health and fought to get some of his proposals through, including the Mental Health Crisis Care Concordat, which set the care standards for mental-health crises.

Lamb is dissatisfied with the government’s spending on mental-health research—£8 per person affected by mental illness. This compares with £178 per person suffering from cancer, according to figures from the charity MQ. “The answer you always get is that we just respond to the best proposals. But that seems to me to be a very passive approach. We should set a clear steer, an intention to increase funding for research into mental health, and then the good-quality proposals will follow.”

The committee has announced inquiries into the role, transparency and accountability of algorithms in decision-making, research integrity and genomics and gene editing in the NHS.

Lamb also intends to continue to pester the Department for Exiting the EU to appoint a chief scientific adviser—a battle left unfinished by his predecessor. “It makes absolute sense and I don’t really understand the argument against it,” Lamb says.

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This article also appeared in Research Fortnight