Science has lost a friend in Parliament – goodbye to Ian Gibson

In which Dr Aust mutters darkly about “real world experience” (are Universities the real world?  I always rather hoped not) and laments the loss of one of the few MPs who actually knew anything about science and Universities. Plus some “University Finance 101”.

Before Conservative Party Leader “Call me Dave” Cameron got into a bit of rather inconsequential bother over his use of a naughty word on the radio this week, he and his chums had presumably spent last weekend celebrating. This was, of course, because on Friday 24th July a 27-year-old Management Consultant and Tory Bright Young Thing named Chloe Smith was elected as the new MP for Norwich North, overturning a decent-sized Labour majority.

There are several ironies about this victory. One that amused me was Ms Smith being quoted as saying that she considers it important for MPs to have “experience of the real world”.

While I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment as quoted, it is slightly undercut for me by her bio, as printed in various newspapers. Judging from this her short-ish employment history consists of several stints as researcher or assistant to various Tory MPs – and, of course, of being a Management Consultant. She has been working, we were told, for Deloitte, though it emerged during the by-election campaign that she was on secondment to a Tory “Implementation Unit”. This is apparently the set-up which is trying to work out how Call Me Dave and his chaps and chap-ettes will run Britain after the next general election.

The whole idea of which fills me with deep foreboding.

Chloe Smith’s bio reminds me somewhat of that earlier Conservative meteor, former teenage Party Conference speaker and later Tory Leader William Hague. Though William had clearly been training to be a politician since he was barely out of short trousers, he did fit in a few years of management consultancy before he became a youthful MP at the age of 28.

Now, from the tone of the above you may have gathered, if you didn’t already know, that Dr Aust is an ageing leftie. But politics is not really the point of this post. And it is a truism of modern life in the UK that the baffling enthusiasm for Management Consultants transcends political affiliation, at least if one is talking about the major parties. The Consultants are all over the Health Service too, to the profound dislike of pretty much every doctor I know. Even Universities have a worrying tendency to call in the Consultants, though in academia the slight saving grace is that Universities are too hard-up – or at least penny-pinching – to splash out the kind of vast amounts that the NHS burns on the suits from McKinsey, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte & co.

The brightest and the best – errrm….

Of course, one is frequently told that Management Consultants, a bit like lawyers, are the brightest and the best, ultra-high-flyers and intellectual stars etc. etc. All of which may indeed be true. I actually know several Consultants, but not enough to tempt me to a nice glib generalization.

However, I do struggle to think of several years of political wonk-ery, and a brief-ish stretch serving the Consultancy cult, as being “experience of the real world”.  No matter how bright the person getting the experience is.

“Experience of the real world”, in my Grumpy Old Man’s view, comes of having done a job long enough to have some idea of what it is really like to do it – preferably as both an inexperienced and an experienced person, and at several levels of the hierarchy. In my view, you need to have put in some meaningful time in a business, or sector – earned your experience from the inside – to speak about it with any real authority or knowledge.

Which brings me to the main subject of this post, or at least the first part of it – the now ex-MP for Norwich North, scientist and trade unionist Ian Gibson.


Ian Gibson was that rarity in modern British politics – someone who became an MP comparatively late in life, having actually worked his way through a full career in something first. In Gibson’s case, the career was biological science; he did a B.Sc. and Ph.D. in genetics in Edinburgh, and post-doc work in the US, before going to work at the then new University of East Anglia in 1965. Gibson rose through the ranks at UEA to eventually become Dean of Biological Sciences from 1991 until 1997, when he was elected as an MP at the age of 59.

Gibson stayed a back bencher during his twelve years in parliament, generally characterized as an “Old Labour” type figure, becoming a notable scientific voice in the Commons. He was a member of the Science and Technology Select Committee for many years, and its influential Chairman from 2001 to 2005. The Committee contained most of the (few) MPs who had any first-hand knowledge of science, plus some others who were at least interested. The Committee was abolished in 2005, something which conspiracy theorists – possibly including Gibson himself – have been known to attribute to Government annoyance at the Committee’s tendency, under Gibson’s leadership, to point out when the Government was doing something that the committee did not believe was the best thing for science.

Gibson’s downfall was the MPs’ expenses scandal. Rather curiously, however, he is the only MP so far to actually resign over expenses. His misdeed was not all that untypical, but arguably less egregious than some. No moats, tennis courts, mortgage claims for already-sold flats, or claims for 3rd homes in the country. Gibson had claimed on expenses the mortgage costs of a London flat where he admitted he only lived for three days a week, a flat that he later sold to his daughter at well below the market rate.

Gibson was deselected (barred from standing again as an MP) by a national Labour Party “Star Chamber” disciplinary committee. Four other Labour MPs “convicted” by the Star Chamber mechanism had already stated they would not stand again; they thus remain in office until the next General Election. Gibson, in contrast, had stated his intention to stand again, unless the local Labour party in Norwich North did not want him to. However, they did not get a chance to say yea or nay, as the national Labour party barred Gibson from being a candidate.

The decision was, according to most observers, highly unpopular with Gibson’s constituents in Norwich North, where he was well-liked as an “activist” MP. During the by-election campaign the Financial Times quoted some of them, noting:

“All six mothers [who spoke to the FT] said they would have voted for Ian Gibson, the outgoing Labour MP, had he run as an independent – even though the by-election was triggered by Labour disciplining Mr Gibson over his expenses.”

Similarly, the website, in a story entitled

“Gibson’s ghost haunts Norwich North”

– quoted another of Gibson’s constituents as follows:

“He’s been tremendous in this area for us, for our community, all the way, Everybody’s been doing it [i.e. over-claiming on their expenses]. So why aren’t the guys at the top being hung out the same as Ian Gibson? It’s a tragedy, what’s happened to him.”

Now, the remark about “the guys at the top” is interesting, since it re-iterates an earlier point about Gibson. Despite his scientific background, both as scientist and “science manager”, and a knowledge of both science and higher education probably unsurpassed among Members of the Commons, Gibson never made it to even the lowest rung of Junior Ministerial Office. If you wonder why, Gibson’s own webpage bio offers a clue:

“During my time in Parliament, I have acquired the reputation of a rebel.”

Gibson was not really a part of New Labour, and indeed not really a part of the modern British  “political class”, which seems to be characterized, in the major parties, by people who have been training to be professional politicians since their early teens. Indeed, most political commentators – see e.g. the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee here – interpreted Gibson’s fate as his being thrown to the wolves  largely because he was not part of the clique.

And this returns us to the reason why Gibson was very popular among rank and file scientists, especially in the Universities.

He was one of us.

As in – a bit of a grumpy bugger, but someone who was passionate about his beliefs, whether in science or in politics. A bloke who was prepared to distinguish between what was important, and what the Government of the day was telling various biddable journalists was important. A paid-up member of the awkward squad, not an on-message apparatchik.

Thus, when the Blair or Brown Government could be heard telling you how very much they valued research, or how much new money they had put into the Research Councils, Gibson could generally be relied on to deconvolute the bullshit and give a more realistic verdict.

He was also an old trade unionist at heart, interested in hearing from people who wanted to tell him what was really going on at the grass roots in the science base and the Universities – notably about the ways in which career progression had become problematic for many 20- and 30-somethings stuck in the postdoc ghetto, and (not entirely unrelated) the many ways that the Research Assessment Exercise had distorted the system. I personally know two people who had significant exchanges with Gibson on these kind of topics.

Gibson did not always articulate the views of “the academy”, of course – he was and is his own man, with his own views. Notably, he continued to campaign against students having to pay “top up fees”, something most academics had reluctantly concluded was unavoidable if British Universities were to be put on some kind of sustainable financial footing.

But even when you disagreed with Gibson’s views, at least you knew they stemmed from a belief in, and a lifetime’s experience of, the University system, and science, and the opportunities that both offered people.

But anyway, now Gibson is gone from the House of Commons, and science has lost a real friend and champion in the House. He will be missed. Though I would not be altogether surprised to see him re-emerge as the head of some scientific Think-tank or perhaps even as a  University Vice Chancellor.

Meanwhile, at a University near you… cuts are coming

In an odd coincidence, the Norwich North by-election results appeared the very same day as this story on the BBC Education site:


University teaching cut by £65m

Funding for teaching at England’s universities is being cut by 1.36% next year to save £65m.

Every university is affected by the revised grant allocations from the funding council (Hefce).

But the biggest cuts are at those with the most students: £2.5m at the OU (Open University), £1.4m at Manchester, £1.2m at Leeds.

Unions reacted angrily but the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Bis) said the sector had to tighten its belt like everyone else.

The University and College Union (UCU) said the £65m would equate to the loss of a further 1,500 full time lecturing and support staff, days after it had complained at nearly 6,000 cuts affecting 100,000 students.


UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said this was just the first wave of likely new cuts.

“What kind of message does this send out to future generations of educators?

“It seems absurd that in a week when the government has done so much soul searching over widening participation that it is putting up new barriers for people wishing to study.”


Now, you might thing that the £ 65 M saved is a drop in the bucket compared with the billions and billionsthat have gone into bailing out the banks. Especially given that the banks caused the crisis.

You might think.

Meanwhile, of course, the Government was busy elsewhere congratulating itself for this:


The government says there will be 10,000 more university places in England this autumn, mainly in maths, science, technology and engineering.

The extra places will be allocated by the higher education funding council in consultation with universities.

They will be part-funded: universities will get students’ tuition fees but not grants for teaching and other support.

Funding is from existing budgets and in part by cutting student loan repayment holidays from five years to two.


The BBC story, unlikely most of the feeble newspaper stories that covered the extra places when the announcement was made, correctly noted that the Govt was basically inviting Universities to take these students on while receiving only 30-40% of the normal funding level “per student”.

University Finance 101

For those not familiar with the numbers, let me spell it out.

For each UK student my (biological science) faculty taught we received, last year:

£ 3,145 a year from the student (the so-called “top-up fee”).

£ 6,710 a year from the Government (the standard subsidy for lab–based sciences).

Thus a total of nearly £ 10 K per student per year (the Govt figure, often referred to as HEFCE teaching income, is explained clearly here).

If we take on extra students under the Government’s grandiosely titled “10, 000 extra places” scheme, we will be taking those students at an (effective} fee of £ 3,145 each – less than a third of the standard rate.

Given the cuts in teaching funding, I would suggest that Universities will not be taking the extra students unless they are expecting major difficulties  in balancing the budget otherwise.

Now, if you are as cynical as me about politicians, you might think that is just the point. The Government cuts the teaching funding allocation – the cuts were trailed a couple of months ago – and waits for the message to filter through that the Universities are going to be up against it financially.

Then it says “But you CAN take extra students, of course – for a third of the rate you normally get, and at a net saving to us of several thousand pounds a student”.

All Universities are equal – but some are more equal than others

Not all Universities are equal in this, although the % cut in funding for teaching students is the same across the sector.

Although the headline “reductions in teaching funding” are mostly biggest for the research-intensive Universities, which typically also have a lot of students, they are not the institutions likeliest to be facing melt-down. After all, even though they are losing the most income, these are also the institutions with the biggest budgets, the largest reserves, with their choice of students (that is, courses are far more likely to be full than “lower down” the sector), and with the most money from NON-teaching sources.

Meanwhile, it is in the less research intensive and “post-92” Universities that I expect the cut to be felt the hardest. These are often smaller institutions, and ones where teaching accounts for most of income. In addition, filling courses is sometimes problematic.

Of course, the Govt has cynically given them a partial solution to the budget problems produced by the cut; if you are facing a loss of £ 0.6 M from the cut, as many of the post-92 Universities are, you can rebalance your budget by taking 200 extra students with NO Govt funding – because each student will be ponying up three grand plus. Well, you can take these students if you can find them, that is.

Note that you will not be able to hire any extra staff to teach them – not without spending money you haven’t got – but at least the £ 3 K per student will mean you don’t necessarily have to sack anyone. Unless you want to. But all your staff will be working harder, and teaching more students, quite possibly in larger classes. And necessarily having less time to do research and other stuff.

What a tremendous bargain.

It will also not have escaped the notice of most people that a further effect of all these cuts will be to push the post-92 and other less research-intensive Universities a bit further towards being teaching-only institutions for science degree subjects. Which many science academics think is what all UK Govts have wanted, at least since the Thatcher years.

Now, I like to think that, if Ian Gibson were still in the Commons, and sitting on the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee (as it is now called), he would call all this the hypocritical piece of Realpolitik wrapped in spin that it really is.

I shall be interested to see if any of the current crop have the guts.


Instant Update:

Since I originally wrote most of the above some time last weekend, we have actually heard which Universities are going to take the extra 10,000 students. Surprise surprise – or rather, “no surprise at all” – Oxford and Cambridge, and most of the Russell Group, said they would not be taking any extra students, thank you.

Various noises were made about “quality of the education experience being sacrosanct”. Which is good to hear, don’t get me wrong.

Though another way to put this is that these Universities simply don’t need the money enough to be prepared to take extra students for 30% of the usual “rate per head”. The list of who is taking the students shows, entirely predictably, a heavy slant towards the post-92 institutions (the full list is linked from this article).


4 Responses to “Science has lost a friend in Parliament – goodbye to Ian Gibson”

  1. Neuroskeptic Says:

    I’ve always thought more scientists should become MPs. The experience of thinking you’ve got everything worked out and then having an experiment utterly fail because in fact you didn’t know something important is a very valuable one for politicians I feel.

    although, Thatcher was a chemist so I’m not sure if that’s right…

  2. draust Says:

    You’re right on both counts, Neuroskeptic. I wholly agree about more scientists becoming MPs, but I suspect that – like medics – they find the imperative to dissemble and conceal a bit tricky.

    If I was being snide, I would say that these skills seem to come easier to those trained in the law or in the media.

    Apart from Ian Gibson, the other contemporary parliamentary ex-scientist I know about is chemist Brian Iddon (Lab, Bolton South East), who is similar in age to Ian Gibson and, also like Gibson, was elected in 1997. There are probably some others, too.

    Quite correct about Mrs T, by the way. Margaret Hilda Roberts, as she then was, studied Chemistry at Oxford during WW2 and worked for three or four years as an industrial research chemist. I even have a copy of her only published paper somewhere.

    Mrs T was taught and/or influenced at Oxford by two very brilliant woman scientists, Janet Vaughan and the incomparable Dorothy Hodgkin – the future Mrs T actually did a final year research project with Hodgkin.

    Mrs T quit science fairly early (aged 26) when she married Denis. She then took up law, that standard entree into / accompaniment to a political career, but she did like to make the point in later life that she was trained as scientist. The most famous example, according to the biographies, was when she is supposed to have told President Reagan that his “Star Wars” missile defence system wouldn’t work.

    “I know it won’t work – I’m a scientist, and I know about these things”

    – is the possibly apocryphal line that gets quoted.

    British science historian Jon Agar has argued that Mrs T’s scientific B/G is important in understanding at least her early history as Education Secretary in the 1970-74 Heath Govt. I have heard him give a talk about this, but I don’t know if it has ever appeared as a book or article.

  3. Svetlana Says:

    WOW!!! David Colquhoun has written new post!!!

    Consultation about Pittilo’s report is opened!

    Folks! Go ahead! Down with statutory regulation of quackery!!!
    Your task is – to express your protest against statutory regulation of CAM in Britain.

  4. Email your MP NOW ahead of libel debate « Dr Aust’s Spleen Says:

    […] Dr Evan Harris MP, one of a sadly small number of scientifically knowledgeable MPs now that Ian Gibson is no longer in the Commons. But please, please, write a letter to yours. Stress the reasons why you are concerned, if possible […]

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