Margaret Thatcher: politician and scientist

The death of Margaret Thatcher (British prime minister from 1979 – 1990) last week has taken over the UK media. Margaret Thatcher was unusual in many respects, including being both a politician and a scientist. Mrs Thatcher possessed a chemistry degree from Oxford and worked in the chemical industry before becoming an MP.

“Margaret Thatcher brought a scientist’s mind to No.10”, reads the front page of the Daily Telegraph today. Dame Mary Archer, herself a prominent scientist and old friend of Mrs T, says that Margaret Thatcher tacked problems with the “mindset of a scientist, objectively examining the evidence”.

“Many distinguished politicians would go on gut and instinct, which isn’t the scientific way. Baroness Thatcher was different.” said Mary Archer.

In the Guardian newspaper, Jon Agar writes that Margaret Thatcher’s experience as an industrial chemist influenced her conversion to free-market economics, with her early years working in industrial, profitable science helping to form her political and economic approach.

Many people – whatever they think of her politics in general – applaud her approach to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. Against much public opinion (and perhaps her own moral scruples) her government set up needle-exchange programmes and ran hard-hitting public information campaigns. At the time it was a courageous thing to do. Mrs Thatcher was also an early and outspoken leader on tackling climate change, grasping early on the evidence for the greenhouse effect . Read more about think in Significance Magazine here, or in the Guardian here.

However  overall,  Mrs Thatcher’s legacy for research was not positive, according to New Scientist this week. Driven by market economics,  UK research activity decreased under her premiership and has not yet recovered. Moreover Mrs Thatcher also had little appreciation for social sciences, at one time threatening to close down the Social Science Research Council entirely.

It is not likely that we will see another scientific prime minister in the near future. In fact out of 650 MPs, only 27 have science related degrees n the UK government and only one has a research PhD. The debate over the lack of scientists in parliament has been renewed with the death of Mrs Thatcher, although opinion is divide on whether her legacy was positive for science and research.

As a final word I would like to mention Sir Robert Edwards who also died last week. Sir Edwards was one of the pioneers of in-vitro fertilisation, a technique responsible for bringing  over 4 million desperately wanted babies into the world.


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