New lab tests

We need a scientific government for a scientific age.

Over-achiever of the year so far is surely the US energy secretary, Steven Chu. Not content with working 80-hour weeks in government, he has squeezed some scientific research into his schedule. His latest discovery, the result of a collaboration with two other physicists, has just been published in the prestigious journal Nature.

The research is the most accurate test yet of Einstein's general theory of relativity. It's not going to win Chu a Nobel Prize - he's already got one anyway - but it is an impressive piece of work. Relativity says that time slows down when gravity is strong. A clock placed in the lobby of a skyscraper, for example, will gradually slow compared with a clock on the top floor, where earth's gravitational pull is very slightly weaker. Chu and his colleagues have tested this to show that Einstein's prediction is accurate to seven parts per billion.

Chu's achievement is a warning against those who think impressive science is the preserve of expensive projects. There were no trips into space for Chu's experiment: it was all done in a standard physics laboratory. In the age of the Large Hadron Collider, the Human Genome Project and the orbiting white elephant known as the International Space Station, there's still a lot you can do with a prepared mind and a well-equipped university laboratory.

Not that science doesn't need grand projects. Chu would be the first to argue that we need big science as well as small. And he gets to make that argument where it matters: at the heart of government. With Chu's appointment, Obama made it clear that science is not a peripheral issue, but a major player in addressing the issues that politicians face today.

Chu's UK counterpart, Ed Miliband, read philosophy politics and economics. Miliband's shadow, Greg Clark, is also an economist. It's true that the science minister, Paul Drayson, has research experience - a PhD in robotics and years spent in industry - but, well, he's the science minister. In this day and age, experienced scientists should be working in roles where their political clout goes beyond divvying up the research budget. Here's an idea. Scientists repeatedly score significantly higher than politicians in surveys of public trust. I'd like to take this opportunity to tempt a few of our most eminent minds out of the lab for a spell. If a Nobel laureate can work at the heart of US government and still participate in the odd scientific breakthrough, the same could happen here. We could have a scientific government for a scientific age. The campaign slogan practically writes itself.

Michael Brooks is a consultant to the New Scientist

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 15 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Falklands II

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Will Jeremy Corbyn stand down if Labour loses the general election?

Defeat at the polls might not be the end of Corbyn’s leadership.

The latest polls suggest that Labour is headed for heavy defeat in the June general election. Usually a general election loss would be the trigger for a leader to quit: Michael Foot, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband all stood down after their first defeat, although Neil Kinnock saw out two losses before resigning in 1992.

It’s possible, if unlikely, that Corbyn could become prime minister. If that prospect doesn’t materialise, however, the question is: will Corbyn follow the majority of his predecessors and resign, or will he hang on in office?

Will Corbyn stand down? The rules

There is no formal process for the parliamentary Labour party to oust its leader, as it discovered in the 2016 leadership challenge. Even after a majority of his MPs had voted no confidence in him, Corbyn stayed on, ultimately winning his second leadership contest after it was decided that the current leader should be automatically included on the ballot.

This year’s conference will vote on to reform the leadership selection process that would make it easier for a left-wing candidate to get on the ballot (nicknamed the “McDonnell amendment” by centrists): Corbyn could be waiting for this motion to pass before he resigns.

Will Corbyn stand down? The membership

Corbyn’s support in the membership is still strong. Without an equally compelling candidate to put before the party, Corbyn’s opponents in the PLP are unlikely to initiate another leadership battle they’re likely to lose.

That said, a general election loss could change that. Polling from March suggests that half of Labour members wanted Corbyn to stand down either immediately or before the general election.

Will Corbyn stand down? The rumours

Sources close to Corbyn have said that he might not stand down, even if he leads Labour to a crushing defeat this June. They mention Kinnock’s survival after the 1987 general election as a precedent (although at the 1987 election, Labour did gain seats).

Will Corbyn stand down? The verdict

Given his struggles to manage his own MPs and the example of other leaders, it would be remarkable if Corbyn did not stand down should Labour lose the general election. However, staying on after a vote of no-confidence in 2016 was also remarkable, and the mooted changes to the leadership election process give him a reason to hold on until September in order to secure a left-wing succession.

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