Brian Cox contemplates standing for parliament


Scientists have a duty to speak out and tackle big issues, the physicist and presenter says. He spoke to Andrew Masterson.


Physicist and television presenter Brian Cox: contemplating a dramatic career change.

Physicist and television presenter Brian Cox: contemplating a dramatic career change.

Nicky J Sims/Getty Images for Phil McIntyre Entertainment

Brian Cox, distinguished UK physicist and well-known television presenter, is seriously considering entering politics.

Talking to Cosmos, Cox said he said he was prompted in his thinking by several factors, including rediscovering the political activism of Richard Feynman and Robert Oppenheimer, and “the failure of an entire generation of politicians” over the issue of Brexit.

He also remembered being on a television discussion program with Michael Portillo, a one-time UK Conservative cabinet minister. Cox had been lamenting the lack of intellectual rigour among serving parliamentarians, and Portillo suddenly took him to task.

“He said to me, well, just stand for parliament then,” Cox recalls.

“If you have strong views about the way society should be run and the way things should be, well, stop just saying it and actually go and do it. And I couldn’t argue with him. He was right.

“You can stand on the sidelines, sniping, or just get on with it.”

Cox currently divides his time between being a high-profile science television presenter, broadcaster and public speaker, doing a series of undergraduate lectures at the University of Manchester, and maintaining a “low level involvement” at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, known as CERN.

His immediate plans, he explains, involve reducing his media work after current commitments – which include a world tour – come to an end, to focus more on teaching and research.

However, he said he had been lately deeply affected by reading works by American theoretical physicists Richard Feynman and Robert Oppenheimer, both of whom believed that they had moral obligations to raise their voices and act against political policies that they believed to be dangerous.

The obvious conclusion – that Cox himself has an obligation to follow suit – seems to have been reached only recently. The implications are still being assessed – a matter evident in mixture of determination and hesitation he reveals when addressing the subject.

“I don’t know,” he says. “At some point, in the future, if you really think there have been problems, then maybe you have duty to try to solve them. It’s the best way to do that.

“I already have some sort of a voice, but … ultimately … Yes, maybe in 10 years’ time, when I’ve done the stuff that I want to do, maybe I’d quite … ”

He falters momentarily, and seems to be reassessing the timeline he’s just given himself. “Although maybe that will be too late,” he adds.

Indeed, resolve surges back into his voice. It would be unwise to lay bets, but it is at least possible that less than a decade will pass before Brian Cox chucks his hat into the Westminster ring.

“The world now really does need a broader political class,” he says.

“We need politicians who come from many different areas. The professional political class has failed, and it’s failing spectacularly in Britain at the moment.

“I hope the era of the career parliamentarian comes to an end. And what that actually means is that people from different backgrounds, such as scientists, need to get in there and need to do their stint.”

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