‘Broadly, all of the major political parties in the UK are saying that science is great, but it isn’t a headline message for any of them.’ So said Naomi Weir, Acting Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) at yesterday’s Policy Lunchbox meeting. The parties’ positions on science and engineering have been communicated to CaSE through a series of letters, published last Friday on the CaSE website, in response to a request for clarification from the organisation. Naomi made it clear that gaining a clear position from each party about where science fits in amongst their spending plans is a priority for CaSE: the Green Party is the only one so far to specify a spending commitment, declaring an intention to spend one percent of GDP on science, were they to be elected to form a Government.
Now that Parliament has been dissolved and campaigning has formally started in advance of polling day on 7th May, political parties will be publishing their manifestos shortly. CaSE will be poring over these, as will others in the science, engineering and maths community, to look for details about precise commitments to science spend and declarations on their plans for science and innovation. CaSE has contacted all prospective parliamentary candidates, inviting each of them to write a piece on the CaSE blog reflecting on the importance of science and engineering and how they would seek to support this were they elected. So far 130 candidates have agreed to do so and pieces will start to appear soon. Later this week, the CaSE blog will carry pieces providing advice to newly elected MPs on how to deal with science advice in Parliament, authored by Andrew Miller, outgoing chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, and David Willetts, formerly Minister for Universities and Science. Naomi made it clear that with 20 per cent of the electorate in science-based jobs, the views of scientists, engineers, mathematicians and colleagues towards each of the major parties standing for election could have an important role to play.
In making the case for why investment in science and engineering is important, Naomi made it clear that messages around the comparative spend of the UK on science (with the UK behind Luxembourg for example in the league table of percentage of GDP spent by Government on science and engineering) were not as powerful as figures on the comparative return for investment of expenditure on the science base. The benefits that accrue to health, the environment, education, new technologies, businesses, markets and avoided costs through investing in science are all powerful messages, particularly when provided alongside illustrative case-studies, something which the newly launched searchable REF impact database can assist with.
Naomi showed a powerful graphic from the Guardian from 2011-12, illustrating how public money was spent by Government during that tax year. It revealed, unsurprisingly, that Government has many other priorities than science spending. In making the case for investment in science, a nuanced message about how science and engineering in fact supports and underpins these other priorities is important; a recognition that Government has a difficult job to do in balancing these spending commitments against one another.
During the question and answer session, Nic Bilham, Head of Strategy and Extenal Relations at the Geological Society, made the important point that the learned society community and others in the science, engineering and maths sector, should think carefully about priorities for science spending in the next Parliament. Although it’s important for the science community to ‘stick together’, with a unified voice about the significance of investing in this area to underpin economic growth and development, in the run-up to the election, we will need to be helpful to any new Government. Rather than simply ‘hold a mirror up’ to Government when they ask the community where investment should be made, the community needs to consider what the spending priorities are, given a limited pot of funds. Naomi called on attendees at Policy Lunchbox to take back to their organisations the question: ‘What specific actions could a new Government take that would be most beneficial (or detrimental) to your organisation or the sector in which you work?’ Perhaps it would be useful for us all to reflect upon this a little in the six weeks or so until the election.
Policy Lunchbox is a network of individuals working in science policy across the third sector, Parliament and Government, coordinated by the British Ecological Society, Biochemical Society, Society of Biology and Society for General Microbiology. There is a monthly programme of lunchtime seminars. Find out more and join the network.