CaSE Cross-Party Debate: Politicians set out their stalls on science policy

With less than four months to go until the General Election, the UK’s political parties are beginning to flesh out their manifesto promises and establish the battle lines on key issues. On 14 January, science policy was on the agenda at The Royal Society for the Campaign for Science and Engineering’s annual cross-party debate. Chaired by space scientist and television presenter Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, the debate brought together Dr Greg Clark MP (Conservatives), Minister of State for Universities, Science and Cities; Liam Byrne MP (Labour), Shadow Minister for Universities, Science and Skills; and Dr Julian Huppert (Liberal Democrats) to face questions from the scientific community.

The debate demonstrated an encouraging level of cross-party consensus on the general principles of science policy in the UK. All three panellists agreed that science was an integral part of the country’s economy today, and would become even more important in the future. While only Julian Huppert outlined a concrete plan for increasing investment – with the Liberal Democrats committing to increasing funding at a rate of 3% above inflation each year for the next fifteen years – all the panellists reiterated their belief that investment in science should and would be increased. While Greg Clark pointed to Government’s recently released Science and Innovation Strategy – broadly supported by the other panellists – as indicative of his party’s support for science, Liam Byrne argued that Labour’s overall fiscal and economic policy would be more conducive to enhancing Britain’s scientific strength.

If all parties were in general agreement on their goals for science in the UK, there remained considerable divergence as to how we should achieve these goals, with the question of how best to fund teaching in higher education engendering the most polarised responses. Greg Clark suggested that the Coalition Government’s decision to raise tuition fees had been a success, with student numbers rising, including amongst those from poorer backgrounds. However Liam Byrne argued strongly that the system was unsustainable, and that Labour favoured a long-term shift towards a graduate tax. Julian Huppert accepted that the current system was a compromise, and that while he ultimately favoured the removal of tuition fees, this wasn’t currently feasible.

A noticeable thread running throughout the debate was the extent to which policy areas outside of the direct remit of the Science Minister impinge on science policy. Issues such as school-level education and immigration provided some of the clearest dividing lines between the panellists. On the question of how school-level education could be changed to benefit science, all panellists pointed to the need for more STEM specialists to enter and remain in the teaching profession. Of The recent debate over the decision by Ofqual to remove practical assessment from A-Level science examinations has been of particular interest to the BES, and Liam Byrne asserted that Labour would overturn the decision. Whilst acknowledging the importance of practical science, Greg Clark explained that this was an independent decision by Ofqual based on the previous lack of differentiation in practical assessment. The pressing need to address the gender imbalance in science was also addressed, with Greg Clark in particular stressing the importance of the sector itself taking the initiative – something the BES has done through its mentoring scheme.

The BES is committed to promoting policy-making based upon the best available scientific evidence, and as such the question of the role of science in informing policy decisions was of particular interest, particularly in a week when the Chair of House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has criticised the “dilution” of science advice across government. All three panellists concurred with the questioner’s recommendation that government departments should be more open in showing the evidence and working behind policy decisions, with Greg Clark promising to share the suggestion with Government colleagues. Liam Byrne pointed to the thorny issue of “badgers moving the goalposts” as a clear example of where this hadn’t happened, and also asserted the importance of having a Chief Scientific Advisor in every department. Julian Huppert supported this view, and also called for Ministers to be more explicit about why evidence isn’t always followed, and when value judgements are being legitimately made.

Ultimately, while the three parties differed in the policy detail, all the panellists were in broad agreement on the overall direction of travel for science policy of the UK. Will such a consensus be achieved when it comes to environmental issues? The BES, together with the Sibthorp Trust and CIEEM, are hosting People, Politics and the Planet – Any Questions in London on 9th March 2015, bringing together leading politicians to debate the environmental content of their party manifestos. Tickets are on sale now, with a substantial discount for BES members.