Major Political Parties Outline Science Strategies

The BES last night attended a debate at the Institute of Engineering and Technology, organised by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), bringing together the science spokespeople from the three major political parties and aiming to make science an election issue. Lord Drayson, Science Minister, Adam Afriye, Shadow Science Minister and Dr Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat Science Spokesman, took to the stage to face questions from an assembled audience of around 400; all keen to find out what mention Labour, the Conservatives and Lib Dems would make of science in their election manifestos.

Roger Highfield, Editor of New Scientist, chaired the evening which saw the politicians face wide ranging questions, including on cuts to the science budget, the balance between public and private investment in science, the dismissal of Prof. David Nutt (former Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs) by the Home Secretary and scientific expertise in the forthcoming parliament.

Lord Drayson focused on the Government’s track record of supporting science over the past decade or so and stressed that science would remain key to policy-making in the future, under a Labour Government. He stressed his party’s commitment to retaining the ring-fence around the science budget, but he and others commented that Labour has not yet declared what the science budget will be. In tackling a question on the £915 million cuts faced by the higher education sector over the next two years, Lord Drayson said that a fees review was necessary and that universities need to consider other streams of funding; however he stressed again that he did see science, research and education as a fundamental part of the future prosperity of the UK.

Dr Evan Harris was an engaging speaker who clearly connected with the audience over the course of the evening as he defended the right of independent scientific advisors to speak out in criticising government policy, without fear of reprissals from politicians. He was robust in his criticism of the UK’s libel laws, and stated that the Liberal Democrats were committed to reforming these, should they be elected. He stated that his party was committed to maintaining the current spend on science, as far as possible, and called for stability as a fundamental component of the science budget. He strongly criticised plans for funding to be allocated to researchers on the basis of the proposed ‘impact’ of their work, stating that this is not a route which the UK should go down and would simply lead to ‘story-telling’ amongst researchers.

It was disappointing that Adam Afriye did not give specific examples of Conservative policy towards science, although commendable that he plans to introduce compulsory training in science for new Conservative MPs after the election – an announcement made by his network, the Conservative Friends of Science, some time ago. Mr Afriye was scathing about the UK’s current financial position, as was to be expected, and challenged Lord Drayson to announce what the actual size of the next science budget would be; criticising the Government for ducking the opportunity to declare this when they had the opportunity. However, Mr Afriye could not be drawn on what the science budget would be under the Conservatives and whether this would be ring-fenced. He also refused to rise to the challenge to declare whether a Conservative science minister would have a seat at Cabinet, as Lord Drayson does and as any future Labour science minister would continue to have.

In discussing the dismissal of Prof. David Nutt, Mr Afriye made a comment which much of the science community would find disturbing; stating that Ministers should have the right to dismiss their advisors on any terms at all, even for the reason of ‘not liking’ them. Lord Drayson in contrast made clear that he did not support this course of action and stated that advisors to Government must not feel under any pressure not to deliver bad news. He directly encouraged the scientific community to respond to the current consultation on Principles of Scientific Advice to Government, stressing his hope that politicians’ and scientists’ focus on science advice, caused by the Prof. Nutt affair would lead to improvements in this area.

Overall, this was a fascinating evening and CaSE are to be congratulated for putting together a stimulating, well-attended event, of great use to the science policy community.