Nick Clegg addresses the Royal Society

Nick Clegg MP, leader of the Liberal Democrats, this afternoon addressed a packed audience at the Royal Society, laying out his party’s views on the importance of science, technology, engineering and maths. In a wide-ranging speech which lasted for approximately half an hour, Mr Clegg covered a range of topics; from early-years science and maths education to the use of independent scientific advice by the government. Mr Clegg’s speech was then followed by a high quality question and answer session.

Mr Clegg began his speech by congratulating the Royal Society on a diverse and exciting programme of events to celebrate their 350th anniversary year, stating that the Society represented one of the only bodies which has been influential historically and which continues to be so. His speech emphasised the importance of STEM training and STEM professionals in leading the UK out of recession and called for not just a ‘rebuild’ but a ‘redesign’ of the economy, built not just on the financial sector but on science, technology and innovation. Mr Clegg blamed the Labour Government for failing to capitalise on the success of UK research (with 1% of the world’s population and 8% of the world’s scientific publications) by translating this success into business opportunities.

As a key part of his speech, Mr Clegg made five pledges to the scientific community. According to Mr Clegg a Liberal Democrat government would;
1) Be honest about spending:
Mr Clegg emphasised that the Government’s current debt was not sustainable and that a period of fiscal contraction would have to occur in the years to come. He stated that STEM would be at the forefront of Liberal Democrat thinking in grappling with the economic situation.
2) Allocate funding to broad priorities:
A Liberal Democrat government would respect the ‘Haldane Principle’ but that government would be entitled to take strategic decisions based on broad priorities. ‘Impact’ as part of the Research Excellence Framework would be re-examined.
3) Reform education to increase scientific literacy:
One of Mr Clegg’s key points was the fundamental importance of early-years education in crystallising young people’s attitudes to STEM and take-up of STEM subjects later in life. A Liberal Democrat government would be committed to improving the quality of STEM tuition, with all Key Stage 4 students having the opportunity to take three sciences.
4) Uphold policy based on independent evidence:
Mr Clegg said that he understood the importance of independent scientific advice and that he supported the Prinicples for the Treatment of Independent Scientific Advice as submitted to the Government by Sense about Science. A debate was also necessary, he said, on the media’s communication of science and of the nuances of scientific discovery.
5) Immediately reform English libel laws:
Freedom to evaluate critically the work of others is fundamental to science, Mr Clegg said, and immediate reform is needed to make sure that the UK’s libel laws don’t stifle scientific debate and inquiry.

In response to questioning Mr Clegg confirmed that these five principles would be found in the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto. In response to other questions he reiterated his party’s commitment to abolishing tuition fees for university students, although acknowledged that money was not available for this at present, and reiterated his commitment to ‘lead with evidence’ the policy-making process. When questioned about how he would deal with a direct clash between the evidence (in this case, that eating less meat would be better for the climate) and politics (safeguarding farmers’ interests) Mr Clegg was pragmatic however, stating that ultimately he and his colleagues were politicians, representing the public. With many rural constituencies he said that it would be difficult in this case to make policy purely on the basis of this evidence. He hoped, he said, that a Liberal Democrat government would show ‘sophistication’ in its approach to evidence-based policy-making.