How will science fare in the next government?
By Michael Banks
There was the banging of a fist on the table and a heated moment (albeit brief) when government science budgets were debated.
Yesterday, the science ministers for the UK’s three main parties – Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat — met at Portcullis House in Westminster to attempt to put science policy on the agenda.
Science rarely enters policy debates leading up to a general election. Indeed Phil Willis, chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, who spoke before the debate, noted that some party election manifestos in the past have not even mentioned science at all.
Yet science was the only focus at the event yesterday, which was organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry and chaired by Susan Watts, science editor of the BBC programme Newsnight. It featured in the red corner, (Labour) science minister Paul Drayson, in the blue corner (Conservative) shadow science minster Adam Afriyie, and in the other corner Liberal Democrat spokesperson for science and technology Evan Harris.
“This time the parties are neck and neck [in the polls], so there is a real choice,” noted Drayson, who has been Labour science minister for the last 18 months.
There are many aspects of science policy that the three panellists seemed to agree on. All three agreed science is an important issue that should be at the heart of government, a point that was reiterated a few times by Drayson.
They also thought a long-term ring-fence of the science budget was right. This means that the treasury cannot dip into the science budget to take any money out after it has been allocated in a comprehensive spending review.
In the two hour debate, the parties also agreed to try and get a chief scientific advisor into the treasury (every other government department supposedly has one) and that they stand by the Haldane principle, in which scientists decide where research money goes rather than politicians, as well the need to get more women into science.
All very good and noble, but what are the differences in science policy for the three main parties?
Even though the three parties support the ring-fence, there are some differences in what happens for the science budget immediately after the election, which is expected to be in early May.
Drayson says that Labour will protect the ring-fence completely, while Afriyie noted that in the long term the Conservatives are committed to a “multi-year science ring-fence”, but says that the “economy has to be first fixed before we can ring fence any budget in the short term”.
So what could this mean? The Conservatives are likely to run an emergency budget if they get elected and although Afriyie didn’t prejudge the outcome, Drayson claims that the Conservatives would make “harsh, deep cuts” in this year’s science budget if they are elected. (The banging of the fist came as Afriyie asked why the government had not yet carried out a comprehensive spending review.)
Harris, meanwhile, says the Liberal Democrats would “not raid the science budget”, and would not cut the science budget this year.
The biggest difference of the night came with higher education policy. Harris said that the Liberal Democrats would scrap tuition fees amounting to £3225 a year that university undergraduates have to pay.
Afriyie says the Conservatives will repay the loans for high performing maths and science students, but Drayson was more guarded about policy saying that Labour will look at the outcome of the a review into higher education spending currently being carried out by Lord Brown. The Brown review will report after the general election.
A few differences, but it might not be such a bad thing. In the event of a hung parliament the three may well have to work together to make sure science is firmly in the government spotlight.