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Debating UK science

Making your mark. (Courtesy: iStockphoto.stocksnshares)

Science and the ballot box. (Courtesy: iStockphoto/stocksnshares)

By Michael Banks

Yesterday evening I went to the Royal Society in London to hear what the three main political parties in the UK have to say about science. The event was held because in May voters in the UK will be heading to the polls to choose their next government. The three parties had therefore sent their main science representatives to the Royal Society to spell out their intentions.

Chairing the debate was space scientist Maggie Aderin-Pocock of University College, London. She had the unenviable task of keeping science minister Greg Clarke (Conservative), Liberal Democrat science spokesperson Julian Huppert, and shadow universities, science and skills minister Liam Byrne (Labour) in check. For non-UK readers, it’s worth pointing out that the Conservatives have been in coalition with the Liberal Democrats since 2010.

Aderin-Pocock kicked off the question-and-answer session by saying it would be akin to the UK TV programme Question Time, but apart from the format, the similarities stopped there. It seemed as if everyone almost agreed on everything – the UK needs to spend more on science, the Haldane principle should be protected, more science-trained teachers are needed in schools etc, etc.

The two issues that did generate slightly more debate, however, were immigration and tuition fees.

On tuition fees, students in England currently pay around £9000 per year, but do not have to pay back any student loan until they earn more the £21,000. Byrne said that around £70-80bn of student debt will have to be written off because some students will simply never earn enough to pay off the debt.

Instead, Byrne called for a graduate tax. Although the details of how this would work still need to be finalized, it could apply for those earning more than £15,000, who would then pay a certain percentage of their earnings in a tax. Those earning more would pay a larger percentage.

Not suprisingly, as a member of the government that controversially trebled tuition fees in 2012, Clarke maintained his support for them, adding that a graduate tax would require universities to cut back on spending.

On immigration, Huppert called this a “big issue” in the upcoming election. While Clarke said that he wanted to expand the number of people coming to the UK to study, the policies of the current government suggest that it is divided on the issue. Earlier this month Teresa May, the home secretary, said she wanted to expel overseas, non-European Union students once they graduate from UK universities, making them apply for a new visa if they wanted to work in the UK. The proposal, however, was subsequently quashed by UK chancellor George Osbourne, after fears it would damage univeristies and business.

Bryne, meanwhile, bemoaned any decline in the number of international students in the UK and the effect it would have on UK science, adding that he wanted to take students out of any immigration targets.

Whilst scientists will be pleased with the overall positive rhetoric of the three spokespeople, everyone knows that science rarely features prominently (if at all) in party election manifestos. While thankfully science has been protected from swingeing budget cuts in this parliament by the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government, the question on everyone’s lips is, “Will that be the same come May?”.

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One comment to Debating UK science

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