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CaSE 2013 Cross-Party debate

11 Nov 2013

Catch up on all the discussion from the 2013 CaSE cross-party science debate.

In October, CaSE brought together the science spokespeople from each of the main political parties to debate the future direction of science and engineering in the UK. The event, kindly hosted by the Royal Society and chaired by Pallab Ghosh, gave us the opportunity to hear from each party on issues ranging from the use of scientific advice in Government through to research funding and matters around diversity in science and engineering.

Although the General Election is nearly 18 months away, the next six months will be a critical time as parties prepare their manifestos and firm up their policies ahead of 2015. Only three weeks in post, Liam Byrne claimed to offer ‘more enthusiasm than experience’. However, each speaker contributed to the lively debate both with opinions on the current state of science in the UK and on what they consider to be priority areas.

Julian Huppert raised the need for trained specialists and people who ‘get science’ at every level, be it teachers in primary school or Members of Parliament.

David Willetts set a number of challenges both to his colleagues, around university fees and investment in science, and to the scientific community, around doing more with less through efficiencies.

Liam Byrne raised the importance of good careers advice and the need for a shift towards long-term funding frameworks and strategies to go with them.

The debate was formed around seven questions and the summary below captures the highlights from the discussion. 

Skills and Education

“There has been much interest in the perceived STEM skills gap for well-trained practical scientists. What would the panel propose as a solution to fill this skills gap?”

Julian Huppert began the debate at the beginning, saying the starting point is “getting young people interested in science”. “Teach them that science is fun, not just a list of facts and lets teach people to do science not just about science.”  His proposals for doing this included having primary school science specialists in each school and ensuring secondary school science teachers are able to do Continuing Professional Development e.g. for biology specialists to catch up on physics. He also pointed the audience to his policy paper outlining his thoughts on science and research. 

Liam Byrne outlined the scale of the future demand for scientists and engineers and agreed that the starting point was the classroom. His three areas of concern were around policies enabling unqualified teachers to teach in our schools, the absence of good careers advice and a lack of an alternative route through to working as a scientist. He proposed a cross party discussion ahead of the election on how we can build a careers service and discussed the introduction of the technical Baccalaureate which could lead to qualifying as a chartered scientist.

David Willets spoke of demand and supply side issues. He agreed that getting people excited about science was key to increasing demand, using the Bloodhound project as an example. He said that there was funding for these kind of opportunities through the Government’s science communication budget. On the supply side, he suggested high quality teaching was key to ensuring that, for example, engineering graduates would know the theory and be equipped with practical skills. The recently announced match-funded £200m for teaching capital was part of the solution, he said. Here he raised the ‘national scandal’ of the lack of women in science and engineering which is why receiving this funding has been linked to diversity measures.

Prompted by a question from the floor around the long lead time from improving primary school science to increasing the number of trained professionals, Liam Byrne suggested devolving control of some parts of the skills system to a local level would help while David Willetts focussed on retraining, citing the recent announcement of extending student loans for graduates returning to HE to study a STEM subject part time. Julian Huppert highlighted the role of immigration in filling current skills gaps and opportunities for older people or groups currently underrepresented.


“What would the panel do to drive high-tech growth through science, engineering and innovation? Would you increase the research budget to underpin key areas for support? And what non-financial methods will you use?”

On being asked by Pallab Ghosh who was chairing the debate whether continuing the ring fence for the science budget was feasible for 2015 David Willetts replied he didn’t see why not. He also pointed to the long-term capital settlement in which science has a guaranteed capital budget of over £1bn a year from 2014-15 up to 2020. Here he noted the opportunity this presented for the science community to feed into the development of a long-term strategic plan for science in the UK.

Liam Byrne said that this was an area he was particularly excited about in his new role and described himself as “shop steward in chief at the Labour party who will go and fight for ringfenced long-term funding for science”.  The major shift needed in his opinion is from short term to long term. He noted that David Willetts had done well on the capital settlement and the eight great technologies however he urged for a long term strategy to go alongside the funding. He also raised the need for an innovation shift to create good jobs with good wages in the regional economy.

Julian Huppert agreed with Liam Byrne on the need for long term thinking and pointed to his proposal for a 15 year, 3% above inflation cross-party commitment on the science budget. He said one of the main challenges here is for government to help create a low risk environment for individuals and companies to take a high risk – pointing to the value of clusters.

Blue Skies Research

“In advertising itself to policy makers as a way to improve economic growth, science is removing its mandate and ability to carry out blue sky research?”

All three parties agreed that both applied and blue skies research were essential and that making the economic case didn’t have to be at the expense of other good reasons to support scientific research.

David Willetts pointed to the cash protected budget being a success but, recognising that in real terms it is a cut, he put a challenge to the science community of delivering efficiencies and improvements in performance – just as those in other sectors are having to do. He also raised the issue of university fees stating that, “both Labour and Liberal Democrats believe that university fees should be reduced. Every £1000 off fees is basically £1bn off our university income and they would be hard-pressed to reinstate income to universities after a cut in fees considering the underlying fiscal deficit.”

On university finance, Liam Byrne pointed to the upcoming revaluation of the Resource Accounting and Budgeting (RAB) charge by the Government Accounting Office and said he awaits the announcement with interest stating they all have work to do ahead of manifestos for 2015. Julian Huppert said he sees increasing the availability of bursaries for living expenses as a priority.

International Competitiveness

“Of all our G8 competitors, the UK invests the second lowest proportion of GDP on research and development (only Italy invests a lower %). How can we ensure science in the UK remains globally competitive when the budget keeps getting cut in real terms?”

Julian Huppert discussed the importanceof raising total government spend but also of how government spend is really good at pulling in industry spend through, for example matched funding. He also pointed to the merits of R&D tax credits for encouraging companies to invest in the UK. Beyond spend he pointed to the important assurance of the UK having a skilled workforce, business friendly immigration policies and freedom for blue skies research.

David Willetts suggested that our international competitors were also facing difficulty and praised the broad base of the UKs science community as one of its real strengths.

Liam Byrne stated the need for creating incentives to keep, or attract, the R&D spend from big companies to the UK. Again he pointed to the long-term funding frameworks, allocations for capital and a clear industrial strategy as having a huge impact those decisions.


“More and more women are studying STEM subjects at school and at University, but it seems as though the further up the career ladder one goes, the less well women are represented in STEM fields – both in academia and out. As a recent Physics graduate, I’m keen to know what steps you think the Government should be taking to combat this?”

Diversity issues were raised throughout, particularly in relation to skills and education but here the panel were asked particularly about the ‘leaky pipeline’.

Pallab Ghosh raised the issue that half the state schools in England do not send a single girl to study A-level physics. To which Liam Byrne raised the question of whether Ofsted should be able to rate a school as excellent or good if there is an absence of effort to fix gender, ethnic, or disability balance in science. Again he also pointed to the essential role of the careers service stating that we will pay a long term price if we don’t rebuild it.

Julian Huppert broadened the discussion by recognising that diversity is about all under-represented groups and requires tackling not just at an education level but also in the workforce. He cited the move to amend the Research Excellence Framework (REF) so that those taking a career break would not be penalised due to a lower number of papers published as a good start but raised issues around institutional sexism also being a potential barrier to diversity.

David Willetts spoke of the possible levers Government could use to actively promote diversity such as including demonstrating diversity as a requirement to receive some types of funding as is the case with the new fund for teaching capital.

Use of Scientific Advice

“Whether the issue is high-speed trains, fracking or farming, what measures would the panel propose to ensure that expert evidence is provided to politicians and considered in policy-making?”

David Willetts pointed to the positive step of Chief Scientific Advisers (CSAs) in each department and that ministers are required to consult with them. He also pointed to Britain, overall, doing well on having access to and acting on scientific advice in Government – particularly citing advice given in crises such as Fukishima or the Icelandic volcano eruption.

Julian Huppert agreed that in a crisis the role of the CSA is used well. However he added that in day to day decisions there was a lot of variance regarding how much access CSAs had at the highest level in departments.

Continuing with CSA’s, Liam Byrne queried whether they should have a role in communicating with the public and also raised the issue of the extent of independence of CSAs due to the way they are appointed.

All agreed there would be benefits to increasing the number of scientists or those who understood scientific process in government and the civil service.

Vision for Science and Engineering

What is your vision for the role of science and engineering in the future of the UK and how will you realise it?

Julian Huppert wants to see trained specialists and people who ‘get science’ at every level, be it teachers in primary school or Members of Parliament.

Liam Byrne stated that we must, “aspire to Britain to be amongst the greatest authors of the greatest answers in the greatest age of science that lies ahead of us” and that we have got to harness science and innovation to create real answers to the challenges people face every day in the UK.

David Willets wants to see a confident, optimistic scientific community creating great science and raised two challenges; linking up Britain’s excellence through cross disciplinary working and being better at communicating the excitement of scientific developments to non-scientists across our society.