On 14th January 2015 CaSE brought together the science spokespeople of the three main parties to debate which party would best promote science and engineering if they were to gain power in the 2015 general election

On our panel was the Minister for Universities, Science and Cities, Dr Greg Clark MP; his shadow counterpart in the Labour Party, Liam Byrne MP; and the Liberal Democrats’ science champion, Dr Julian Huppert MP. 

The debate was chaired by space scientist and newly-appointed trustee of CaSE, Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock.  And, most importantly, judging the panellists’ performance were 300 scientists, policy-wonks and other members of the public who came to watch the evening’s Question Time­-style debate unfold at the Royal Society.

You can watch a video of the debate here. You can also view photos and read our Storify.

Will you raise investment in science?

Despite acknowledging that the UK does not spend enough on R&D and is way behind its competitor nations, neither Greg nor Liam would (or could) commit their party to increasing investment. Julian pointed out that only the Liberal Democrats have said that they would increase the science budget by 3% above inflation for 15 years. But he added that they would probably need a majority in May to do so, of course.

The current Minister, Greg Clark, pointed to his government’s record and the recently-published Science and Innovation Strategy as a sign of its commitment to science. Tories wouldn’t be “turning turtle” he said. Liam highlighted the importance of European collaboration and funding for the UK science base, raising the spectre of David Cameron’s promised referendum. Ultimately it was clear that whilst all three candidates are convinced investment is needed, none hold the purse-strings.

How would the candidates stimulate innovation?

Innovation based on science and engineering clearly contributes to economic growth but stimulating it is still a bit of a dark and controversial art for policy makers. Greg said that collaboration is key and listed a number of initiatives from the Science and Innovation Strategy that he believes will catalyse more productive research activity. The policy mix has to be right, was Liam’s answer. He especially thought that greater emphasis was needed on growing the pool of skilled people able to innovate. He said that increasing the number of people who enter degrees through the vocational pathway would be a signature Labour policy. Julian also thought that getting the right people was key, both by promoting science careers, particularly among disadvantaged students, and having welcoming immigration policies.

What would be the most impactful intervention to improve science education?

All the candidates recognised there is a desperate need for more students to take STEM subjects and agreed that more science specialists in schools is part of the solution. Greg has recently announced funding to train 17,500 maths and physics teachers. The quality of teaching also needs to be improved so that students recognise that it is fun and creative, said Julian. Liam condemned Ofqual’s decision to remove practical science from A-level and GCSE exams, which Greg defended, and said that it should be reversed.

How should the UK fund its universities in the future?

This promised to provoke a more party-political response from the panellists. Liam said that university funding was “falling off a cliff”, criticising both the £9,000 tuition fees policy and cuts to higher education funding made by the Coalition government. However, Julian pointed out that he was the only MP on the panel to not have voted for tuition fee rises. Greg firmly believed that the current policy was the most effective way to fund our universities and that research has shown that it has not dissuaded students from disadvantaged backgrounds applying for university.

Repeating previous statements he has made on the issue, Liam said that he would like to introduce a graduate tax to replace fees in the long term if he becomes universities minister. But he admitted that the details on how this could be delivered still need working out.

How can we reform policy to attract scientists and engineers from non-EU countries?

The third question provided Liam and Julian the opportunity to reprimand the Conservatives for recent comments made by Home Secretary Theresa May on restricting graduates’ right to stay in the UK. Greg however was insistent that the Conservative’s approach is to grow the number of talented scientists and engineers coming to the UK. Both Liam and Julian said that Theresa May’s rhetoric had damaged the UK’s reputation with foreign students.

What policies would your government enact to support women in science and engineering?

Greg declared that the upper-echelons of science institutions are not diverse enough. He said that he gets the impression science leaders think promoting more women and ethnic minorities to senior university positions amounts to “dumbing down”. But he failed to provide answers to the question of what government could do beyond telling the science community to pull their socks up. Julian added that changes to working conditions for researchers, like shared parental leave, would help women stay in science. Liam built on Greg’s comments, arguing that science in the UK was not a true meritocracy and suggested that government funding decisions should perhaps take account of whether institutions have policies that promote diversity, admitting that this would need to be done carefully.

How can we open up the evidence behind government policy?

As Julian pointed out in his response to this question, there are many reasons one policy is chosen over another, and it’s not always based purely on scientific evidence – nor should it be in a democracy. Nonetheless, the questioner wanted to know whether government could be made more accountable by requiring departments to show what influenced their decision. All three welcomed the idea. This was a recommendation in one of CaSE’s recent briefings so it’s great to hear their support, we’ll be following up to push this idea forward. Liam criticised the current government’s lack of respect for evidence, as he sees it. He highlighted a number of currently-unfilled Science Adviser positions in government departments. Julian said that Labour were equally guilty, reminding the audience of when drugs-specialist David Nutt was fired by Home Secretary Alan Johnson in 2009 for comments that appeared to go against the government policy of the time.

The challenge to come

In his closing remarks, Julian told the audience that the vast majority of MPs just don’t care about science. But as Greg said, “the future of our country depends on science succeeding”. All three of the MPs on our panel clearly do care about science and engineering, and in terms of science policy, they probably agree more than they disagree. But in these difficult economic times, their greatest challenge is convincing the rest of their party.

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