Who has a real vision for science in Britain’s general election?

Will this generation of politicians’ children choose science? Shawn, CC BY-NC

As the general election draws ever closer we all wait anxiously to see what complexion government we end up with; scientists are no different from anyone else in this respect. Graeme Reid recently described how government protection of the science budget had come at a cost over the last five years.

The flat cash that looked so good in 2010 has been significantly eroded since by inflation. The change in policy at the time over capital and infrastructure funding meant initially very little funding was available at all. More recently there has been an easing on this front but in rather unpredictable ways.

Efficiency savings have bitten hard and grant application success rates at the research councils have fallen to a miserably low level. Those outside may tell scientists we have been comparatively protected, but it is unlikely a young researcher trying to establish a lab and a group of one’s own will feel in a good place.

Warm words and golden hellos

Still, our politicians speak warm words about science. We are told Osborne “gets it”. In other words he seems to have grasped the concept that there is a connection between what researchers get up to and their contribution to the economy. But the connection between science (broadly defined) and the economy goes much deeper than that. If we lose the country’s science and technology skills we will be in an even worse mess than we are currently.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) regularly complains that there are insufficient numbers of people trained in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) at all levels. There is also a recurrent shortage of schoolteachers qualified in these areas despite golden hellos and other inducements to graduates.

Analysis of the state of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills suggests that it may suffer severe cuts to its budget, assuming it survives as an entity at all. Universities are under no illusions: funding for the sector as a whole is at risk. Scientists should likewise recognise that pronouncing the importance of skills, or science and technology does not necessarily (or even probably) turn into reliable hard cash months down the road.

Neither Labour nor the Conservatives have pledged to do as much as retain the current level of funding in their manifestos, despite their enthusiastic comments on the subject of the UK’s science and innovation base.

Science, politicians seem to believe, does not have many votes in it – unlike the NHS, for instance. Nevertheless, in the past year we have seen substantial tranches of money announced in an ad hoc fashion. Take the “Crick of the north” (a term coined by the chancellor to express his desire for a science powerhouse to rival London’s £700m Francis Crick Institute) – £200m for this has primarily gone to Manchester which, as has been noted, is close to George Osborne’s own constituency. I doubt we will be seeing more of the same.

The idea of a Mean Machine of the Midlands or an Electrifying Emporium in the East do not seem plausible to me, even if the Midlands and the east of England could come up with splendid ideas that are as likely to make a constructive contribution to the economy as materials in Manchester. Indeed, the capital promised over the next cycle – as described in the science and innovation strategy document published in December last year – has largely already been spent or committed.

Manchester gets a science boost, thanks to Osborne. Manchester image via www.shutterstock.com

Science at the forefront

However much Osborne personally and the treasury collectively may have begun to appreciate that investment in science is good for the economy in all kinds of ways – and not just the obvious one of bright ideas turned rapidly into multimillion pound companies – it’s not obvious it is an argument that has been more widely won.

Many of us have experienced that tedious moment when in a social situation you admit you’re a scientist or mathematician and your interlocutor says “you must be so clever to do that” or “I never could do maths at school”. Science is culturally regarded as an outsider discipline, something that is too difficult for the average person in the street to understand and consequently something that is felt not to be applicable to their lives.

Back in 1963 Harold Wilson put science at the heart of his agenda when he warned that to ensure the country’s prosperity, a “new Britain” would need to be forged in the “white heat” of the “scientific revolution”. He did not live up to this when in power, but – at least for a brief moment in time – he had an aspiration to “replace the cloth cap [with] the white laboratory coat as the symbol of British labour”.

What sign do we have that either David Cameron or Ed Miliband would want to put science at the forefront of their policies? Has the nation just got used to the idea that somewhere there are some “pointy-heads in lab coats” who will solve the problems of the planet (water, energy, bees …) but without worrying sufficiently about resourcing science education at all stages from primary schools to PhDs? And without worrying about the cash that is required to combat the ills the population is only too aware they face?

White heat or smoke and mirrors? Mark McLaughlin, CC BY-NC-SA

Diversity and conviction

I am not arguing that we shouldn’t support other disciplines in our universities. Too often speaking up for subject A is taken as wanting to trash subject B. I am of the view that education needs a sprinkling of most subjects whatever you end up specialising in. I have been involved with two Royal Society reports that explicitly call for a broader post-16 education system. Regrettably people – including politicians – don’t seem to have embraced these recommendations from the equivalent of the nation’s national academy of science.

I am also a great believer in diversity. People may associate me with championing getting more women into science, but I equally believe that a more diverse set of MPs – which would include more women but in this context also imply a shift from lawyers and PPE graduates to spread to a much greater range of disciplines – would improve our policies and law-making.

I suspect we have a curious paradox where the people who make policy, themselves overwhelmingly arts, humanities and social scientists, are seen to be pushing our youngsters towards science subjects, to the annoyance of those in the said arts, humanities and social sciences. The politicians’ own educational choices do not support the rhetoric. It would be interesting to know what disciplines these same politicians’ children will choose to study at university.

Of course this is all a circular argument. If we don’t educate our children so that they are able to grasp scientific concepts, appreciate how science fits into our daily lives and don’t feel defensive – or worse smug – about their “inability to do maths”, then future generations will also not get it.

Let us hope our new government, of whatever complexion or rainbow hue, grasps the scientific nettle with conviction and transparency.