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Science in the General Election

Science in the General Election

Over the past few months, we here in the U.K. have been blasted with wave after wave of election rhetoric, with each party presenting their solutions to the various issues facing the country. While education, immigration, the NHS and welfare have dominated the majority of the campaign, some policies, such as those regarding the standing of each party regarding science, have barely received a mention.

Traditionally, the U.K. has been a scientific powerhouse that punches well above its weight. Its academic institutions are among the most competitive and respected in the world and it provides around 15% of the world’s most cited articles, despite having under 1% of its population. It is widely recognised that investing in science research and development is investing in the future of a nation – it improves health and day-to-day life, it creates jobs and it drives foreign investment and economic growth.

However, in recent years, it seems like the U.K. has has stalled in its role as a world leader in scientific research – in the last 5 years, the science budget has been continually frozen and the U.K. now spends well below 0.5% of GDP on public-funded research. To put this into context, the average spending as a percentage of GDP among the G8 countries is 0.77, 0.73 among the Eurozone and 0.67 when taking all EU member states into consideration.

This year was marked by the opening of the world-leading Francis Crick Institute, a reminder of the U.K’s commitment to science and its place as a world-leading research nation. However, with a general election mere days away, it is crucial to establish what kind of U.K. it will operate in.

iconThe Conservatives

A cursory glance at Tory science policy is not encouraging. It is clear that the party will not commit to protecting science funding and the manifesto does not appear to promise any additional funding.

Its education policies are much more favourable. Their manifesto promises an emphasis on the importance of STEMM subjects in schools. It proposes the extra training of physics and maths teachers and that the teaching of science to an acceptable standard at GCSE a prerequisite to an ‘outstanding’ OFSTED rating. Science students that do not want to go down an academic path may receive substantial support by the provision of increased vocational training and internships. Post-graduate science study may also be more available, as the Conservatives promise the introduction of a loan system to support Masters’ and PhD students.

David Cameron has widely advertised his belief in holding an in/out referendum on the U.K’s participation in the EU. The country’s membership of the EU provides substantial benefits to the science sector – up to £1 billion of funding each year, cooperation in shared projects and resources, such as the European Space Agency and a constant influx of skilled students and researchers. Leaving the EU would deprive the U.K. of all this and even if it were to not, the continued uncertainty in the period before a referendum could damage U.K science.

On a similar note, the Conservative immigration policy may be similarly damaging. The current cap on skilled workers currently denies numerous skilled students and researchers entry into the country. It would be concerning if the U.K. became a country known for turning skilled scientists away.

iconLabour

The Labour party is somewhat vague in its commitment to science but – as is to be expected – is largely to contrary to the Conservatives on a number of policies.

The most up-in-the-air policy from Labour is its commitment to science R&D funding. Its manifesto promises long-term funding and the establishment of a national commission to promote the U.K’s place as a world leader in research. However, exact funding figures or where funding may come from is lacking. It has been suggested, however, that funding may not be increased. A lack of clarity is largely due to the fact that Labour is going to visit the potential for science funding after a successful election campaign, hardly encouraging words for the ears of scientists.

Labour’s education policy involves some interesting proposals that may affect science. Labour suggests the continuation of maths education until age 18 and the introduction of a technical baccalaureate for 16-19 year old school leavers’ that promises an emphasis on vocational skills and internship provision. Labour’s much-publicised position on the lowering of tuition fees to £6,000 may have the most substantial impact on science departments – the average cost of a lab-based degree is £10,000 per year, per student. There are as yet no promises as to how this short-fall would be funded.

Under Labour, students would be exempt from immigration caps, suggesting that a Labour government would be extremely welcoming to an influx of foreign students. An interesting point in Labour’s policy is the promise to repeal the Health and Social Care Act 2012, whose main change was a re-organisation of the NHS to focus on the role of G.Ps, though what this will be replaced by is unclear.

Labour is committed to remaining in the EU and hence safe-guards the funding, cooperation and free-movement of researchers that this brings. Science corporations will also be able to operate without the uncertainty a looming referendum would bring.

iconLiberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats are the most ostensibly in favour of an emphasis on science research and development. Indeed, they are the only party committed to protecting science funding in a manner similarly reserved for education and the NHS. They promise to increase the science budget in line with inflation over the next ten years.

The Liberal Democrats have emphasised the role of the U.K. as a world-leading research nation in their manifesto and pledge to maintain this status, specifically targeting research into dementia.

Education policies are similarly positive, with the Liberal Democrats aiming to increase STEM subject uptake at GCSE and A-Level, particularly in girls. They also state their desire to retain coding in the national curriculum and ti see a designated science specialist trained in every school. The Liberal Democrat immigration policy is very lenient towards incoming researchers and promises work visas for foreign graduates who find work within six months of completing their degree.

Additionally, their commitment to staying in the EU ensures funding and sharing of resources and free movement of researchers and students continues and companies can continue to function without the uncertainty of a looming referendum.

The Liberal Democrats also promote the use of the scientific method within government, aiming to improve data randomisation and anonymisation throughout many walks of government. Its aim to improve clinical trial design and efficacy is tempered slightly by its relative opposition to the use of animals in medical experiments – a case of one step forward, two steps back in aiding research taking place in this country.

iconGreen Party

The Green Party claim that they are the only party with a concerted interest in the fate of science in the U.K. This may well be the case, since Natalie Bennett is herself a science graduate and has the Crick Institute in her constituency.

A commitment to British science is certainly underlined by a promise to double the spending on science research and develop in the next decade, taking it to a whopping 1% of GDP. Though, as an ‘anti-austerity’ party, it doesn’t take two guesses were this funding may come from.

Of course, environmental policy takes precedence in the Green Party Manifesto. However, as ever, there is a concern that this may be at the detriment of other sectors. The party is vehemently opposed to nuclear power, genetically modified crops and the use of animals in medical experiments. There have been claims that instead of being the only science-friendly party, policies like this will significantly harm the U.K’s place as a world leading nation for research and development.

The Green Party place an interesting, and potentially controversial, emphasis on the role of religious academies and schools in preventing the proper exposure of children to science. They emphasise that schools must inform children about religions and not push them towards a certain faith and away from other subjects, such as certain ideas covered by science lessons. The Green Party share a degree of their education policy with Labour, albeit with a more substantial stance, suggesting that tuition fees should be abolished. Quite where the funding for this move would come from is not made clear.

They also share an agreement with the Liberal Democrats as to their immigration policy, suggesting that visas be available for recent graduates who find work within six months of graduating, a move that would potentially retain the large numbers of science graduates that find work in other countries.   

iconUKIP

It is often claimed that UKIP cannot be taken seriously as a major party due to their fixation on immigration policy and relative paucity of policies in other areas. While this is a slightly unfair claim, its attitude – or lack of it – towards science does justify it slightly.

The funding of science is rarely mentioned in either the UKIP manifesto or during interviews. The party has hinted at increasing the science research and development budget, perhaps geared towards dementia research – in support of Liberal Democrat policy.

Its commitment to introducing or re-training a dedicated science specialist in every school is an encouraging statement of UKIP’s understanding of STEMM teaching. This is also seen in their approach towards higher education. The party supports the scrapping of tuition fees for British STEMM graduates who work in the country for five years after graduating. To support this policy, the party promises to increase the number of STEMM courses offered at U.K. universities.

Their attitude to the role of science in the U.K. seems somewhat contradictory – while they support research into GM foods, the manifesto states a belief that medical animal experimentation should be scaled back. UKIP’s view of environmental science is particularly discouraging. The party aims to repeal the climate change act, scrap the Department for Energy and Climate Change and roll back emissions targets. Such a move would clearly harm the environment in this country and risk sanctions from other world powers by ignoring global targets.

Undoubtedly the most concerning UKIP policy in regard to science is its much-publicised position on immigration. By committing to leaving the EU and severely curbing immigration, UKIP risks damaging the funding UK science receives and the hugely important free movement of resources, information and researchers and students that underpins the strength of science in this country.

iconScottish National Party

Given the potential role of the SNP in deciding the outcome of this election, substantial attention has been paid to their stance regarding the role of science in the U.K.

A great deal of the SNP’s policies regarding science are moulded by the fact that certain powers, such as control over education, are devolved, albeit with the budgets being set in Westminster. However, it may be the case that their 50 or so seats may give them significant influence over issues decided in the capital.

In regard to the funding of scientific research, the SNP recognise the importance of funding research and claim that funding will come from the more stringent taxation of businesses. Like other parties, the SNP have targeted a particular area, emphasising the importance of motor neuron disease research.

In line with other parties, the SNP vows to ensure free education (in Scotland), an increase in the provision of vocational training and support the idea of post-study work visas – though it must be remembered that immigration is not a devolved power.

While the stability of the U.K. is questionable under the SNP, that of the EU is not as the SNP have repeatedly confirmed their commitment to remaining in the EU. This allows the maintenance of the EU funding the U.K receives, the free movement of resources and researchers and allows businesses to operate without the insecurity of a looming referendum.

So, which party promises the best deal for scientists? It is actually rather difficult to answer that question, as relatively few manifestos openly state their intentions regarding science funding or the relative importance of science compared to other sectors. Just by looking at the policies alone, the Liberal Democrats seem to be the best option – they are not only committed to ring-fencing science funding, but they are also promising to increase it. The Greens offer the same promise. In fact, they want to double science funding within the next decade, though it is questionable how feasible this is and their other policies will make scientists shudder. Labour offer interesting education and immigration reforms and their commitment to remaining in the EU is of interest to scientists. The Conservatives similarly seem committed to emphasising the importance of ensuring STEMM subjects are continued through GCSE and A-Level and their promise of increased vocational skills training and internships may expand the options that a STEMM education offers. The other main parties seem relatively unconcerned by science in their manifestos and certainly don’t add anything offered by the larger parties. To me, this is how each party ranks in regard to its commitment to science:

Funding STEMM in Education Immigration EU Total
Conservatives 6 2 5 5 18
Labour 5 1 1 2 9
Lib. Dems 2 3 2 1 8
Green 1 6 4 4 15
SNP 3 4 3 3 13
UKIP 4 5 6 6 21

Will the commitment of each party to science sway the way you vote on Thursday 7th May?

‘Til next time…

Joe

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