Friday, 15 January 2010

Making science an election issue - a bloggist's take on the CaSE debate (#scidebate)

Last week I was fortunate enough to attend a debate chaired by New Scientist editor Roger Highfield and organised by the Campaign for Science and Engineering, that featured the science Minister (Lord) Paul Drayson and his Conservative and Liberal Democrat counterparts Adam Afriye and Evan Harris. Here's my brief take on the proceedings, which you can see for yourself here - rather than specifics, I'll try and deal with how I felt the protagonists did and what they had to offer the scientific community. At the same time I'll try and provide some cheer for blogger Joe D, whose take on the event you can read over at the layscience blog.

I'll start off with the issues that I felt were most illuminating of the parties' approach to science, and the respective spokesmen's standing within the party hieararchy.

Bearing in mind the debate's title (Making science and engineering an election issue), the points at which science and politics do already cross were sadly only covered in a rush towards the end. Arguably the most contentious of these was the notorious Nuttsack affair, when the government's chief adviser on drugs policy was sacked for expressing scientifically valid opinions that contradicted current policy. Lord Drayson, to his credit, did appear mildly critical of his colleagues, although he stopped short of outright censure of a cabinet he'd spent the rest of the debate reminding us that he was a part of. In response, Evan Harris, who has some form on this issue, reminded Drayson that he felt that in light of the dispute scientists and the ministers they advise should come to a 'shared position.' Eerie though that was, it was but an appetiser for what Mr. Afriye served up.

Now, before I get all indignant (righteously so, no less), I'll be the first to admit that sometimes politicians say one thing and mean another (no, really). Sometimes, in search of a snappy soundbite, they can let slip their true colours - which of these was the case when Afriye insisted on ministers' rights to sack advisers on spec, 'even if only because they don't like them,' I'll leave up to the reader. To me personally it showed a streak of contempt for the scientific method and the role of advisers to government. For starters, how many high-level research scientists would accept a role similar to that David Nutt was ousted from, given that not only could their advice be rejected if it didn't suit the government of the day's political agenda, but that in continuing to do their day job of communicating scientifically established evidence they risk losing their position altogether? Some may say that Afriye made a political error in expressing such an opinion to an audience full of scientists, engineers and educators - some would say that holding such an opinion at all, wherever one expresses it, shows poor judgement; again, I'll leave the choice up to you.

Another point where clear blue water emerged between the three amigos was on the issue of so-called 'impact assessments.' No time to talk details here I'm afraid - suffice to say that the government has introduced a requirement that funding applications should demonstrate how they will be economically beneficial. So much for the blue-skies research whose benefit twenty years hence it's impossible to gauge today (which funnily enough was roughly Harris' take on things) - and would have been Afriye's position too, had he not suggested that the Tories would retain the impact assessment, albeit as an 'interesting exercise.' Ahem. What emerged from this segment of the debate was that Westminster by and large sees science as an extension of the productive economy, productive in the sense that it produces widgets/drugs/patents that can be commercialised. Whilst this remains an important element of research, we must not allow political leaders to treat science being there to provide the raw materials for business - which in a sense, with universities now under the auspices of Lord Mandleson, they already do - but rather as a worthwhile pursuit of knowledge which not only produces improvements in lifespan and quality of life, but can enhance our understanding of the world around us and dig deeper into the very foundations of life, the universe and everything.

Where the parties agreed to a great extend was on the issue of funding - that there will have to be some belt tightening was clear from all three. And yet I was left with the impression that whilst Westminster is clear on how much smaller the pot of money will be in years to come, they're less clear on how we can still be world leader in science and engineering despite what appear to be severe cuts in funding. All three Parliamentarians restated their enthusiasm for science being at the centre of a new knowledge-based economy, and yet in a way failed to convince this listener that as the next science minister they would secure the funding we need to continue to produce world-class research. Labour's talk of ringfences and the like is of no substance if what's inside the ringfence isn't known and can be raided at no notice to bail out banks or fund military follies - even less convincing was the Conservative story that what science needs is stable funding, even if that means it decreasing predictably. Tell that to the post-docs whose grants won't be renewed...

But hey, I said end on a positive, and here it is. No matter how constrained the next administration is by economic failures and a lack of vision, there will always be a voice for the scientific community in Parliament. Adam Afriye's passion for scientific endeavour cannot be questioned, nor can the value that Lord Drayson undoubtedly puts on research as playing a major role in our country's future. And above all, there's Evan Harris, Phil Willis and the Science and Technology Committee, who will continue their excellent work in ascertaining the evidence basis for government policy. And as a real boost to scientists and their profession, Nick Clegg gave a rousing speech to the Royal Society yesterday (becoming the only party leader to accept the Society's invite to speak), outlining his vision for the future of science in the UK. Making all the right noises on libel reform, advice to government ministers and the place science has in our society, Clegg showed that science doesn't have to be made and election issue, it already is one.

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