Tonight I attended a science policy debate organised by CaSE at the Institution of Engineering and Technology on London’s Embankment. Chaired by Roger Highfield, the editor of New Scientist, the debate featured the science spokesmen from the three main UK political parties, Lord Paul Drayson (Lab), the currrent Minister of State for Science, Adam Afriyie (Con) and Dr Evan Harris (Lib Dem).
As in Question Time, the audience had been invited to submit questions for the three panelists and these were used to drive the discussion. The debate, which you can watch online, ranged over a variety of topics with the overall aim of teasing out the positions that are likely to be adopted by the different parties in the upcoming general election. These included science funding, the impact of ‘impact’, science education policy, the role of charitable and private funding of science, the role of scientific advisers and last, but by no means least (and well done to Sile Lane of Sense about Science who raised the question), the partys’ plans for libel reform.
The answers of all three contained no great surprises. Roger Highfield did a pretty good job of keeping the minister and the MPs on topic but there was only one point at which the audience was offered the chance to ask follow-up questions. This meant that some rather slippery statements were made without much of a challenge and I’m glad Evan Harris was there because he did a good job of taking the other two to task when this happened. He managed to get Drayson to concede that ‘efficiency savings’ were synonymous with cuts (the minister had stunningly opened his remarks with the contention that there had been no cuts – contrary to reports in the press or the recent experience of anyone funded by the STFC). He also pulled Afriye up on his rather gelatinous point that David Cameron’s ‘zeitgeist’ would suffice to stimulate stronger social cohesion and thereby induce private individuals to donate more to medical research charities!
I was particularly interested to hear what the panelists had to say about the government’s recent preoccupation with the economic ‘impact’ of the science that it funds. Drayson was fairly unequivocal about the role that science has to play in helping to generate the new businesses and industries needed to help drag the country out of a global recession inflicted by the systemic failure of the financial system. This is certainly an important point, but I fear that the focus is too much on immediate short-term returns and didn’t hear anything from him to allay that perception. Harris was unequivocal on the point that economic impact should have no play in the decisions to determine which grant applications get funded. Amazingly, Afriyie echoed this point quite strongly. But he then went on to say that it was not unreasonable for Research Councils to ask scientists to outline the likely impact of their work in grant applications; not for the purpose of deciding funding but to enable the RC’s to assess impact ‘retrospectively’. I’m not at all clear on what he meant by this or how that would work. You can make a retrospective assessment (no bad thing in itself) without burdening scientists with the additional pen-pushing at the grant-writing stage.
Having said all that, it was certainly a good thing that the debate was held at all. The three participants have already had one debate in Cambridge last year and are due to hold another one in the House of Commons in March, so there is still a chance to go along (assuming there isn’t a snap election in the next 4 weeks). Let’s not kid ourselves that science is at the top of any political agenda but I can’t remember it being higher.
To add to the good cheer, there was some indication of emerging clarity on the standards that need to be applied in the treatment by government of its independent scientific advisers. Afriyie was a tad erratic on this, claiming ministers should have the right to sack them for any reason, but was immediately rounded on by Drayson and Harris. The consultation on the principles that should be applied to scientific advisers (now being re-drafted in the wake of the sacking of Prof David Nutt) is still ongoing; you can register your view here.
Finally, there was unanimity from the panel on the absolute requirement for scientific debates to be unfettered by the libel laws and clear backing from all three for the reform campaign. Harris’s record on this issue speaks for itself but it was heartening to hear strong support from the Labour and Conservative representatives. With luck, that is a program for change that should be independent of the political colour of the next UK government.