Science and Politics Mix

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).

Science Policy Debate
Ready for action

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.

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14 Responses to Science and Politics Mix

  1. Richard P. Grant says:

    That last point is well encouraging. Thanks for the detailed report, Stephen.

  2. Matt Brown says:

    Thanks for the write-up, Stephen. Your photo makes this complex debate seem so black and white 😉

  3. Stephen Curry says:

    Thanks Richard and Matt.
    The photo was snapped in poor light on my iPhone and then ‘processed’ using the infrared filter in the CameraBag app, which did the best job of improving the contrast between the faces and the background.

  4. Stephen Curry says:

    A couple more points occurred to me overnight:
    To give Lord Drayson his due, he did make the point that the Lab govt was committed to keeping a Minister for Science in the cabinet and he challenged the others to do the same. I’ve little doubt that Evan Harris would support such a move though his prospects on that score are dim. Adam Afriyie was, if I recollect rightly, rather vague on the question and indeed on other matters of policy. He did seem a bit hampered by the fact that the Conservatives haven’t yet come out and said what they would do if (as seems likely) they take power post-May. One exception to this has emerged this morning – apparently the Tories would postpone the introduction of the REF mechanism for assessing university performance to allow more time to consider the impact of impact measures.
    Drayson also re-iterated the point that the particular woes of the STFC (analysed in 2 parts by Brian Cox – here and here) were being looked at. There is an announcement due at the end of Feb.

  5. Richard P. Grant says:

    Heh, when I first saw the photo I wondered if it was a negative. Remember those?
    thinks must get IR filter for my EOS.

  6. Brian Derby says:

    This is an interesting report and actually shows both likely governing options showing little difference in their science policy. I am always suspicious of Harris’s position statements/posturing as I remember some of his statements when we was my MP. The bottom line will be no jam tomorrow.

  7. Erika Cule says:

    Thanks for the report Stephen. There is another one here which is also interesting.

  8. Stephen Curry says:

    @Richard – indeed I do (I love the smell of stop-bath in the morning…). The photo is half negativised – the image on the screen was black writing on a white background in real life.
    I would generally agree with you on that Brian – the Lib Dems have it a bit easier since they run little risk currently of being in power (a hung parliament notwithstanding). However, I have been repeatedly impressed by Evan Harris’s readiness to speak out on libel law and the dangers of the more loopy forms of alternative medicine. He does excellent work on the Parliamentary Sci & Tech Committee (which has just today announced it is going to examine the impact of the recently announced govt cuts).
    Thanks for that interesting link Erika. Since Roger Highfield of New Scientist and Mark Henderson of the Times were both present last night I hope there will be more reports soon.

  9. Erika Cule says:

    There is a summary of sorts here
    (via @SmallCasserole)
    (Can you tell I’m new to Twitter?)

  10. Lee Turnpenny says:

    Thanks, Stephen (I envy you people with your finger on the London pulse). I’m with Harris on the ‘impact’ thing. There’s too much spin and hype as it is.

  11. Ian Brooks says:

    Thanks for the post Stephen. Excellent as usual.

  12. Cath Ennis says:

    Good stuff – I’m impressed and encouraged that this kind of debate is taking place at all. Was it popular – big venue, sold out?
    Mind you, I might be easily impressed given that a) we currently have no democracy and b) when we do, our science minister is a creationist.
    (Sorry. Regular readers knew that was coming. I may have to go on a 12 step programme).

  13. Stephen Curry says:

    Cheers Lee – there have to be some compensations for the dreadful commuting that working in London brings!
    Cath – it was amazingly popular. One report I saw today (can’t find the link right now) said there were about 400 people there and that may well be right. It was certainly an almost full house in a large lecture theatre and great to see that science policy could draw such a crowd.
    I guess I would say that we are pretty lucky at the moment in our science minister – he has a PhD and is genuinely enthusiastic about science (though more so about racing cars!). Shame about Canada’s nutty counterpart.

  14. Sara Fletcher says:

    Thanks Stephen, I found out about this too late to attend, but followed what I could on Twitter. That seemed to focus largely on the funding debacle, but glad to see my local MP sticking up for what I believe in!

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