Making Science and Engineering a Policy Issue

This is a post on the debate organised by the Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK featuring the science spokesmen of the Conservatives (Adam Afriyie), Labour (Lord Drayson) and Liberal Democrat (Evan Harris) parties. The debate was structured around pre-selected questions presented to the panel. It was chaired by Roger Highfield, editor of New Scientist and hosted at the Institute of Engineering and Technology.

Lord Drayson benefited from not being on the end of another sustained assault regarding the Science and Technology Facilities Council funding difficulties which have been a centrepiece of most of his recent public outings in this type of forum. The consensus seemed to be that outside problems with the STFC, science and technology had done quite well under Labour. The concerns over impact, which I discussed in a previous post made a showing, my view is that Impact is important but so is the way you measure and use it and the current ideas don’t seem to be going in the right direction. Lord Drayson was able to make a fair defence of recent government policy over stimulus which focuses on the shorter term when compared to stimulus packages in other countries, but he seemed shaky over how cuts in the higher education budget would be achieved.

Adam Afriyie suffered from the disadvantage of being in a party who seem to have consciously steered themselves away from concrete policy statements, spending a lot of time criticising the government but unable to enunciate much clear policy of their own. Concrete policies included a deferment of the REF Impact statements for 2 years (announced this morning), and the waiving of student debts for those going on to teach science. The statement that the “zeitgeist” of David Cameron would lead to increased charitable giving to the medical was met with the online equivalent of wry laughter, as a policy this seems particularly empty. The enthusiastic support of Chris Grayling (Tory shadow home secretary) for the sacking of Professor Nutt and his own rather confused position on the hiring and firing of scientific advisors, did not go down well.

Evan Harris, described in the Daily Mail as “Dr Death“, seemed to do particularly well, he may well have known that the audience was broadly on his side, as a party not in power the Liberal Democrats have not had the opportunity to wind up the science and technology community through the routine decisions of government. Furthermore academic scientists at least could well be described as “broadly lefty”. However when engaged in the politic-ing which was inevitable when bringing together politicians in the run up to a general election, he did appear to apply his own twist rather than an obvious parroting of the party line. On the policy front: the Liberal Democrat conference recently approved an amendment, which puts meat on more general mutterings that “something must be done” about libel reform. He also highlighted, as a policy, that money used in the recently rescinded cut in VAT could have gone more usefully into a scientific stimulus package.
All of the spokesman were clear on the importance of science in both policy decisions and in economic terms, and they all seemed keen to make both politicians and civil service scientifically literate.
I believe the existence of this debate is welcome, I don’t recall it happening in the run up to previous elections. To my mind the relatively new technology of a webcast supplemented by background twitter feed (on the #scidebate hashtag), really helps facilitate this debate, particularly in a. The larger question is how do we make science an issue for the wider voting public, given it’s significant policy and economic impact.
It seems inevitable that the next few years will involve some pain in the science and technology sector, as it has across most areas of government. None of the speakers gave any indication that science and technology will receive special treatment over the next few years.


    • andyrussell on January 14, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    I completely agree about the webcast/twitter interection – excellent fun! With the Londoncentric nature of these things it gives everyone a chance to hear and comment. Here's my blogpost on the event, btw ;)

    As for your point: "The larger question is how do we make science an issue for the wider voting public, given it's significant policy and economic impact." If, as Highfield said in his intro last night, 3 million people work in STEM fields then that's probably enough interest to keep this ball rolling. I suppose its then up to us to get it on the agenda for local politics.

    • SomeBeans on January 14, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    @andyrussell yes, my electronic presence was so powerful that someone DM'd asking where abouts in the room I was and it would be great to meet up!

    I intended linking to your blog post and also Stephen Curry's: blog post, but I was blogging a bit rapidly and guiltily from work!

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