Wednesday 14 April 2010

Voting For Science

I am a self-confessed bleeding-heart liberal, and it's coming up to election time. So prepare for some hand-wringing and political posturing (those of you unfortunate to follow me on Twitter will already have seen that starting to crank up to speed).

Science and its status in society and education is a big issue for me, so it's time to look at the political parties' manifestos now that the Big Three have published theirs (sorry Green Party, you've got great ideas and all, but since I don't even know if you have a candidate in my constituency I'm guessing you're not really trying this time round). In alphabetical order:


Sticking on the auto-search to wade through 131 pages of the Tory manifesto, we get to this:
  • encouraging the establishment of joint university-business research and development institutes
  • initiating a multi-year Science and Research Budget to provide a stable investment climate for Research Councils
  • creating a better focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects in schools
  • establishing a new prize for engineering
Okay, I like the bit about focusing on STEM in schools. That's worthwhile. Onto more about education:
  • pay the student loan repayments for top Maths and Science graduates for as long as they remain teachers, by redirecting some of the current teacher training budget
Personally I like that - I'd very much appreciate not have to pay £100 a month of my student loan when I'm earning a full-time salary. But I'm not okay with having the teacher training budget diverted. Retention of excellent teachers is very important, but you also need to train new ones.
  • allow all state schools the freedom to offer the same high quality international exams that private schools offer – including giving every pupil the chance to study separate sciences at GCSE
How about rather than the opportunity to study separate sciences making it compulsory to study at least one science? I saw countless students at enrolment last year who did not have any qualification in any kind of science. A level of scientific literacy should be as vital as other basic skills.


The current government's manifesto is really difficult to read, but they at least have a sub-section entitled "Investing in science and research", from which we can glean these points:
  • We are committed to a ring-fenced science budget in the next spending review
  • We will provide focused investment for Technology and Innovation Centres, developing technologies where the UK has world-leading expertise
  • We will also support university research through the Higher Education Innovation Fund, and through the development of a new University Enterprise Capital Fund
So a pledge to protect science funding is a great thing, and an injection of cash into academic research is also much needed. However, I can't help but wonder why Labour have spent the past 13 years cutting money going to science and research... On to education:
  • More young people will be able to study single science subjects and modern foreign languages
  • In the coming years, priority in the expansion of student places will be given to Foundation Degrees and part-time study, and to science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees
As opposed to more funding for bullshit "degrees" in tourism for people who want a job in a travel agents. About time.

Liberal Democrats

The Lib Dems make it very easy indeed to find their science policies with a whole section devoted to it:
  • Respect the convention that the science budget, once allocated through the Comprehensive Spending Review process, is not used for other purposes
  • Ensure that the decisions on the funding of research projects are made on the basis of peer review not Whitehall interference, while recognising the need for government to identify broad strategic priorities in a transparent manner
  • Ensure that all state-funded research, including clinical trials, is publicly accessible and that the results are published and subject to peer review
  • Reform science funding to ensure that genuinely innovative scientific research is identified and supported, instead of basing funding decisions on narrow impact factors
  • Tackle the gender gap at all levels of scientific study and research to help increase the supply of scientists
  • Safeguard academic freedom and the independence of scientific advisers by amending the Ministerial Code to prevent government from bullying or mistreating advisers and distorting evidence or statistics
Did you see that? Third point down - they're pledging open access publications!! What do you think to that one, oh Open Source Paleontologist? And there's more - the Lib Dems seem to be the only party promoting science for science's sake, treating the pursuit of science as a worthwhile career. There is an intellectual curiosity among the Lib Dems that I do not see in the other two parties - in much the same way that Barack Obama shows intellectual curiosity whereas George W Bush showed fart jokes.

And heading into the education section:
  • First to attract more top graduates into teaching. We will improve training for existing teachers over the course of their careers to keep them up to date with best practice. We will seek to ensure that science at Key Stage 4 and above is taught by appropriately qualified teachers
  • Give 14–19 year-olds the right to take up a course at college, rather than at school, if it suits them better. This will enable all children to choose to study, for example, separate sciences or modern languages at GCSE, or a vocational subject
Speaking as someone who narrowly missed being taught chemistry by a teacher who did not have A-Level chemistry, I'd be down with having qualified science teachers! And college can be the making of a student - I have several students who came from schools where they were disruptive and not applying themselves, and they've settled into college life and become my top learners.

To be honest, I think the Lib Dems win this one hands down, despite some common points. I find it very difficult to see any other option for anyone involved in science. And that's before we get onto any of the other subjects close to my heart (reproductive rights, immigration and asylum, human rights and healthcare). Ian Hopkinson has already spoken of his reasons for voting Lib Dem, and he points out their not-so-secret weapon in Dr Evan Harris, the science spokesman. Now if only more people knew about him...


  1. Nice post, and good summary of the main parties. How much do you think individual MPs at the constituency level have a grasp of these issues?

  2. I think that very much depends on the individual MP or PPC, honestly, but in our constituency Labour (Ann Keen MP) are not remotely bothering with any kind of scientific literature, Conservatives (Mary Macleod) have a passing environmental focus re the Mogden sewage works but nothing more, and Lib Dems (Andrew Dakers) seem really on the ball - although we haven't had any literature from them yet. He's pro-science, although his involvement with GSK is as far as I'm aware business-based. Still, with GSK being one of the biggest employers in the constituency (and I suspect my own college being one of the other biggest ones) I see Dakers as being the only one sensible enough to realise that science is a big issue in Brentford & Isleworth.

    I suspect that all the candidates in the Oxbridge constituencies are VERY well-briefed on science issues!!

  3. @KJHaxton The @skepticalvoter has been compiling data on the scientific "soundness" of candidates article and onward link by Tom Chivers in the Telegraph

  4. An old officemate of mine (when I was a postdoc - he's on an EPRSC advanced fellowship or something like that) is standing for the Lib Dems. I wonder if he had a hand in this...


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