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Big three must get serious on science

Amid the posturing and all-night drinking of the party conference season there is occasionally time for some genuine policy debate. Will science feature and, halfway through this Parliament, have any of the three main parties shown a genuine interest in research? Inevitably, there is no simple answer.

First up, meeting in Brightonthisweek are the Liberal Democrats. And it’s a Lib Dem who has been most vocal on science policy recently, with former scientist Julian Huppertpersuadinghis party yesterdayto back a 15-year annual increase in the science budget of 3 per cent above inflation [http://sciencecampaign.org.uk/?p=10919]. He hasalso convincedthe Lib Dems to take a more pro-science line on everything from education to immigration.

Still, it’s not clear how the policy would square with the cuts sanctioned [http://sciencecampaign.org.uk/?p=7144]by fellow Lib Dem Vince Cable, let alone their Conservative coalition partners.But the proposals should be taken seriously. Cable has largely delegated science policy to the hyperactive David Willetts, so Huppert has become his party’s de facto science spokesman.

Although the Lib Dems might get an electoral savaging in 2015, one suspects that both Conservative and Labour strategists are still planning for the possibility that Nick Clegg’s party will again hold the balance of power. If Huppert’s leadership gets on board, his proposals might be seen as nonpartisan enough to feature in coalition negotiations.

One advantage Huppert has over Labour’s shadow science minister Chi Onwurah is the freedom of the back benches. Although Onwurah, a former engineer, quickly established herself as a credible shadow to Willetts, her party has shied away from opposing or endorsing specific coalition cuts, including those to science. And as a member of her party’s business, innovation and skills team, she has to tread carefully when pronouncing on policy.

Onwurah, for example, remained relatively quiet about the potential impact of the coalition’s immigration policies on science and engineering [http://sciencecampaign.org.uk/?p=7867]. That became less surprising when Ed Miliband later gave a major speech suggesting that a Labour government would be tougher on immigration than its predecessor [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-18539472].

And while David Willetts garnered both plaudits and concern for helping push open-access publishing onto the political agenda, there was little response from Labour. Onwurah has criticised the coalition’s lack of support for women in research, and recently chastised poor TV coverage of science [http://www.theyworkforyou.com/whall/?id=2012-09-04b.51.0], but we’ve only seen glimpses of what a Labour science policy might look like.

That may be about to change. The closer we get to the next election, the more Labour needs distinctive positions,and Onwurah looks set to push for science to feature prominently. This autumn will see her reviewing policies such as creating a protected title for engineers, the funding balance between pure and applied research, and the accountability of research councils.

Whatever the outcome, the problem for Onwurah, as for every science spokesperson, is that her priorities are subordinate to those of her party leadership. And as yet, we’re still to see any party leader make science a centrepiece of his political strategy.

The Conservatives have looked the best of a bad bunch, with Cameron leading the government’s push on the life sciences and Osborne fairly regularly announcing funding for research infrastructure. As for the Lib Dems, Vince Cable recently argued that the UK economy needs a stronger focus on science [http://www.bis.gov.uk/news/topstories/2012/Sep/cable-outlines-vision-for-future-british-industry]. Yet between them they are in charge of UK science funding, and overall investment is down.

Unlike the coalition’s big guns, Labour’s economic team of Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and Chuka Umunna have yet to deliver a single major speech on science between them. But Labour has, to its credit, committed to developing a new long-term framework for research funding [http://sciencecampaign.org.uk/?p=3916], to replace the one abandoned by the coalition, and there are signs that science will play a major role in Umunna and Onwurah’s forthcoming industrial strategy.

Science policy, of course, is about more than figuring out how to make research relevant to the economy. But economic growth is the only game in town for our political elite, so if politicians aren’t saying that science is a non-negotiable for economic recovery, then it’s questionable whether they’re serious about science at all.

We need each of the big three Westminster parties to make science central to their economic and political strategy, but so far none have. Ultimately, that may only come by making sure that the likes of Huppert, Onwurah and Willetts have more political capital within their respective parties. Watch the conferences carefully, because good news for any of them is probably good news for research.

Imran Khan is director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering