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Lib Dems call for ring-fencing of capital spending

The Liberal Democrats have called for funding for capital spending on science to be protected by a ring fence, as further policy plans emerge ahead of the party’s conference in September. The party published a motion to be discussed at the conference and has today released a detailed policy document to expand on its science proposals.

The policy, published on 15 August, states: “We…support a ring fence for capital allocations, which were removed from the ring fence in the 2010 CSR [comprehensive spending review]. Security of capital investment is as important as certainty of research funding for the continued success of the UK’s science base.”

The position on capital expenditure bolsters the motion put forward by Julian Huppert, the Lib Dem MP for Cambridge, to secure an annual increase in the science budget, both revenue and capital, of 3 per cent over the rate of inflation for the next 15 years. The party also wants a ring fence for spending on R&D within government departments.

However, it also says the Ministry of Defence spends too much on weapons and not enough on research. “Liberal Democrats would…investigate the redirection of funding from defence development programmes—especially from the Trident nuclear missile programme—directly into the civilian science budget,” says the policy.

The Lib Dems seek to boost private sector R&D spending by proposing to invest in R&D tax credits, enhancing the Technology Strategy Board, introducing a quota for civil procurement from small and medium-sized businesses and increasing funding for the Small Business Research Initiative.

The policy seeks measures to ensure that research council chief executives can be “well respected by both the academic community and by government”. Moreover, the Lib Dems state they would like to explore the possibility of secondments between research councils and academia. The research councils should also create a cross-council programme on international development to encourage collaboration between UK scientists and those in the developing world.

The Lib Dems says they also hope to see the NHS appoint academic clinicians to direct combined research and clinical units, targeted at specific diseases or organs. “We will make increased use of NHS data for research,” the document adds.

The party appears to be sceptical of the government’s Catapult Centre model, and suggests exploring alternative models, such as Germany’s Fraunhofer centres, if they are not successful. It would also rename the centres after Alan Turing.

On higher education, the party commits itself to defending core science departments and ringfencing a STEM element of the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s budget. It calls for the government to pay postgraduate fees upfront, with graduates paying a capped postgraduate tax as a proportion of their income after graduating.

Chief scientific advisers should be full-time and appointed at permanent secretary level within government departments, according to the policy. They should also have a seat on departmental boards. The document also recommends the appointment of a chief social science adviser.

In further changes to the government’s approach to science, the Lib Dems would like to see the establishment of an Office of Science Responsibility. The office would comment on the use or misuse of scientific evidence in the policy process.