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Lib Dems science policy proposal shows up party rift

When the Liberal Democrats’ energetic science champion Evan Harris lost his House of Commons seat in the 2010 elections some (ourselves included) assumed the incoming Cambridge MP and former scientist Julian Huppert would fill his shoes.

It was not to be. Huppert, who is well to the left of Nick Clegg and Vince Cable, has spent the best part of two years campaigning on causes ranging from transport to human rights, only occasionally making forays into science and higher education (he voted against the hike in tuition fees, a policy he still calls a “scandal”).

Huppert told Research Fortnight in an interview shortly after his election that he was torn over how to divide his time as an MP. “I don’t want the message to be that scientists can only do science,” he said at the time. “But equally it’s important to do science. I have never been a politician who’s only cared about one thing.”

It has been a long wait, but the Cambridge MP has finally taken on the job of drafting his party’s science policy, to be debated at the upcoming annual conference in Brighton later this month.

Lib Dem MPs not in government have set up “shadow” teams much as if they were in opposition. And it is the word “opposition” that most readily comes to mind when reading Huppert’s 23-page call to arms, as it bears little resemblance to the policies his party colleague Vince Cable, the secretary of state with ultimate responsibility for research, has signed up to.

Taking a selection of recommendations from Developing a Future: Policies for science and research Huppert calls for spending (including on capital projects) to increase by 3 per cent above inflation for 15 years; backtracking on the impact agenda; renaming Catpult centres Alan Turing Centres; increasing PhDs studentships to last four years; and redirecting much of the £2 billion defence R&D budget away from the Trident nuclear missile programme to civil applications—in effect cancelling Trident.

Other proposals include more joint projects between researchers from the UK and developing countries; the creation of a government office for science responsibility and for secondments between academics and research council staff (incidentally a brilliant idea, which should be implemented immediately).

To suggest that many of Huppert’s proposals will never see the light of day (at least while the party’s current leadership holds sway) is to state the obvious. So why then did he bother? Perhaps the answer is as much about the timing of the policy as it is about its content. The Lib Dem leadership is under assault from its grass roots, which fears that the party’s alliance with the Tories equals total wipeout at the next elections. A minority of members talk openly of deposing Clegg as leader. However, the party’s core, led by heavyweight left-wingers including Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell, has so far refused to join in the shoot.

No fans of the coalition, they might yet be persuaded to come out in the open if more respectable Lib Dem MPs, such as Huppert, start to voice doubts about the leadership. The party’s radical new science policy might well be a Trojan horse for something even bigger.