Champions of science square up over policies

March 4, 2005

The gloves were off in science this week as the three main political parties battled for the academic vote in the coming general election, killing off research councils and trampling on egos along the way.

Three self-styled science champions - Science Minister Lord Sainsbury, for Labour; Shadow Science Minister Robert Key, for the Conservatives; and science spokesperson Evan Harris, for the Liberal Democrats - had two hours to woo a room full of academics in Westminster on Tuesday.

Opening the debate, the usually mild Lord Sainsbury lost no time in rubbishing the policies of his competitors before they took the stand, warning that never before had there been such a big divide between the parties on science. After reeling off an impressive list of Labour Budget increases for science, he poured scorn on the Lib Dem pledge to scrap the Department of Trade and Industry and extricate science from the grip of industry.

"Oxford - Evan's constituency - has many very dynamic high-tech clusters. I've always thought Evan should have noticed that. There aren't a lot of damaged scientists with no integrity wandering round at Oxford," he mocked.

Next, Robert Key, pink with excitement, took the lectern. The Conservatives, he said, would match current government spending on science. But he added that almost everything else - including the seven research councils -would have to go.

"The Treasury holds the purse strings and controls the strategy for all major investments. The research councils operate as fiefdoms. The DTI has been emasculated," he said, and the list of damnations went on.

Lord Sainsbury earlier claimed that Mr Key wanted to "emasculate" the DTI - perhaps the new phallic symbol of UK science policy.

Dr Harris, dressed to impress an academic audience in a scruffy suit and awful tie, was more subtle in his use of insult.

"Robert Key deserves as much support as possible," he told the audience, "as the Conservative Party is not a good place to be a science spokesperson."

His speech was designed to pluck the heartstrings of the average scientist. His academic constituents were "miserable" because of poor pay and insecure prospects; animal researchers were "heroes"; and science had to be "more sexy and less sexist".

Dr Harris and Mr Key may have hoped to score points by denouncing the research assessment exercise. But Lord Sainsbury caused surprise by criticising it too. "The research councils are constantly looking at research performance -therefore, is it really necessary to put people through this exercise?" he asked.

It was unclear whether anyone won this battle. But there seems little doubt that science is an election issue.

PLEDGES

Labour

* Will increase science funding from 1.9 per cent of gross domestic product to 2.5 per cent of GDP by 2014

* Will increase knowledge-transfer activity

* Will build a "dynamic" basic science base

* Research assessment exercise is coming to the end of its life and may be replaced.

Conservatives

* Will abolish the research councils

* May replace with a US-style national science foundation

* Will fight "anti-science culture" in UK

* Will review - but not scrap - RAE.

Liberal Democrats

* Will scrap Department of Trade and Industry and put science in the Department for Education and Skills

* Will address problem of poor science salaries and lack of prospects

* Will encourage more women into science

* Will change the RAE in line with recent reviews.

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