The Government has been accused of lulling the science community into a “false sense of security” over the future of science funding.
Adam Afriyie, the Conservative Shadow Science Minister, made the claim at the first official cross-party debate on science policy in Cambridge on Monday night.
The future of the science budget and the ring-fence that protects science funding were among the key topics of the evening, which saw Lord Drayson, the Science Minister, take on Mr Afriyie and the Liberal Democrats’ Shadow Science Minister, Evan Harris.
The ring-fence protects research council funding and is one of the cornerstones of Labour’s science and innovation investment framework, but the Government’s existing commitment to it expires in 2011.
Lord Drayson insisted that his party was committed to “maintaining the science ring-fence going forward” but declined to say whether funding would be at current levels.
“We are going to be faced with tough choices as a nation,” he told the Cambridge audience.
“Whoever wins the general election is going to have to face up to that.”
His “crowning glory” as Science Minister would be to protect the amount of money in the science budget, he added.
Mr Afriyie said the Conservative Party was committed to the “principle” of the ring-fence, but he too warned that any incoming government would be confronted with an “empty financial cupboard”.
“We respect the principle of the ring-fence… But I’m concerned that some of Labour’s ring-fencing rhetoric might lull the science community into a false sense of security,” he said.
“The current ring-fence expires in 2011. The Government has allocated no money whatsoever to science beyond that point… The Government can’t ring-fence money it hasn’t allocated.”
He stressed that the Conservatives planned no major “reworking” of the Government’s science policy.
The drive for research with economic impact and human hybrid embryo research were also discussed.
A free vote last year on human hybrid embryo research saw 80 per cent of Conservative MPs vote against Labour’s proposed changes to the law.
“More Conservative MPs will mean a creeping Bush-ism,” Dr Harris claimed.
Mr Afriyie told Times Higher Education he was confident that the Conservatives were “very comfortable” with science, but said there were still important moral and ethical issues surrounding it.
“I am personally pleased that we are able to conduct research in a relatively unfettered fashion… but I can’t predict the future,” he said.
David Willetts, the Shadow Universities Secretary, has previously indicated that the Conservatives would scrap the requirement for academics to demonstrate the potential impact of their research before it is funded.
Mr Afriyie said this was “not Conservative policy at the moment”, but he said there were “certainly questions to be asked” about whether the requirement was “really useful”.
The debate was hosted by the Cambridge Network, which links business and academia in the area.