Research intelligence - Science's man in the lobby

As an ex-parliamentary researcher, CaSE's new head knows his way around the corridors of power. Paul Jump writes

June 17, 2010

This may be the age of austerity, but according to the new director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), that is all the more reason for the government to increase its investment in science.

Formerly a researcher for Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrats' science spokesman in the last Parliament, Imran Khan is used to speaking up for science. He joined Dr Harris' office in 2008 after completing degrees in biology and science communication, and he said that it was the former Oxford West and Abingdon MP's championing of science, rather than his political affiliations, that attracted him to the post.

"I have always been politically minded but not party political," Mr Khan said. "Although I worked for Dr Harris for two years, I never actually joined the Lib Dems."

Although Mr Khan landed the job of CaSE director just before the general election, he said his former boss' narrow defeat will still have an impact on him, as it may make arguing science's case in the corridors of power more difficult.

Nevertheless, he is scouring the long list of new MPs for potential friends of science. He already has high hopes for Julian Huppert, Cambridge MP and University of Cambridge geneticist, and Chi Onwurah, the Newcastle Central MP who was formerly an electrical engineer.

"There will be some surprises," Mr Khan said. "No one could have predicted from (former science and technology committee chair) Phil Willis' teaching background that he would become such a hugely respected advocate for science."

Mr Khan is also impressed with new universities and science minister David Willetts, with whom he hopes to work closely. "It strikes me that he really gets it and he's not afraid to engage with the issues," he said.

But Mr Khan is dismayed by the cuts to the higher-education budget announced by the coalition government in May and sees his main task as being to lobby for science spending as a means of promoting economic growth. He said this is a theme on which CaSE's members, who include many prominent universities and corporations, are all agreed.

"The Prime Minister has been saying that the reason cuts are needed is to give investors confidence. But in the science and engineering sectors, cuts would do the exact opposite. That's something to think about if you're concerned about reducing the deficit," he said.

He also pointed out that employers are crying out for more graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects and warned that if numbers dwindle, the UK's international competitiveness will be damaged - although he is unwilling to say that funding for STEM subjects should be preserved at the expense of other subjects.

Nor would he say explicitly that private companies should be prepared to commit more money of their own to fund university courses in STEM subjects - although he observed that collaboration between industry and academia is going to become more important.

"Having only just taken office, I don't want to be dictating to anyone. But imagination will be needed when we're considering new models of getting private-sector funding into higher education," he said.

UK competitiveness will also be damaged if the government's proposed cap on immigration levels from non-EU countries prevents international scientists and engineers from coming to work here, according to Mr Khan.

"The migrant cap would have a massive impact on industry and academia in return for a negligible reduction in migrant numbers," he said. "We're looking at a serious own goal."

Other priorities for Mr Khan's tenure at CaSE include ensuring that the government carries out Tory and Lib Dem election promises to enable children to study all three pure sciences up to GCSE level, and making sure that any reforms to the House of Lords preserve its current high levels of scientific expertise - although he is unclear about how that should be achieved.

As for the lobby group itself, Mr Khan said that any changes he makes will be "tactical rather than strategic". He praised his predecessor, Nick Dusic, for the political connections he built up, and confirmed that CaSE's four staff will continue to focus their efforts on direct political lobbying.

While lamenting science's absence from the leaders' debates during the election campaign, he claimed that CaSE's Vote Science campaign - which included a debate between the three main parties' science spokesmen - was a success.

"It was a good example of how, if you get lots of people asking questions, politicians do step up to the plate and try to answer them," he said. "Hopefully, that augurs well for the new Parliament."

paul.jump@tsleducation.com.

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