Research intelligence: Trust us, we're on your side

With election day looming, the science policies of Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems were scrutinised by the Campaign for Science and Engineering. Zoë Corbyn weighs up their responses and manifesto pledges on science

April 29, 2010

The science ring-fence

Both Labour and the Lib Dems promise a ring-fenced science budget to cover the next Comprehensive Spending Review, which is seen as key to providing a stable funding environment. The Conservatives commit to a "multi-year science and research budget", but avoid referring to a ring-fence. The actual size of any future budget is unknown: however, both the Lib Dems and Labour say they have no plans to cut the current science funding for 2010-11.

Research impact

The Tories promise to postpone the research excellence framework by up to two years because of concerns over how to measure impact. The party also says that if no robust and acceptable method can be found, it would remove the measurement from the framework. The Lib Dems want to reform the research councils' use of potential impact to determine funding. Although the party agrees it should be a mandatory question on grant applications, it says it should not be used to determine outcomes. Labour's plans to include impact in the REF remain intact.

Innovation, the knowledge economy and wealth

Labour and the Conservatives make the strongest pledges here. Both want more UK research to be translated into UK products, setting out initiatives to achieve this, including a strategic focus on key sectors. The Tories pledge to establish "joint university-business research and development institutes". Labour plans to develop Technology and Innovation Centres and to set up a £35 million University Enterprise Capital Fund to improve early stage commercialisation. The Lib Dems say they would review ways of encouraging more private investment in research and development.

Directing research

The government's role in directing research council funding at the macro level, for example, to meet big scientific challenges, is stressed by both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. The Tories would also work with scientists on a clearer definition of the so-called Haldane principle, which states that politicians should not interfere unduly in how the research councils spend their money. "This principle ... has never been comprehensively written down and is now under strain as never before," the party says. Labour says it respects the Haldane principle and would continue to support curiosity-driven research. The Tories also stress that scientific research must progress "within the boundaries set by Parliament", but promise they would act "early, sensitively and intelligently" in taking decisions. The party also says it would reduce the use of animals in research.

Scientific advice to government

The Lib Dems make the strongest commitments here, highlighting concerns that the Principles of Scientific Advice - drawn up by Labour in the wake of the sacking of drugs adviser David Nutt last year - introduce a "nebulous duty" on advisers to "maintain the trust" of ministers. They promise to return to an earlier set of principles drawn up by scientists. The party also says it would consult on whether the office of the government's chief scientific adviser should be moved to the Cabinet Office, and says it would appoint a chief scientific adviser to the Treasury. The Conservatives, meanwhile, will give all their new MPs "science literacy inductions". Labour says it would appoint a chief technology officer to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Libel law reform and open access

All three parties commit to reforming England's libel laws, but the Lib Dems in particular highlight the problems faced by scientists, stressing the need to "protect peer-reviewed research from libel suits". The party also seeks to make open access an election issue, saying it would ensure that all state-funded research papers are made publicly available.

Encouraging female and young researchers

The Lib Dems say they would explore how to deal with a dearth of postdoctoral places for young researchers. They also recognise the problem of the gender gap in science and engineering, pledging to introduce "exit interviews" for everyone leaving publicly funded research posts to gather "clear data on reasons for departure".

Protecting university science departments

The Lib Dems pledge to explore ways of rejigging the system to stop science departments closing due to a shortage of students, and say they would "work to tackle the crisis in UK physics". All parties stress the importance of getting more science teachers into schools and encouraging pupils to take science subjects.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

The parties' full responses to CaSE's questions can be viewed at: http://bit.ly/aZkeWg.

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