Brussels, 03 May 2005
The UK's three main political parties have outlined their stance on several key scientific issues, such as climate change, space research and science education, in advance of the country's general election on 5 May.
In an interview with New Scientist, a series of science-related questions were put to the Labour government's science minister, Lord Sainsbury, the Conservative spokesperson Robert Key, and the Liberal Democrat spokesperson Evan Harris.
The first was: 'If elected, how would your party counter the fear and uncertainly many people in the UK feel about issues such as nanotechnology, cloning and genetic engineering?' Lord Sainsbury responded by arguing that, overall, British people have a positive view of the benefits of science, but many are concerned about the speed of scientific development and uncertain about the level of government control.
'In response to this concern, we are beginning to engage people at an early stage in a dialogue with scientists,' argued Lord Sainsbury, adding that the current government has doubled the budget for science and society initiatives to over nine million GBP (13.3 million euro).
Mr Key, meanwhile, argued that Britain suffers from an anti-science culture. 'Both the government and scientists have lost the initiative to unaccountable pressure groups and lobbies. The public is confused,' he said. The long term solution, according to the Conservatives, is to improve science education, but in the short and medium term they would give more independence to research councils and look to reduce government 'secrecy and control'.
The Liberal Democrats' Evan Harris accused the government of ducking its responsibility to sell the benefits of scientific advances to the public. 'The government's been far too slow in promoting the advantages of these things,' he said. 'We would be far more proactive. Political opinion leaders should say that there is huge potential for this technology and that those lobby groups that produce scare stories have a huge vested interest in doing so.'
When asked whether they agreed that climate change is a bigger threat than terrorism, all three parties' spokespeople appeared to concur that it is. Lord Sainsbury said that if the problem were not tackled soon, climate change would dwarf other problems such as terrorism, and pointed to the government's support for the Kyoto protocol as evidence that Labour is trying to address the problem. The Conservatives would try to 'look beyond Kyoto', according to Mr Key, and base all decisions on the conservation of the environment and biodiversity on good science, rather than fear. Mr Harris, meanwhile, attempted to direct the complaint by environmental groups - that environmental issues are being overlooked during this election campaign - towards his political rivals. 'Yes. [Climate change is] a bigger threat to world stability [than terrorism] and it's depressing that we hear so little from the other parties on this issue,' he said.
Further differences of opinion were exposed when the three men were asked for their opinion on funding risky space missions, following the experience of the Beagle 2 probe. Lord Sainsbury argued that despite its ultimate failure, Beagle 2 did deliver substantial benefits and positioned the UK well to participate in future planetary exploration. He said that a Labour government would continue to invest in missions of space discovery such as the recent Cassini-Huygens mission and the European Space Agency's Aurora programme.
Mr Key, however, described the Beagle 2 mission as 'misunderstood and mismanaged from the start, both by government, the research councils and at European Union level.' The Conservatives would rigorously assess any such future proposals purely on the basis of scientific and commercial value, he added. Mr Harris concluded for the Liberal Democrats by saying: 'I don't think it's for politicians before an election to say what should be funded [...]. It should be based on judgements, including peer review, of the potential benefits and risks of undertaking a project.'