Science in the British election

It’s now clear that our election has produced no winners, least of all science. But it’s worth reflecting on what’s worked and what’s not worked in the various efforts there’ve been to raise the profile of science in an election that, in the end, was always going to be dominated by other issues.

The Campaign for Science and Engineering did a great job in extracting statements about science from each of the main parties, which have been published on their excellent blog The Science Vote. The New Scientist blog The S Word has been another excellent source of information and commentary on the campaign to raise science’s profile in the election. Predictably, the parties commitments to science have been notably short on detail, particularly on commitments to maintain current levels of science spending, but it’s progress even to have some warm words.

The background has been set with a few heavyweight reports earlier in the year. In March, the Royal Society released its contribution – The Scientific Century (I was on the advisory group for this, which was a fascinating experience), while the Government’s own highest level advisory body, the Council for Science and Technology, produced their own Vision for UK Research (PDF). Three big themes emerged from these reports; the excellence of the UK science base and of the best individual researchers within it, the importance of science and technology for economic growth and our future prosperity, and the need for science to solve the pressing problems the whole world faces, of dealing with climate change, moving to a low carbon economy and keeping a growing population healthy and fed.

Predictably, it has been the economic argument that’s gained the most political traction; the Labour government produced the Hauser review, calling for translational research centres along the lines of Germany’s Fraunhofer institutes, and the Conservatives have their Dyson review, with remarkably similar conclusions. Though the emphasis of both of these contributions is on near-market research, they both at least pay lip-service to the importance of having a strong science base.

We shall see, of course, how much these warm words translate into action. One has to worry, after an election campaign in which all sides have conspicuously failed to confront the really hard choices that a government will face in dealing with a deficit, that the science budget is going to be seen as a soft target, politically, compared to areas such as health, education or defense.

Is there a significant constituency for science, that might impose any political price on cutting science budgets? This election has seen high hopes for social media as a way of mobilising a science voting block – see #scivote on Twitter. Looking at this, one sees something that looks very much like an attempt to develop an identity politics for science – the idea that there might be a “science vote”, in the way that people talk (correctly or not) about a “gay vote” or a “christian vote”. There’s a sense of a community of right-minded people, with leaders from politics and the media, and clear dividing lines from the forces of unreason. What’s obvious, though, is this strategy hasn’t worked – a candidate standing on a single issue science platform ended up with 197 votes, which compares unfavourably with the 228 votes the Monster Raving Loony Party got in my own, nearby constituency. And Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat science spokesman and #scivote favourite, lost his own seat.

I think that science is much too important to be treated as a sectional interest; identity politics will never work for science, simply because a serious interest in science for its own sake will only ever be shown by a minority. Instead, support for science must be built from a coalition of people with many different interests and outlooks. For some the intrinsic wonder of science will be enough to strongly support it, but for many others it will be the role of science in the economy, the appeal of medical research or the importance of science for making the transition to a low carbon economy, that persuades them to take the subject seriously.

My congratulations to Dr Julian Huppert, elected Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge. He’s a research scientist in the Cavendish Laboratory, who will now have a little less time to spend thinking about theoretical biophysics, and a bit more time worrying about science policy, and, I’m sure, many other pressing issues.