Coalition Commitments?

The dramatic election outcome gives the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats an opportunity to rethink and refine their election commitments. Science and engineering did not feature in the coalition negotiation agreement, but looking through the parties’ manifestos and additional commitments made in letters from David Cameron and Nick Clegg to CaSE, gives us a feel for what the future might hold.

Below we summarise the main areas of consensus and difference between the parties relevant to science and engineering, with just a few interjections from CaSE on what we would like to see…

Funding the Science & Engineering Research Base
First, as ever, let’s talk about the money – do the parties agree on funding the research base? The Liberal Democrats committed to not cutting science spending in the first year of the new Parliament. Unfortunately, the Conservatives never wrote down strong commitments, although they did promise a multi-year settlement in recognition of the need for stability. However, in the third televised leader debate, David Cameron responded to a question on how to rebuild manufacturing industries by saying “Let’s start with investing in our science base and making sure great universities like this [Birmingham] are producing the scientists and entrepreneurs of the future.”

The coalition agreement promises both a budget within 50 days and a spending review in the autumn. CaSE will be campaigning for strong investment in science and engineering prior to these.

The Conservatives came close, but never actually committed to protecting science budget spending once it has been allocated. The Liberal Democrats stated that they would clearly define and then ring-fence this spending.
On how the money should be allocated, the Liberal Democrats support the Haldane Principle – that decisions on how the science budget should be spent are best made by those in the science community itself. At the same time, the government can identify broad strategic priorities in a transparent manner. The Conservatives recognised the confusion around this area, promising to work with the science community to arrive at a clearer definition of how science should be funded.

At a finer level of funding, the Conservatives pledged to postpone the use of impact of prior research as a factor in funding allocations in the planned Research Excellence Framework. They promised that if a robust impact measurement acceptable to the academic community was not found, then none would be used. The Liberal Democrats went a step further and opposed the use of non-evidence based impact predictions when deciding resource allocations.

Support for Private Investment
At the national level, Nick Clegg supports the target of 2.5% of GDP to be invested in research and development (R&D) from all sources. As there is little to suggest that the public spend would increase by the necessary £10 billion, this requires more money from private sources.

Both parties indicated that they will review R&D tax credits for industry, with the Conservatives pledging to simplify and refocus them on high-tech companies, small businesses and new start-ups. R&D tax credits are expected to be worth £820 million for 2008-09 and CaSE will continue to argue that any changes need to be fully evaluated for possible repercussions. If money is taken out of the scheme, it should be invested in R&D elsewhere.

The Liberal Democrats were planning to look at how best to support industry investment, such as making seed funding more focused, or assisting venture capitalists in identifying promising technologies. Vince Cable, now the new Business Secretary, talked of creating a National Infrastructure Bank to bring together public and private investment, while the Conservatives wanted to establish joint university-business research and development institutes. The Conservatives also said that they would aim to deliver 25% of government research and procurement contracts through small and medium sized enterprises.

Both parties have indicated that the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) are at risk. RDAs spend over £300 million on science and innovation and it is again important to make sure that this investment is not lost to these areas if the RDAs are cut.

Education & Skills
Both parties addressed the need for science teachers to be well qualified. The Conservatives said that only students achieving a 2:2 class degree or above would be funded for teacher training and that they would cover the student loan repayments of top science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduates while they are teaching. The Liberal Democrats planned to divert the money currently used for starting bonuses for science and mathematics teachers into loan repayments, but in the long run, they intended to stop students from racking up debts in the first place, by abolishing tuition fees over six years. Liberal Democrats also pledged to make sure that head teachers have the appropriate resources to ensure that science at Key Stage 4 and above is taught by appropriately qualified teachers.

The Liberal Democrats wanted to ensure that every single student can study three separate Physics, Chemistry and Biology GCSEs while the Conservatives wanted this to be a basic curriculum entitlement. They also both have a range of ideas on how to boost the number of students taking STEM subjects at school and further into universities and apprenticeships. These ideas include prizes and technical academies from the Conservatives and better career advice, role models, bursaries and tackling the gender gap from the Liberal Democrats. With a bit of luck, we will end up with twice as many positive approaches in this area than we would have done under a singe party.

Science & Engineering in Government
The Conservatives had little to say about the place of science and engineering in government, while the Liberal Democrats said that they would consider and consult on plans to move the Government Office for Science to the Cabinet Office.

The Liberal Democrats made a series of strong commitments on scientific advice and policy making which we hope that they can persuade the Conservatives to adopt. First, they endorsed the original Principles for the Treatment of Independent Scientific Advice, which was drawn up by the scientific community and underlines the independence and freedom of advisers to the Government. CaSE would like to see an adaptation of this incorporated into the new Ministerial Code.

The Liberal Democrats pledged to appoint a Chief Scientific Adviser to the Treasury and reinforce the powers of the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, as well as strengthening the role of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. They also said that they would like to see regular use of Randomised Controlled Trials in testing new social policy initiatives.

Finally, both parties committed to reform libel laws, as the Conservatives put it, “to protect freedom of speech, reduce costs and discourage libel tourism”, and more specifically for researchers from the Liberal Democrats, “to protect peer reviewed research from libel suits”. Reviewing libel laws to protect feedom of speech did actually make it into the coalition agreement.

The New Science Minister
Given the importance of science and engineering across government, with impact in every department and also affected by their policies, CaSE urges the new Government to ensure that the new Minister for Science has a seat the Cabinet Table. Now we are all eagerly waiting to hear who that might be…

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