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Politicians have gone soft on science and technology

Government science and technology policy deserves more attention than it receives. If more money were spent on R&D (including by industry) then we might not be in quite the economic mess we are in now. If we hadn’t effectively abandoned nuclear fission research in the 1980s and 90s we might not now have to pay the French to build reactors for us.

Still, it’s a topic of politics that isn’t top of the agenda for most people and, frankly, discussions about it can be pretty dry. It’s also an area – perhaps for this reason – where there doesn’t appear to be much disagreement among politicians at the moment.

The Conservative minister for universities and science, David Willetts, is often praised for his intellect and seems relatively well respected by both his government colleagues and the opposition. You rarely, if ever, hear arguments against his support of the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) in funding development of university innovations towards commercial products, the ringfencing of the science research budget, or the selection of ‘Eight Great Technologies’ that the government is channelling its spending towards (not so much picking winners, it says, as picking sectors).

So it was with great interest that I attended a debate on science policy this week between Willetts and his Labour and Lib Dem counterparts. I wanted to find out where the opposition thought the government was going wrong and hoped to hear some interesting new ideas. But while the evening at the Royal Society, organised by the Campaign for Science and Engineering, was certainly lively and enjoyable, I sadly don’t feel any more enlightened as to where the parties really differ.

There was a lot of head nodding about the skills shortage and the lack of women entering scientific professions though, as usual, no clear strategy for how to address the problems. Everyone agreed that the right balance must be maintained funding for applied research and “blue skies” projects. But there was little suggestion that the balance was currently wrong or of how we could better identify how to change it.

The raising of university tuition fees to a maximum of £9000 may have been unpopular and forced many Lib Dem MPs to break a promise they’d made to vote against them. However, the debate yielded no viable alternatives in the current financial climate. Even Lib Dem science spokesperson (the only actual scientist among the panel), Julian Huppert, said he would like to abolish fees but didn’t know where the money would come to pay for it.

The lack of spending discretion was a common problem for all three panellists throughout the debate. Indeed, Willetts made the point that it was the newly appointed Labour shadow science minister, Liam Byrne, who had left the Treasury at the end of the previous government with a note saying ‘I’m afraid there is no money’. Huppert received one of several laughs of the evening by quoting Rutherford as saying ‘We’ve got no money, so we’ve got to think’. Unfortunately, there was little evidence of clever or innovative ideas that could help the UK do more with less.

There were some small divergences. Byrne argued for ringfencing the science capital spending budget as well as the research funds and called, several times, for the reinstatement of a national careers service. Willetts said education needed to become more practical, quoting an international businessman who said he would leave a German apprentice engineer in charge of a large piece of machinery but not a British one. Huppert thought more needed to be done to improve primary school science teaching.

But the panellists rarely engaged directly with each other’s ideas or put forward arguments on why their counterparts were wrong. Indeed the evening’s chair, BBC science correspondent Pallab Ghosh, did a fine job of timekeeping yet frustratingly intervened at the one point when a real debate threatened to break out.

Where there was more obvious disagreement was on more established and already controversial policy areas, namely the use of unqualified teachers in free schools and immigration restrictions’ impact on the research base, things outside the jurisdiction of the science minster’s brief.

Perhaps I expected too much. After all, Byrne has only been in the job for three weeks and admitted he could, at this point, offer more enthusiasm than expertise. While Huppert might not be a member of the government he does still represent the views of one of the parties of power.

And consensus building isn’t necessarily such a bad way to run government. When Willetts took office, instead of scrapping the work of his Labour predecessor he took it further by beefing up the TSB and carrying on with the creation of what are now called Catapult research centres. (Huppert, by the way, would rename them Turing centres).

The challenge of how to improve science research and education when there is very little money to spare is a huge one. I certainly don’t claim to have the answers. And the debate made a nice change from the public schoolboy debating society style of Prime Minister’s Questions. But I couldn’t help feel there was too little argument than is healthy for a democracy. Perhaps it’s time for some more radical thinking.

Readers' comments (13)

  • Our young engineers need a 'feel for stuff', as well as the education they get in school and university. They need to take apart things to see how their predecessors have designed things, they need to try to modify and improve things. They need to get their hands on stuff - not just on computer models. If you have a subconscious feel for what will work, what will be strong enough, what will give the right waveform, you will be a better engineer.

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  • How to improve science at the education end?

    May be is a start - some people may be ideologically against Free Schools - but at some point as the song (nearly) goes 'engineers and sceintists have got to start doing it form them selves...'

    I gather there may be a similar initiative in Coventry?

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  • In relation to policy into application we need look no further than the very successful University of Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing, who seem to be getting big bangs for their bucks at all levels - particularly in their partnerships with industry large and small

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  • Having seen the 3 panellists that evening I cant help feel the real problem is their position within government. Possessing neither the policy jurisdiction to affect the education pipeline nor the political clout to call for more change in getting public research into UK startups' hands without making themselves unpopular with their parties.

    Given enough power its likely they'd implement many of each others ideas & take credit for it but to do that I fear we have to rely on the public to make it clear such ideas have our backing.

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  • "Julian Huppert, said he would like to abolish fees but didn’t know where the money would come to pay for it."

    It seems that for all the talk of "re-balancing the economy" they still haven't got it. The formula is the same today as it has always been:-

    1. Design stuff.
    2. Make it.
    3. Sell it.

    Or is that too complicated for our so-called leaders to grasp?

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  • I'm afraid that I have given up, the UK is one big tribute to St Jude, in other words one big lost cause with plenty of casualties strewn around haemoraging hope while our technology companies are hoovered up by the rest of the world.

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  • Ian Thain makes good points:
    May I tell him about a junior managers seminar from 1966 -that is almost 50 years ago!
    Young recent graduates/joiners to ICI Fibres were invited by a Prof from Bradford University (it had just opened!) to define what 'we' did/should do for a living
    After much soul searching we came up with
    We make fibres
    additional discussion added
    We make and sell fibres
    but the clincher was when we recognised
    We must make and sell fibres for profit!

    I would respectfully invite the addition of that magic word to all Engineering activities.

    I would also suggest that far too many firms (particularly those involved in retail) make their profits from their suppliers and staff because they have lost the will to make such from their customers!

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  • Two unrelated points

    The UK used to have a very good National Scheme for Engineering Apprentices called the EITB Scheme (Engineering Industries Training Board Scheme) comprising modules that had to be completed meaning every EITB apprentice followed the same training scheme.

    The EITB has been abandoned along with most apprentice schools for NVQA's which are essentially NBG!!!! as they mean no training but 'learning on the job' as cheap labour!!!!! No wonder the industrialist mentioned by David Willets wouldnt trust a British apprentice to man an expensive machine but would trust a German apprentice - Would be nice to know what German industry thinks of the old EITB scheme for training apprentices and modern NVQA trained apprentices?

    Abolishing Univerisity fees - I think UK PLC should abolish University fees and provide training bursaries for people studying subjects key subjects deemed as skill shortage subjects.

    Unfortunately the drive for 50% graduates in society and the rise in fees to £9000 a year along with higher salary before repaying fees has in fact resulted in a defacto abolishment of fees for many 'soft subjects' because most students studying 'soft subjects' that dont give good jobs will not be able to earn the money necessary to pay any of their fees or their student loans for support back.

    Even subjects like Archeaology which are very interesting to do and popular have very few career opportunities beyond minimum wage field diggers. I know - I would have liked to have been an Archeaologist and been a volunteer digger on sites). Most archeaology graduates will never have the earning potential to pay either their fees or student loans back.

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  • It's worth noting that so-called 'soft subjects' often cost far less to teach than those such as medicine and engineering that lead to higher average salaries.

  • Fascinated to read the comment(s) about the different approaches to letting a UK and German apprentice loose on some piece of machinery. Readers of this blog may have noticed that the difference between 'our' training and that of those of our European Engineering, brothers and (happily quite a lot of) sisters) has featured in my 'thinking and comments before.

    Perhaps my very best friend -a German/Swiss trained Engineer, was a competitor and colleague throughout much of our respective careers. Karsten was a better Design Engineer -in terms of his skill in answering the questions posed by a problem than I: his solution would invariably be more elegant than mine. BUT where he fell down was in considering, let alone answering what is surely the first question that every good Engineer, and even a few of the great ones, must answer before a problem is considered.

    "Why are we doing this anyway"
    Is there an alternative approach, a view from a different angle, a need to be redefined/ before we spin our mental wheels and certainly before we cut any metal?!

    I believe there always is such an approach, and I hope and believe that UK trained Engineers have that ability.
    Mike B

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  • Engineers in general are very poorly paid, particularly considering the level of training and knowledge required.
    This is compounded by the utter contempt for the engineer shown by many companies over the last 30-40 years, preferring to lavish the rewards on accountants who are largely used to asset strip previously good and well run companies.
    Personally I am not surprised there is a shortage of Engineers and I would definitely NOT advise any one to enter this beleagured profession.

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