Evan Harris on Lib Dem science policy

Dr Evan Harris MP

Shadow minister for science

Liberal Democrats recognise that Science, Technology, and Engineering have to be key drivers of our economy as we move out of recession. We have long-argued that the UK has become over-reliant on the financial services as a foundation for growth; that a knowledge-intensive economy is not only more reliable, but also more rewarding and a better strategic base in the long-term.

It is the scientist and the engineer who will ultimately develop and build the supply of clean energy we will need, the artificial organisms key to future biotech, or the robotics crucial to our growing strength in the space sector.

You might argue that this is an uncontroversial view to take, but the evidence shows that despite our traditional strength in such sectors we are rapidly falling behind our international competitors –and even our own targets. In the G7, only Italy invests less of its GDP in R&D than the UK does. The EU target for R&D investment is 3% of GDP, while the UK’s is 2.5% – a figure we won’t reach anytime soon, since we’re currently at 1.81%. And in terms of people, we’re 5000 STEM graduates short of the Government’s own recruitment targets since 2001.

The Liberal Democrat strategy to address these issues is threefold. We need to encourage more people to study STEM subjects, to support Universities in training those students, and to rebalance our economy from its demonstrably shaky foundations so that those graduates have appropriate careers to compete for.

Engineering UK has estimated that 7.4% fewer engineers are graduating today than in 2004, so a focus on skills has to be at the heart of a new approach. It is not acceptable that some bright students have to study basic science in order to tick a GCSE league table box, when they would excel at taking Physics, Chemistry, and Biology, giving them a chance for career development that they would otherwise miss. And textbook learning is not enough– young people should be given the opportunity to work with materials, showing them the value of science and engineering in solving difficult problems.

As well as introducing universal ‘triple-science’ in schools, we would also ensure that all science teachers are appropriately trained and qualified, giving head teachers the necessary resources to make this happen. And we would audit schools for the quality of their careers advice, with the worst-performing schools being given support, including from the private sector and from the best-performing schools. As well as giving students of all backgrounds more of an appreciation for STEM careers, it would particularly help young women get into the sector. We currently have a woeful record in that respect, with women making up less than a third of STEM graduates and less than a tenth of engineering graduates. There is an inevitable influence from gender stereotyping, and that’s not just a problem for the women involved, but a loss to the economy and to public life.

In terms of universities, we recognise that since our Higher Education system is largely publicly funded, it should be geared to reflect the strategic needs of the nation. We would therefore support universities in prioritising new places in STEM subjects (as well as, for instance, modern languages) before expanding other ones. But we are also wary of seeing university as the ‘default’ option for young people; technical skills are essential for our economy and our society, so we vigorously support industry-led and Government-supported apprenticeships–without setting arbitrary targets.

And naturally, job-creation and career-structure is crucial so that graduates have somewhere to go. We know that over a half of doctoral students leave science almost immediately because there are insufficient research posts available. We would look at redistributing funds so that we have fewer, but more industry-friendly PhDs, as well as more post-doctoral positions.

And we would look again at our unambitious target of investing 2.5% of GDP into R&D. At the very least we should be matching our competitors like the USA and the EU, and recognising that the state and industry have to act in partnership to reposition our economy as a knowledge-intensive one. Vince Cable argued against the pointless VAT cut as a form of financial stimulus– we would have put money into high-tech industry instead. That’s the Liberal Democrat model for the future.