Political science lottery

All three parties say science and engineering have their total support; but can they follow it through

Science – which is as near to engineering as any of the political parties’ manifestos get – had its day last week. Labour brought the subject into the arena as it unveiled further details of its plan for a National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta).

Labour’s attempt to colour in its sketch of how the UK’s science base would bloom under a Labour Government gave ample opportunity for it to run off a list of Conservative failures and to reel off words of comfort on how wonderful it will be in the future.

The images painted so vividly by the two main political parties are very rosy indeed. Both talk of giving their full support to basic science funding, of the merits of the UK’s excellent research base, and how they will endeavour to build links between research and business for the greater good of the country. Technology Foresight, for example, has the backing of both political heavyweights. Neither party is however willing to put more money from the public purse into the research council pot.

Only the Liberal Democrats, yet again the dark horse of the general election, have pledged to put real money down. The LibDems have said they will put an extra £150m into scientific research from the military research budget.

For its part Labour is proposing to supplement public money with funds from the deep-pocketed National Lottery. Gordon Brown, shadow chancellor, explained that its new `national trust for talent’ would be financed by an unspecified amount of lottery money presently earmarked for the Millennium Fund, together with donations from scientists and inventors from copyrights or patents on their discoveries.

This `bank for British genius’, as it was described, would be used to provide start-up grants for businesses in exchange for a proportion of long-term royalties from new products.

It would also work to protect the intellectual property rights of young inventors, award prizes or bursaries, and promote `innovation incubators’ in the form of expertise and advice for scientists and inventors.

`With Labour, our scientists will want to come home. We will see the reversal of the brain drain and the beginnings of the brain gain,’ said Brown. He was not thought to be referring to Sir Robert May, chief government scientific adviser, who is an Australian.

David Blunkett, shadow education and employment secretary, used Labour’s platform to add that the `strength of Britain’s science base depends on the health of our universities. Scientists cannot work with out-of-date equipment and poorly stocked labs.’

He quoted last June’s survey by the University of Manchester which declared that 80% of university departments were unable to perform critical experiments because of lack of funds for equipment.

There was one minor oversight, however – how would Labour fund new equipment? The supposition is that it would come from Nesta, which Blunkett described as `a bank for British business’.

The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals welcomed this proposal to tackle the funding crisis faced by university research departments, and repeated its call for a new funding system for UK universities.

CVCP chief executive Diana Warwick said: `British universities play a vital role in science and innovation yet many of their researchers are forced to use old equipment and work in poorly equipped labs. We welcome this initiative and its proposed use of lottery funds to tackle this national problem. We hope it will be a forerunner to a new funding system for universities which is needed to safeguard adequately UK research interests.’

Paul Ambridge, chairman of the Institute of Patentees and Inventors, one of the 21 leading academics wheeled out to show support for Labour’s initiative, said he estimated the UK economy loses £150bn each year from British inventions being manufactured overseas.

Adam Ingram, shadow science and technology minister, backed this up by quoting the Japanese trade ministry MITI, which recently estimated that `over 50% of major discoveries that brought benefits to the Japanese economy came from Britain’.

`The simple message is that basic and pure research has the capacity to create wealth,’ added Ingram. True, but there is always the danger, as some critics of Technology Foresight have pointed out, that research councils will end up being forced to harness science to wealth creation. Basic science, goes the argument, is at its best when it is unfettered from the constraints of the real world – at least in the short-term.

What would really bring back scientists to the UK are secure, well-paid positions and guarantees of research support.

Basic science is always a gamble and a bit of a lottery, and it is perhaps ironic that it should be supported by money raised through the nation’s new found passion – gambling on the lottery.