Joined-up thinking on the campaign trail

Politicians’ reluctance to talk about engineering and its role in economic recovery reflects badly on them, and gives a worrying indication of the importance they place upon it.

Three more weeks of general election campaigning: oh, joy. Three more weeks of slogans and soundbites, of sniping and soapboxes. And now the main parties’ manifestos have been unveiled, we can see where engineering and technology rates on the campaign priorities: not very high.

This is hardly a surprise; voters tend to focus on the issues that affect them personally. Taxes, education and health will always be the issues that politicians focus on. But at a time when public debt is at eye-watering levels, it’s striking that barely any of the parties have called much attention to how we can get out of the situation.

All three party leaders and finance spokesmen have intimated that cuts in public services are on the agenda, although they’ve been unenthusiastic about pinpointing exactly where the axe will fall. Campaigners for policies to bolster the science and technology base have noted that none of the parties will commit to increasing spending on R&D, and are even cagey about funding of long-term projects.

What’s most notable to us is an absence of discussion on the role that industry can play, and even an understanding of the areas where the UK has a leading position. Labour and the Conservatives both mention the Technology Strategy Board, but when it comes to measures to help growing sectors to boost their incomes – which would increase tax revenues and help us pay off the debt – there’s vagueness at best and, more often, silence.

It’s not that long ago that a strong science and industry policy was seen as a positive electoral advantage. Harold Wilson campaigned on ‘the white heat of technology’ that would take Britain into a new industrial age. But since then, there’s been a sad lack of talk about industrial policy. Maybe it’s all part of the laissez-faire attitude that’s prevailed since the late 1970s – let industry take care of its own business; it should be nothing to do with the government. There’s some merit in that.

But there are things that government can do. The introduction of more relevant specialist advisers – and yes, I am talking about a chief engineer – and a promise to pay more attention to them, for one. In the wake of controversy over advice before the Gulf War, and over the sacking of the chief drugs adviser, some pledges concerning expert advice would be welcome. The Liberal Democrats deserve plaudits for including a section on this in their manifesto, promising to safeguard the independence of expert advisers, as well as saying that funding decision will be based on peer review rather than ’narrow impact factors’ and, strikingly, committing themselves to open access to the results of all publically-funded research.

Most of all, though, we’d like to hear the politicians talking about it. Loudly would be good; debate would be better, but we’d like to hear anything at all. It might not be of direct relevance to many voters; not as important to them as their local hospitals, for sure. But it would be reassuring to know that politicians are at least thinking about it. If industry is at all important to government, then they should talk about it. Shouldn’t they?