Politicians have gone soft on science and technology

Senior reporter

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.