The run-up to the next general election provides a great opportunity to get the public and politicians engaged in debates about science policy. Science is an election issue both in its own right and as part of larger debates on a range of issues from healthcare to defence and environment to education. The trick for the science community will be finding innovative ways to help bring the electorate and politicians together to think about the future of science and engineering in the UK.
In January, the Campaign for Science & Engineering (CaSE) brought the three party spokesmen for science – Lord Drayson, Adam Afriyie MP and Dr Evan Harris MP – together to debate topical policy issues in front of a crowd of 400. It was one of the first debates between party spokespeople in advance of the election.
The event was mainly full of science policy insiders, either from universities, learned societies, research charities or industry. The topics covered were the usual ones, such as the level of research funding and how the impact of that investment should be measured. The test for the science community is how it can widen this debate to incorporate new groups and broaden the topics covered.
The first step to widening engagement in science policy is by involving the three million people in the workforce with a degree in science, engineering or mathematics. They make up one part of a potential science, technology, engineering and mathematics constituency. The other part of the constituency are those people – farmers, patients, employers — who are well aware of the important role that research plays in their lives.
The second step is to broaden the debate beyond wonkish concerns about the future of the Haldane Principle and the sanctity of the Science Budget Ring-Fence. The case for science and engineering needs to be linked to the national interest and constituency issues.
At the highest levels of each party, science and engineering needs to be seen as an important component in helping them achieve their goals, be it creating a more balanced economy or tackling climate change. To a certain extent each party does recognise this, but they need to articulate it more explicitly in the run up to the election. Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg have given speeches on science over the last year. Hopefully, David Cameron will too, before the election is called.
Finding ways to empower voters to engage candidates about local issues is going to be important. This can be done by encouraging the parents who contact us to write to their candidates about their child’s frustration at not being able to take three separate sciences at GCSE. It could also be done by having research funding mentioned at a National Farmers’ Union hustings. Engaging candidates in constituency issues will be an important way of helping to ensure that the next Parliament has at least a few MPs switched on to science and engineering when they enter the House.
In the run-up to the election, CaSE will be writing to each of the main parties to ask them to set out their science and engineering policies. We will also be analysing policy announcements, speeches and manifesto commitments to see where they stand on key issues and communicating this information to prospective voters. Above all we want to work with a wide variety of organisations and individuals to show there is a broad and strong coalition interested in the future of science and engineering in the UK.
You can get help make science and engineering an election issue by writing to your candidates or even organising a local hustings on science and engineering. It is important that scientists, engineers and mathematicians, and those that care about education and research, engage in the democratic process.