Page last updated at 12:58 GMT, Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Science 'is a key election issue'

By Jonathan Amos
Science correspondent, BBC News

Evan Harris; Lord Drayson; Adam Afriyie
L-R: Dr Evan Harris; Lord Drayson; Adam Afriyie

The science spokesmen of the three main political parties have crossed swords on the issue of UK research funding.

In a debate staged by the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Science Minister Lord Drayson lauded the doubling of the budget under Labour's tenure.

But Liberal Democrat Evan Harris said the claim was spin - science had merely got its fair share of growth, he said.

And Tory spokesman Adam Afriyie argued that "Labour's debt crisis" was now the big threat to future science activity.

All agreed that science was critical to future economic prosperity and that it would be an important issue in the forthcoming General Election, widely expected to take place in May.

The public debate, held in Westminster, was the third such event in which these politicians had taken part. A video can be watched here.

The discussion played against the backdrop of recent reports from the Royal Society and the Council for Science and Technology, which both urged the parties to maintain investment in research even in the downturn.

All three said they agreed that a long-term, ring-fenced budget was essential, and that their party would put in place the necessary funding if they held power.


"We believe that we have shown [our commitment] over the past 12 or so years by the decisions we have made, to invest in science, to more than double the science budget; but also in the small things which mean a lot in the way in which we have championed science in some very difficult areas, which I believe has led to a renaissance in British science which we can now point to in the data - more Nobel Prize winners than any country other than the US; the most scientifically productive country in the world; the transformation in our universities and their attitude to the creation of wealth and jobs from science; and the way in which we have improved the commercialisation of our intellectual property."


"I intend to see to it that you get the resources that you need to continue the vital research that puts Britain at the top of the league tables, but first we have to fix the economy to find those resources. The current government has led us into the longest and deepest recession since records have begun. We may worry about Greece but actually Britain has the biggest budget deficit of any developed nation, and public debt is out of control and we have the weakest recovery in the industrialised world. Major science cuts have already begun - the National Physical Laboratory has seen a £5m cut from its income, the Science and Technology Facilities Council has been forced to cut 10% from its grants for research, and withdrawn from 26 significant projects. And the government's cut £1bn from the higher education and research budgets."


"We and Labour will not cut [public spending] next year because we will not cut until we are out of recession; there are worries about a double-dip recession and because it will choke off growth. That is not the Conservative position. But... do not believe [Labour] assertions that science spending has doubled. It has remained the same in GDP terms; it's up 40% in real terms. In other words, science has got its fair share of growth under Labour which it never had under the Conservatives. We are not in a strong position in terms of funding. It is amazing we do as well as we do, despite [the fact that] we are at the lower end of our competitors. And what we heard from the Royal Society report is what Obama is doing, what the Germans are doing, what the French are doing - is investing in science. Some of them used a fiscal stimulus; we had a VAT cut. We'd have spent that on green technologies."

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