With the General Election fast approaching, last week the Royal Society hosted a joint hustings event for representatives from the political parties to answer questions on science and engineering. Our Policy & Public Affairs Manager, Matthew Gibbard, discusses the key talking points.
Last week saw representatives of the UK's three main parties, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, enter a battle of ideas over their agenda for science at the Royal Society in London. The event was jointly arranged by the Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Academy, the Campaign for Science and Engineering, the Foundation for Science and Technology, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society and was chaired by BBC Science Correspondent, Pallab Ghosh. Combined with the release of the parties’ manifestos, we now have a much clearer picture of what the science and research landscape will look like on 13 December.
The debate saw three conflicting ideas of what Britain’s relationship with the European Union should be as we enter the 2020s. Stephen Metcalfe, who has represented an Essex constituency since 2005 as a Conservative and served as Chairman of the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, spoke of the need to ‘get Brexit done’ and end the uncertainty for UK science (and indeed everything and everyone else) while associating the UK to Horizon Europe, the incoming EU research funding framework. Sam Gyimah, a former Science Minister who was elected in 2010 as a Conservative in East Surrey but embarked on a political journey and is now standing as a Liberal Democrat in Kensington, argued that any Brexit would be disastrous for science.
Incidentally, Kensington, historically Conservative and an erstwhile seat of political diarist and lothario, Alan Clark, is, if polling is to be believed, a three-way marginal, which really encapsulates how much has changed in politics since June 2016. Snatched from the Conservatives in 2017 by 20 votes, it has been represented since by diehard Corbynista, Emma Dent Coad. This time however, with Brexit battle lines drawn and both remainers and leavers becoming more tribal and less loyal to previous party affiliation, the main threat to Conservative hegemony in this heavily remain voting part of the capital is Mr Gyimah.
The Parties set out their stalls
Chi Onwurah, who has represented Newcastle Upon Tyne Central since 2005 and is Shadow Science Minister, had the unenviable position of having to explain a Brexit policy that does not lend itself to a pithy campaign slogan. Labour wish to return to the negotiating table in Brussels and secure a new deal with a closer relationship, this would then be put to the people in a second referendum alongside an option to remain, in a process that they believe would take up to 9 months. Unsurprisingly, and taking the lead from her boss, Onwurah decided to focus on other things. Laying out Labour’s vision for UK R&D, she spoke of innovation being more state directed with a Labour government being ‘prepared to step in and take risks’ as ‘letting the market solve everything’ has failed.
Stephen Metcalfe said that his party would invest an additional £18 billion in UK R&D over the next 5 years. This would be a major part of meeting the pledge first made in the 2017 Conservative manifesto to increase R&D spending across the private and public sectors to 2.4% GDP. The current figure of 1.7% GDP means that the UK lags behind the OECD average (2.4%), the USA (3%) and industrious outliers South Korea and Israel (more than 4.5%).
Sam Gyimah spelt out that the Liberal Democrats wish freedom of movement to continue and that this is ‘vital to multilateral collaboration’ in allowing not only the ‘best and brightest’ to come to the UK, but also those who have the potential to be the leaders of tomorrow. Stephen Metcalfe said that we want the UK to be the ‘go to place for scientists, researchers and technicians’ and used his position as a backbencher to speak out against the imposition of a minimum salary threshold. The BSI has been campaigning against a minimum salary threshold as part of its policy work, so it is heartening to see members of the Conservative parliamentary party championing this too and we hope that, if returned to government, the Home Secretary will take notice of this when creating our future immigration system.
General election result
In a post-referendum world, it is hard to predict how many Commons seats each party will wake up with on 13 December. The polls currently give the Conservative Party a lead, but do the psephological models accurately depict regional variation? Do they reflect the slightly different conversations being had in Scotland and Wales? Will people actually cast aside long held party loyalties for the sake of Brexit? Correctly envisaging what millions of individuals will do in the privacy of a voting booth is very difficult; even the exit polls in 1992 failed to see an unexpected Tory majority of 21.
Tactical voting could also play a large part; though, of course, in previous elections around a third of people voting tactically actually did so the wrong way, and concerns have been raised this cycle about tactical vote apps and websites proffering bogus advice. In a display of how far politics has gone off piste, Tony Blair, (to be clear, the man who led Labour for 14 years, 10 of them as Prime Minister, and won 3 elections), has announced his desire for Labour not to win a majority, but instead for there to be a hung Parliament. Whatever the outcome, no doubt journalists will continue to have a wealth of copy as British politics enters 2020.
BSI Policy & Public Affairs Manager
To watch the full debate, please visit the Royal Society YouTube channel.