Julian Huppert MP writes… Developing a future: Policies for science and research

Back in 2010, a survey by the Programme for International Student Assessment found that UK schoolchildren ranked 16th in Science and 28th in Maths among 65 OECD countries. Since then, little has changed.

For a country which has led the world in scientific discovery, and profited from those developments, this is deeply worrying.

We in the Lib Dems have a proud record of arguing in favour of science and research, and promoting it from the classroom to the lab. People such as Dr Evan Harris and now-Lord Phil Willis have made sure that we are seen as a pro-science party; the Guardian concluded in 2010 ‘the Liberal Democrats have set a very high standard, with their engagement with the scientific community, and their commitment to evidence-based policy informed by advice from independent experts’.

However, we haven’t published a policy paper in this area since 1991.

I am pleased that, after much discussion, the Coalition Government kept science revenue funding the same in cash terms, sparing it the cuts faced in other areas. However, a cash freeze (and cuts in capital funding) are still not good enough, and we need to look beyond direct science spending, at areas such as education.

On the Monday morning of Conference, Party Members will have the chance to debate a new science policy. Entitled ‘Developing a future: Policies for science and research’, this paper aims to set a clear vision and direction to promote all forms of research – including natural sciences, engineering, computing, the humanities, medicine and social sciences.

We need a long-term funding solution which will give scientists and businesses the confidence to locate in Britain and invest their time, effort and money. I am calling for a 15-year annual increase in a ringfenced Science Budget, of 3% more than inflation. Obviously we can’t deliver this on our own, and I have contacted the other Parties to see if they will support us in this essential investment for the UK economy.

In the long term, this money will bring returns. The Wellcome Trust, MRC and Academy of Medical Sciences found that every pound invested in medical research generates an ongoing return of 30p per year.

How this money is spent is vital. Blue skies research – the sort that ultimately goes on to produces lasers, monoclonal antibodies and the internet – is essential, but we also need to boost industrial R&D. I have suggested a range of approaches, from prizes, R&D tax credits, improved SME procurement and SMART awards to a UK Life Sciences Investment Fund.

To ensure that UK science research is world-leading, we need to have the brightest minds performing it. For that to happen, we need to improve every aspect, from improving STEM teacher provision in primary schools, to making it more affordable for graduate students to pay the costs of their studies.

Currently, most graduate students have to pay up-front sums, borrowing the money from family or banks. I propose extending income-contingent loans for graduate students, so that they only pay the cost back when they are earning. We also need to make the best use of the people we already have in the UK – attracting and keeping more women and people from poorer socio-economic backgrounds in science and research.

Moreover, we should encourage international students to come here to study, paying as they go, and we should want the brightest and the best to stay here to work – without facing bureaucracy and challenges when they try to get a visa. The government’s own estimates of the cost of their student visa changes is £2.4 billion – money that we can use in so many better ways.

Lastly, the paper deals with a range of aspects of how science is used in public policy-making, and how people can access the information produced.

I believe we should strengthen the role of Chief Scientific Advisors, create a Chief Social Science Advisor and establish an independent Office of Science Responsibility, to ensure that Ministers and civil servants can have access to the best evidence when making decisions – and know that if they misuse the evidence, they will be called up on it.

My aim with this paper isn’t just to have a theoretical discussion about a dream science policy – it’s a program that I believe could be implemented now. A program that could start straight away to benefit the UK economy, as well as setting a trajectory for the next decades and inspiring a future generation to find science and research interesting and fun.

* Julian Huppert was the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge from 2010-15

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16 Comments

  • Peter Watson 19th Sep '12 - 2:13pm

    This looks like a good initiative and hope it is successful.
    It is a great shame that a politician like Evan Harris was lost to parliament, especially since it appeared to result from a lot of negative ‘anti-science’ attacks with a resulting unexpected swing to our coalition partners.
    We now find ourselves in a political landscape where a PPE degree and debating skills win out every time against scientific qualifications and an evidence-based approach; a proponent of homoeopathy is in charge of the health department; and we are in close partnership with a party packed with those who ignore scientific evidence over issues ranging from climate change to badger culling.
    Looking at our media and the social landscape, we have the Mail and Express misreporting scientific research to inform us on a weekly basis of the next thing that will kill us or save us, yet it is scientists who are maligned and depicted as inconsistent (just think of the MMR debacle), and the public have their opinions shaped by information from the same newspapers that publish horoscopes.
    You will certainly have your work cut out, but I welcome any work which helps to educate and produce a population with a better understanding of science; which ensures that scientific research is something we do over here and something we exploit over here; and which ensures that an evidence-based scientific approach is at the heart of government policy.

  • Richard Dean 19th Sep '12 - 3:23pm

    This does look good. But perhaps we should beware of a totally Brave New World.

    As a practicing scientist, I recognize that my interest in science started very early – at 7 or 8 I was asking what fire was, and working out how to work out the safest route from home to the shops. It was parental support as much as anything else that guided me into where I am now. Using myself as a research subject, I find that parenting skills and freedom from poverty are as important to scientific development as money, skilled people, and infrastructure.

    Now that I am old and cynical, I am a little less impressed by scientific evidence than I used to be. My cardiologist was horrified to learn two years ago that I drink strong coffee, but I’ve read recently that the new science says coffee is good for the heart! I remember East Anglia, and I know from experience that the process or peer-review of scientific papers can be flawed. Research sometimes focuses on a small aspect of a problem, and that is not always the critical one. In social science in particular, the existence of unconscious bias in a researcher, as well as the effect a researcher has on the phenomenon being researched, is well known but often rather poorly mitigated.

    And are we talking about science as an income-generating industry or as a way of improving people’s lives? Sure, if our place in the world is to be a power in the industry of science, we need to attract the best minds globally to come do their science here. But if we want out ourselves to be less swayed by prejudice and superstition, then it’s our own population that we need to attract to science.

    A belief in a scientific method is just as much a belief as is a belief in God. I think that science needs a human face, and that our lives will be poorer if science comes to dominate the way we make choices and the ways we behave.

    There’s lots more to say and I hope you have a great debate.

  • Richard Dean

    What do you mean by a belief in scientific method is just as much a belief as is a belief in God? Are you sure about that. Surely the scientific method is a way that your views have to be supported by evidence and it the evidence disproves a hypothesis then that hypothesis should be amended or rejected? A belief in God is based on faith and evidence does not come into i.

    I would agree that the application of the scientific method is sometimes flawed and that scientists need to communicate better but I cannot accept the two are the same

    The point on convincing the population is fair but it takes two to tango. Better communication by scientists is one area for improvement but the west, and especially the UK, has a love of the amateur and the non-expert. Anyone who is an expert in a field, especially science, is treated with suspicion and those with nice simplistic black/white arguments that pander to ignorance are much more easily accepted. Remember that science is often a grey zone and unless people are educated to understand this then it will be difficult to change their attitudes

    I would echo the comments above about Evan Harris, a huge loss to Parliament, although I would think he would have found it difficult working with a Health Secretary who believes in homeopathy!

  • Richard Dean 19th Sep '12 - 5:10pm

    Evolution is God’s way of creating things. I believe in evolution, therefore I believe in God! And vice versa. Talk to religious cholars and they will have no worries at all giving you evidence in their theories, and ways to test them.

  • Richard Dean 19th Sep '12 - 5:11pm

    scholars!

  • Part of the problem is politicians!

    We need politicians to be science-led and prompt science-led decision making on those issues where it is relevant, some recent/current examples being EU fisheries policy, Bovine TB prevention …

    I think Julian, graduate debt and visa issues are distractions, first focus on improving the level of scientific R&D in this country.

  • So, Richard, as a practising scientist why were you sometime back advancing ludicrous ideas in support of your own views on global climate change? Which as a scientist you must have known to be flawed? Were you just trying to get a reaction?

  • Richard Dean

    can you give me some examples of these testable hypotheses put forward by religious scholars.

    Your comments on evolution are an example. Evolution has been tested time and again and passed from hypothesis to theory. Scientists accept this. You and the church then say it is driven by God which allows you to appropriate evolution as being consistent with religious theory (not true for all Christians though and definitely needs some creative interpretation of your religious text). The fact that God is an unprovable concept holds no worries for you but for a true scientist it is an untestable hypothesis (unless you can give me an experimental proposal) which carries no weight and so should be disregarded

  • Richard Dean 19th Sep '12 - 5:36pm

    I wonder why some people stoop to personalizing debate so much?

    My ideas are not ludicrous.

    Scientific ideas are tested, not by proofs, but by the process of falsification. They are not “true”, they are either “falsified” or simply “not yet shown to be false”. Read Karl Popper for mor information.

    Almost all scientific theories start with unprovable concepts. They are called Axioms. There is even a scientoifc theory that shows that no sicentific theory can be whilly self-consistent! Though that one escapes my failing memory.

    Does science explain why laws of science exist?

  • Richard Dean

    Yes science works on falsification – not theory is ever ‘proven’ and should be considered only as a theory (although as you say some axioms exist)

    This is completely different though than putting forward a hypothesis such as the presence of God, which could be easily proven by him bothering to show himself, but is not backed up by any reliable evidence outside anecdote. In that case a scientist should consider such a hypothesis as false until proven otherwise.

    I am agnostic as to the presence of a God – although I would say my agnosticism lies to the atheistic side rather than the former – in the absence of any proof. I would suggest any scientist who believes otherwise is betraying the concept of scientific method.

  • Liberal Eye 19th Sep '12 - 6:17pm

    I too welcome this initiative but beware the pitfalls of pushing on a string. The key question is how it is that, despite having a good record in research, the UK falls behind when it actually comes to commercialising and profiting from that research. I think the evidence is that industry isn’t holding its end up and suggest there are two principle reasons for this.

    1. The decline of UK manufacturing (and in particular UK owned and managed as opposed to ‘screwdriver’ plants owned by inward investors). Manufacturing, and the ecosystem of companies and expertise it supports, is essential to innovation as is now widely recognised. The link is from the US but equally true here.

    http://www.technologyreview.com/news/424598/innovation-depends-on-a-robust-manufacturing/

    2. Short-termism by UK firms. For large companies quarterly reporting to the stock market supercharged by the directors’ desire to pocket massive bonuses is bound to reduce time horizons. In smaller companies the difficulty is likely to be the scarcity and high cost of funding. I recently heard of a case where an innovative small company had to pay well over 30% for funding. The result is that in both large and small companies’ managers can only undertake projects with a high rate of return and that means that too many good ones are turned down.

    The implication of both points is that finance in the UK is parasitic rather than supportive and unless and until this changes we will struggle.

  • The key question is how it is that, despite having a good record in research, the UK falls behind when it actually comes to commercialising and profiting from that research.

    Having discussed this exact issue with a university patents officer, the important factor in commercialisation is to have a ‘champion’ for the invention, who will take it from initial research idea, research and develop it, see it through the patent process, and then to commercialisation and presenting it to companies.

    Researchers in the UK are often treated as disposable – the majority of researchers are PhD students, with no employment rights as they are classed as students, and a high turnover. Every year research groups lose 30% or more of their researchers, meaning knowledge is lost and innovation left undeveloped.

  • Richard Dean 20th Sep '12 - 6:04pm

    We should perhaps remember that research is more than invention, it also includes understanding how things work, how best to control processes, even simple things like what descriptive or quantitative measures are appropriate. An example would be research into gangs, why they develop, how best t re-direct those processes to achieve better outcomes. This type of research seems vital to improve the quality of life, but is it commercialisable?

  • Richard Dean 20th Sep '12 - 7:44pm

    Patenting is not always the best way to extract value from research. The Offshore Technology Conference (www.otcnet.org ) was set up at the start of the offshore oil and gas boom, by people who saw that best value could be obtained by freely sharing some key research findings. The money in oil and gas is in the oil and gas, so if everyone learns how better to find and extract it, everyone wins. Something similar is happening in the wind energy conferences (http://events.ewea.org/annual2013 ).

  • Peter Watson 21st Sep '12 - 11:45am

    @Richard Dean “Patenting is not always the best way to extract value from research.” This is pretty much the driving force of open-source software development, and has probably been the raison d’etre of academic research since time immemorial. These days, patents seem to have been subverted into a mechanism for preventing progress rather than promoting it: we see “patent trolls” stockpiling patents with no intention of creating anything, but simply waiting for the opportunity to extract money from somebody else.

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