Opinion: The Lib Dems are now the only party of science

Not that the press seem to have noticed, but international science journal Nature has just reported that one of the 22 prominent scientists who put his name to a letter to the Independent may not vote for them. Why is this relevant?

In 2001 and 2005 Labour won the science vote by a walkover. Nature’s survey reveals that this is no longer the case.

To scientists and engineers, the solution to the financial crisis is clear. Science, maths, engineering and technology must be at the heart of the project to rebuild our economy. A paradigm shift is needed inside government and in the nation itself.

In too many cases we still do not make the transition from lab bench to marketplace, from publication to patent or from patent to profit. Knowledge-intensive industries do not play the part in our economy that they could. And it is making us less prosperous as a result.

Neither of the other main parties understands that respect for scientists and a need for evidence based policy might actually go hand-in-hand with having an economic recovery based on technology. The Conservatives refused to provide Nature with anybody for interview.

The present government’s position in the scientific world, due largely to Lords Drayson and Sainsbury is overwhelmed completely by the attitude held widely held in both the Labour and Tory parties, defined by the case of Professor Nutt. By choosing to “play the man” rather than “play the ball”, they completely misunderstand the scientific method, and have enraged a large part of the community they are hoping will deliver future prosperity.

I work as a government scientific consultant and advisor on environmental and development projects in Africa and Europe. The governments I work for respect the advice I provide. Ministers have always treated me courteously and considerately. It embarrasses me when I see how our government just doesn’t get it, and when the Conservative science spokesman this January said that Ministers must be able to dismiss advisers even if they just don’t like them. This is not how scientists work.

To explain to people without a science background, let me share some words of the first science book my father gave me:

The intrinsic values of science include intellectual humility, and unusually acute regard for honesty and respect for the revolutionary and possible crank. They stress the importance of cooperation and intercourse across political and other boundaries.

“Such attitudes are not optional extras for working scientists – as they are, for example for politicians. They rise inexorably out of the pursuit of research, and in the long term the degree to which scientists live by them directly affects whether science flourishes or stagnates. For example, whereas a politician can afford to denounce any opposition wholeheartedly, and make personal capital out of any situation, a scientist has to tread much more carefully.”

(Bernard Dixon, The Science of Science 1989)

I’m backing the Liberal Democrats because Nick Clegg and his party take a different approach. The Liberal Democrats would safeguard the independence of scientific advisers by amending the Ministerial Code without delay.

* Chris Lomax is a Liberal Democrat Member in Bermondsey & Old Southwark.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • George Kendall 4th May '10 - 12:46am


    Below is the first two paragraphs from the Nature article which Chris Lomax referred to. Hopefully it answers your question:

    ‘Robin Weiss was one of 22 prominent scientists to sign a recent letter to The Independent newspaper, endorsing the United Kingdom’s ruling Labour Party in the run-up to next week’s general election.

    But Weiss, a virologist at University College London, is now unsure whether he will vote Labour on 6 May, partly because of his unhappiness with the government’s recent push to milk more short-term economic value from fundamental research. “I’m pretty pissed off with Labour as a whole,” he says.’

    See: http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100428/full/4641254a.html

  • anan damide 4th May '10 - 12:15pm

    It is good that the Liberal Democrats have finally engaged properly with science after not mentioning it all in their manifesto in 2005. However, it seems that you have not read the 2010 manifesto carefully. David Nutt and the Adisory Committee on Misuse of Drugs advised the cannabis should stay as a Class C drug, and yet Labour then upgraded it to Class B. However the Liberal Democrat Manifesto contains no pledge to downgrade back to Class C. In other words the “independent” scientific advice from the ACMD is there in the public domain but the Liberals do not seem willing to respect it by following it.

  • George Kendall 4th May '10 - 3:27pm

    The whole David Nutt affair has been very unfortunate. The sacking of David Nutt has undermined the independence of the Advisory Committee, but I don’t think David Nutt has been blameless in the affair.

    His role, as Chairman of an Advisory Committee, has similarities to a civil servant: giving advice to a minister. Some argue that policy should always be evidence-based, but I think we need to be careful here. In any political issue, there will always be factors which cannot be quantified by science. Science should inform the decision, but the minister should not be obliged to take that advice. We live in a democracy, not a technocracy.

    Prof Nutt argued that, as a member of the committee, he should be free to speak publicly about his views. If he had been an ordinary member of the committee, I would agree. But as Chairman, I think he should have been more circumspect, and avoided dramatic language criticising government policy. And, if he did feel so angry about the government not taking his advice, he should have resigned.

    But, although I think Prof Nutt was unwise to speak out, the Minister’s overreaction was far more serious. It has done serious damage, undermining the system by which independent scientific advice helps inform government policy.

  • I posted the following comment on the Guardian website last week:

    Here in Cambridge we have the opportunity to vote for Tony Juniper of the Green Party.

    Juniper is a Luddite who has done enormous damage to our potential for mitigating global warming through his hysterical long term stirring up of blanket opposition to genetic modification and nuclear power.

    What we need however is someone who genuinely understands the risks and opportunities provided by these developments (e.g. improved plant breeding good, genome patenting bad; nuclear power dangerous, global warming very dangerous).

    That’s why I’ll be voting instead for Julian Huppert (Lib Dem) who, if elected, will be the most qualified scientist ever to be an MP.

    Dr Julian Huppert – Research.

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