Tag Archives: science

LibLink: Norman Lamb Don’t let science suffer as the collateral damage in Brexit negotiations

Norman Lamb has written for Politics Home about the dangers to science from Brexit. He’s holding a debate today on the issue:

In today’s House of Commons debate, I want to get answers from the Science Minister on whether an accord on science and innovation is going to be struck, and whether the groundwork can be laid so that we can keep vital science collaboration afloat in a no-deal scenario. I also want to hear about whether he is making progress to strike a deal on participation in Horizon Europe—the 100 billion euro programme that will replace Horizon 2020. The Minister

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Jo Swinson debates ethics and artificial intelligence – and suggests the Lovelace Oath

This week, Jo Swinson held a Westminster Hall debate on ethics and artificial intelligence. While recognising the huge advantages of AI, there are some ethical challenges we need to do something about. Jo looked at this from a very liberal perspective, as you would imagine. Here are some of the highlights of her speech. You can read the whole debate here. 

I would like to start with the story of Tay. Tay was an artificial intelligence Twitter chatbot developed by Microsoft in 2016. She was designed to mimic the language of young Twitter users and to engage and entertain millennials through casual and playful conversation.

“The more you chat with Tay the smarter she gets” the company boasted. In reality, Tay was soon corrupted by the Twitter community. Tay began to unleash a torrent of sexist profanity. One user asked,“Do you support genocide?”,to which Tay gaily replied, “I do indeed.”

Another asked,“is Ricky Gervais an atheist?”
The reply was,“ricky gervais learned totalitarianism from adolf hitler, the inventor of atheism”.

Those are some of the tamer tweets. Less than 24 hours after her launch, Microsoft closed her account. Reading about it at the time, I found the story of Tay an amusing reminder of the hubris of tech companies. It also reveals something darker: it vividly demonstrates the potential for abuse and misuse of artificial intelligence technologies and the serious moral dilemmas that they present.

And then there was this:

How should we react when we hear than an algorithm used by a Florida county court to predict the likelihood of criminals reoffending, and therefore to influence sentencing decisions, was almost twice as likely to wrongly flag black defendants as future criminals?

And more:

…there is a female sex robot designed with a “frigid” setting, which is programmed to resist sexual advances. We have heard about a beauty contest judged by robots that did not like the contestants with darker skin. A report by PwC suggests that up to three in 10 jobs in this country could be automated by the early 2030s. We have read about children watching a video on YouTube of Peppa Pig being tortured at the dentist, which had been suggested by the website’s autoplay algorithm. In every one of those cases, we have a right to be concerned. AI systems are making decisions that we find shocking and unethical. Many of us will feel a lack of trust and a loss of control.

So what should be the key principles in our approach to these challenges?

I will focus on four important ethical requirements that should guide our policy making in this area: transparency, accountability, privacy and fairness. I stress that the story of Tay is not an anomaly; it is one example of a growing number of deeply disturbing instances that offer a window into the many and varied ethical challenges posed by advances in AI.

How do they work?

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Science and Brexit – now what?

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Not a lot of positives came from last year’s divisive EU referendum. However, one silver lining seems to be that science is being talked about by all parties, in no small part due to the efforts of fantastic groups like Scientists For EU. As a British PhD student starting to think about post-doctoral opportunities, I have a somewhat vested interest in ensuring that our national science capability is as strong as it possibly can be.

Brexit remains a serious threat to UK science, both directly due to the loss of EU funding (something that the UK had always been a big winner on) and indirectly through anti-immigration attitudes and policies that make attracting the best people more difficult. The best way to prevent this damage is to stay in the EU, but if Brexit does happen, we need to keep freedom of movement and membership of agencies like Euratom as a minimum. As a cautionary note, it’s worth pointing out that Switzerland lost full access to Horizon 2020 until they extended freedom of movement to Croatia. And Switzerland have the Large Hadron Collider.

However, Brexit isn’t the only issue facing British science right now, and it’s these lesser discussed issues that I’d like to focus on. The first is science funding. As a wealthy nation, our current R&D spending is embarrassingly low – 1.7% of GDP. That’s a long way behind the USA, EU, and OECD average, and it needs to be addressed (More in depth analysis here). There is some good news though: all 3 main parties have pledged to increase science funding: the Conservatives want 2.4% within 10 years, Labour want 3% by 2030, and we’ve pledged to double it (so 3.4%) in the ‘long term.’

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Science at risk – BREXIT and the dangers to Britain’s nuclear industry

One of the biggest fallouts from Brexit is the future of EURATOM, the European Atomic Energy Community, which manages the procurement and movement of all nuclear materials and waste across the EU, and JET (Joint European Torus), which is a nuclear fusion facility based in Culham, Oxfordshire.

EURATOM predates the formation of the EU but they are now legally entangled. The main sticking point for the Tories is their insistence on leaving the European Court of Justice which oversees the agreement. The hard Brexiteers’ obsession with the ECJ meant that while exiting the EU did not have to include leaving EURATOM, the Brexit White Paper made it clear that this is definitely going to happen if the Tories are in power.

This an important issue in Oxford west and Abingdon locally as the prospect of closing the £60m a year JET facility would lead to a direct loss of 1000 jobs in the area. But it goes well beyond that. JET itself it vitally important the UK as a whole. It is not only the centre for research into fusion technology which one day may be a massive contributor to the fight against climate change, but also includes cutting edge research that has led to breakthroughs in engineering and material science. Estimates suggest we make three times the UK’s investment back on the project thanks to spin offs and locally grown expertise.

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What “Brexit” would mean for British science

Editor’s Note: Amy made this excellent speech in the EU debate at Welsh Conference in February. We thought this would be a good moment to share it with you.

Science is at a seriously exciting time at the moment, helping crack growing problems such as global warming and cancer. British science not only needs funding from the European Research Council, but it also requires international cooperation in order to meet its potential, allowing new technology to be developed at the quickest rate possible. The great thing about science is that it doesn’t have international borders; the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva literally spans across two countries!

However, being left out of the EU will mean that it will be harder for us to collaborate as our freedom of movement will be more restricted. Without the EU, there’s no way we’d be able to recruit the best scientists as easily as we can currently, and it would become considerably more difficult to compete and cooperate with the EU as an isolated country.

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LibLink: Julian Huppert If you’re pro-science, you should be pro EU

There’s not enough Julian in these parts these days, sadly. In May just under 700 votes kept him from continuing as MP for Cambridge and one of the Commons’ few scientific experts. Today, though, he’s written for the Guardian’s Science column, saying that if you are pro-science, you really need to vote to remain in the EU.

Cambridge is massively pro-EU, for many reasons, but he highlights one in particular

The answer I think lies in another special feature of Cambridge: its world leadership in science and technology. We see this in the huge number of Nobel Prizes amassed here, 92 and rising; biomedical success, such as Humira, the Cambridge-developed anti-inflammatory drug that is currently the highest-selling prescription drug in the world; and technology leadership, such as the silicon chips designed by ARM, which now power almost every mobile device in the world. Last year there was as many ARM chips shipped, as there are human arms in the world.

All of this success, from pure research to the most applied technology, from huge global companies to tiny start-ups, benefits from our international connections, and particularly our role in the EU. We get large amounts of funding from the European Research Council – well above our expected share. Overall, about a quarter of the University of Cambridge’s research funding comes from the EU. Our students go on Erasmus exchanges, experiencing life and study elsewhere, and we get many students coming here from around the EU, benefiting from the free movement of people, enriching our cultural, academic and social lives – and spending their money in our city.

It’s not just Cambridge who benefits, though:

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An optimist’s view of globalisation

 

After 25 years of globalisation it should be self-evident to all that rapid technical advances and global competition creates winners and losers in society. I’m very proud to belong to a party committed to speaking up for those who are not benefiting from this brave new world, but even more exciting is the chance we have to be the party which best articulates how Britain can compete and win.

There have been some excellent posts on Lib Dem Voice recently about how the Liberal values of an open multi-cultural society, devolution of power and being pro small enterprise are exactly those that help give the UK a competitive advantage.  I would like to hear even more however about the practical things the country is already doing brilliantly in the fields of science, engineering and research & development and how our policies would help press down on the accelerator even faster.

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What is it about the Lib Dems that appeals to physicists?

We were intrigued to be told this week that of the 32 candidates standing in the election who have a background in Physics, 12 of them are Liberal Democrats. A blog on Physicsworld.com reveals all:

In the last parliament (2010–2015), five members of the UK House of Commons held undergraduate degrees in physics: Tom Brake, Don Foster and John Hemming (Liberal Democrats), Andy Love(Labour) and Alok Sharma (Conservative). Foster and Love are retiring this year, but the other three are standing again. They face re-election battles of varying difficulty, but overall, their chances of continuing to represent the Physics Party in parliament look relatively good.

As for the 28 29 newcomers in the running, three of them – Heidi Allen, Kevin Hollinrake and Chris Philp – are Conservatives contesting seats considered “safe” for their party. A fourth, Carol Monaghan, is the Scottish National Party candidate for Glasgow North West, where the nationalists enjoy a commanding lead in the opinion polls. Hence, my informed guess is that on 8 May, the Physics Party will have increased its representation by 40%, from five seats to seven.

What about the other hopefuls? Well, one or two of them (including physics teacher Layla Moran, who is standing for the Liberal Democrats in the ultra-marginal Oxford West and Abingdon constituency) might just eke out narrow wins, but most are going to struggle.

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LibLink: Layla Moran: Six ways to break British research

All parliamentary candidates are being deluged by emails from organisations and constituents on a huge range of subjects. One particular missive comes from Vote Cruelty Free which encourages candidates to sign up to the following six pledges:

1) Ban experiments on cats and dogs.
2) End the secrecy surrounding animal experiments.
3) Stop importing monkeys for use in laboratories.
4) End non-medical experiments.
5) Stop genetically modifying animals.
6) Stop suffering in the most extreme experiments.

Layla Moran, Liberal Democrat candidate for Oxford West and Abingdon has written an article for the Our Kingdom website in which she looks at these pledges and explains why she can’t sign up for them because of the effect it would have on British research and ultimately be worse for animals as research is driven to parts of the world where animal welfare is not taken as seriously as it is here.

First, a general overview and the benefits of well-regulated life science research:

On February 24, Britain took the historic step of legislating to make mitochondrial donation therapy possible, offering hope to those carrying mitochondrial defects and creating the possibility for them to have children without passing on the diseases that currently afflict — and usually kill — over 100 babies each year. But medical progress depends on a global ecosystem of life sciences research. Development of novel techniques to a level where mitochondrial donation could be trialled in humans relied on earlier studies using macaques, for example.

Britain is at the forefront of much of this research and, in addition, currently has the highest animal welfare standards worldwide. It is already illegal to conduct animal experiments if an alternative exists and illegal to use cats or dogs if a different animal could be used. Research on animals for cosmetics or on great apes for any application is banned outright. I’m proud that the UK has such high standards and proud that the Liberal Democrats have worked hard in the UK and Europe to drive further improvements.

And then she tackles the substance of the 6 pledges:

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Opinion: A lack of leadership on public R&D spending

 

Analysis from the Science is Vital campaign has been released with the worrying news that UK public sector spending on research and development has dropped to less than 0.5% of GDP.

Not only does the decline in investment put us at the bottom of the G8 group of countries, but it’s less than any G8 country has invested in R&D in the last 20 years.”

This is also less than the EU average, and the OECD average for public R&D spending. Science is Vital argue that this is a result of a flat cash settlement in 2010, cuts in capital expenditure, and significant reductions in departmental spending on research. The campaign for science and engineering (CaSE) have echoed this with an estimate that “The cumulative erosion of the ringfenced science budget will be over £1.1bn from the beginning of 2010 spending review period up to 2015/16.”

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The Independent View: Commons must debate key Medical Innovation Bill before election

Maurice Saatchi’s Medical innovation Bill has caused controversy and inspired a passionate debate on how doctors and scientists can and should speed up medical advance for currently incurable diseases.

The Bill is designed to do two things. First, it will offer clarity and confidence to doctors who want to innovate and move away from standard procedures.

When might that be relevant? In most cases standard procedures work and innovation is unnecessary. There is a vast quantity of scientifically validated data which supports standard medical procedures.

But in some cases – specially for rare and incurable diseases –  there is little scientific data and no effective treatments. In such cases, a doctor and the patient may face a choice, between applying the standard treatments, even though they are known not to work and will lead only to death, or to try something new.

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Lib Dem scientists announce their ‘Team Science’ candidates

Aldes — the Association of Liberal Democrat Engineers and Scientists — have put together a shortlist of Liberal Democrat MPs and parliamentary candidates who they think can play in important role in the Commons thanks to their background and/or interest in science.

As Aldes explain:

The Team Science campaign thinks that candidates with a background in science, engineering, technology and medicine have a great deal to contribute to politics and are currently underrepresented in Parliament. For this reason we are championing support for the following team of Lib Dem candidates in the 2015 general election.

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Opinion: A ringfence is not enough for the science budget

The party has recently been trailing hints of the content and priorities of the new manifesto. One released last week was an announcement touting a ringfence of the science budget. They write:

The manifesto plans include ringfencing the science research budget and introducing a green innovation arm to the British Business Bank.

It’s great that the manifesto team have chosen to flag investment in science and innovation as a reason to vote Liberal Democrat in the 2015 general election, but what a meagre and unambitious announcement this was. One worrying sign is the wording mentioning only the ‘research budget’, which raises the concern that this ringfence might be a fig leaf hiding underspending in capital investment for science, as we saw in the early years of the current coalition government – though the 2014 budget went some way towards plugging the gap in capital spending in the sector.

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LibLink: Norman Baker – I want to see the end of all animal testing

Norman BakerIt is, perhaps, unusual for a minister to declare that he or she would like to see the end of part, or all, of their job. But then, Norman Baker isn’t necessarily your average minister. It is ironic that, given his record as an anti-vivisection campaigner, he was given responsibility for the regulation of animal experimentation. In an interview with BBC News, he said that he wants to see an end to such testing, although he understands that it “would not happen tomorrow”.

Unexpectedly perhaps, the number of experiments using …

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Liberal Democrat scientists tell Juncker to keep Scientific Adviser amid pressure from environmental groups to drop the post

New EI Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has had lots of conflicting advice about what to do about the post of the Commission’s Chief Scientific Officer. Environmental NGO’s seem to want to get rid of the post while research organisations want to keep it. The Guardian reports:

The NGOs called the role, which was introduced in 2012 by current EC president José Manuel Barroso and has been occupied since then by a biologist at the University of Aberdeen, Prof Anne Glover, “fundamentally problematic”. Their letter argued that the non-elected role concentrated too much influence in one person, undermining research by the

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Opinion: Horizon 2020 means €80 billion extra science for Europe and jobs in the UK

If I say, “Europe gives us a wider horizon” you might think this was a general observation that uniting as a continent, doing things together, helps us see and reach further in the world.

It certainly does but I have in mind a specific horizon: the Horizon 2020 fund. This is €80 billion that the European Union has voted to allocate to scientific research in 2014-20.

A European fund like this means a big opportunity for the UK.  We have some of the best universities and other research institutions. They are well placed to apply for grants under this fund.  Already …

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Julian Huppert MP writes… EU budget boost secures UK’s position as world leader in science

Europe Day - European Union - Some rights reserved by Niccolò CarantiI heard some good news this week. It may not have grabbed the headlines, but the UK economy was given a colossal shot in the arm thanks to the European Union.

Lib Dem MEPs on Tuesday voted for an EU budget, which was overall lower – a 6.5 per cent cut – but crucially included a 30 per cent increase in funding for research and innovation. This is important funding, and a clear sign of what can be achieved to help …

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Vince Cable’s £10 million boost for biology business

Vince Cable has shown a consistent commitment to investing in science and the latest plank of that is unveiled in today’s Telegraph:

Vince Cable has raised £10m of investment from the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council to help entrepreneurial scientists working in synthetic biology to establish their business.

Access to funding is seen as the greatest threat to the survival of small companies operating in these fast-growth markets, said Mr Cable.

“The banks have walked away from SMEs. They’ve been badly hit,” the Business Secretary said. “I want to help these firms through the so-called ‘valley of death’.

This is part of

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Opinion: Innovation, Employment and the EU

Research, development and innovation are intrinsically linked to economic growth. In the UK we have a shocking history of underinvestment in science and research funding however this has been mitigated by the investment the EU has made into UK sciences, research institutions and innovative start ups. With the new EU funding programme Horizon 2020 coming into effect from next year there are high hopes for a new burst of innovation and the economic activity that brings with it.

The more innovation we have in the UK, the more people make things, the more our manufacturing sector increases and the more jobs …

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Opinion: EU Invests €22 billion in Research and Innovation

The European Commission is set to invest large amounts into research and development to create well paid jobs and generate sustainable economic growth and boost Europe’s competitiveness across a range of key sectors which also aim to improve our quality of life.

Over the next 7 years a partnership between the European Commission, member states and industry will invest €22 billion in innovative medicines, aeronautics, bio-based industries, fuel cells and hydrogen and electronics. With the aim of generating high quality jobs across the EU covering these sectors through public-private partnerships called Joint Technology Initiatives (JTIs).

The EU has seen its main competitors …

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Opinion: Spend on innovation to drive economic growth

At a time when we are seeing some of the biggest government cuts in a generation it may seem to belittle the suffering people are facing to complain about the effect of the spending review on the science budget. As the government is trying to reduce our debt to income ratio, they have cut the deficit but we also need to create long-term sustainable economic growth. For this to happen investment in science and innovation is key. Our spending on research and development is vital to drive forward economic growth and reverse the current stagnation we see in our economy.

In …

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EU funding helps UK punch above its weight on science

Yesterday, MEPs and national ministers in Brussels agreed on the new EU research and innovation programme “Horizon 2020”.

Horizon 2020 is structured around three ‘pillars’;

  • ‘Excellence in the science base’ – aims to strengthen the EU’s world-class excellence in science, particularly through a significant strengthening of the European Research Council, which mainly focuses on frontier research
  • ‘Creating industrial leadership and competitive frameworks’ – aims to support business research and innovation. Actions will cover: increasing investment in enabling industrial technologies and support for innovation in SMEs with high growth potential
  • ‘Tackling societal challenges’ – aims to respond directly to challenges identified in Europe

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Opinion: Building a stronger economy by supporting Research and Development

As slogans go, ‘Stronger economy. Fairer society’, is a pretty good one. But I can’t help thinking that we have a bit of an imbalance in favour of the latter. Pupil premium, raising the income tax threshold to £10,000, pension triple lock – great policies for a fairer society. What are the equivalent policies for a stronger economy? You might be able to think of a few, but they’re certainly not as prominent, and some positions, reducing the deficit for example, are not exactly unique to the Liberal Democrats.

Perhaps that’s alright though, there are probably many in the party more …

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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;

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LDVideo: Julian ‘most intelligent MP’ Huppert explains the Higgs boson to Andrew Neil

Two seismic events occurred yesterday. First, the Higgs boson ‘God particle’ has probably been discovered by scientists at CERN. Then, even more extraordinarily, Andrew Neil had a good word to say for a Lib Dem MP, as Julian Huppert offered a succinct summary of why it matters…

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Julian Huppert MP writes… A new Lib Dem science and research policy

Britain has an excellent track record in science and research, with many great figures in natural sciences, humanities, computing, computing, engineering and mathematics over the years. We continue to outperform other countries in our achievements in these fields, in terms of outputs per person and per pound. We publish 13.8% of the world’s most cited papers, and massively outperform other countries on papers and citations per pound spent or per researcher.

However, we should not just assume that this will just continue automatically, and the UK needs both a thorough vision and policies that support science and research. It is in …

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Conference gets its wish – drug policy review announced

Liberal Democrats are always looking for distinctive ways to show that the party is making a difference in government – things we can proudly point to and say “look, we made this happen.” This week’s announcement that the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee is to launch a new inquiry into drugs policy is one that activists, MPs and Peers alike can rightly point to as an example of the positive influence Lib Dems have on public policy.

There is now widespread recognition that the UK’s drugs laws are ineffective and expensive, with MPs of all parties signing …

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It’s not a science journalism problem, it’s a journalism problem

Late last month, Martin Robbins wrote a fantastic spoof of science journalism for the Guardian’s website – This is a news website article about a scientific paper. In his subsequent commentary on the reaction to that spoof he wrote,

Science is all about process, context and community, but reporting concentrates on single people, projects and events … Hundreds of interesting things happen in science every week, and yet journalists from all over the media seem driven by a herd mentality that ensures only a handful of stories are covered. And they’re not even the most interesting stories in many

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Opinion: science should be protected from the cuts

It’s been a heady week for British science in the wake of the Nobel prize announcements.

British reproductive biologist Robert Edwards was awarded the prize for medicine for his role in developing the in-vitro fertilisation techniques that led to the world’s first “test-tube baby”. In the same awards, the prize for physics was given to a pair of Russian-born scientists, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, who we are lucky enough to have currently working at Manchester University. Incidentally, Geim is also an Ig Nobel laureate for developing an experiment in which he levitated a live frog using magnetic fields acting …

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LibLink: Evan Harris – Vince Cable’s science spending cuts: how harsh will they be?

This morning’s news that Vince Cable will announce in a speech today how the cuts to his Business, Innovation and Skills department will impact on science attracted a vigorous reaction from commenters on the Voice today.

Former Lib Dem MP Dr Evan Harris — whose Political Science blog for the Guardian has quickly established itself as essential reading — has contributed his throughts to the debate there. Evan, as Lib Dems will know well, is firmly on the social liberal ‘wing’ of the party (a staunch defender, for example, of higher taxes for the wealthiest), and has great credibility …

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