Science funding after the next election

While following the #stfc comments on twitter, I noticed that someone made a comment along the lines of “who’ll vote for the Labour party now”. To a certain extent, I agree. I certainly have no desire to see Labour win the next election. They have ultimately managed to do immense damage to some very productive areas of British science, and the UK doesn’t appear to be a better place to live now than it was before Labour came to power in 1997 (as an aside, my father – who left the UK many years ago – commented, when visiting recently, that politicians used to say “continue to serve” but now shamelessly say “remain in power”).

Something that concerns me, however, is the impression I have that many people’s automatic alternative to Labour is the Conservatives. The reasoning seems to be that the only other possible party is the Liberal Democrats, but they’ve never been in power and so the Conservatives are the only viable alternative. This really doesn’t make sense to me. As far as I’m aware the pre-1997 Conservative government was at least as bad as the current Labour government, if not worse. We surely cannot want the next government to contain any of those who were involved in the pre-1997 Conservative government (I’m referring here to ministers rather than backbench MPs). Admittedly I suspect very few – if any – of the current Conservative shadow ministers were in the pre-1997 cabinet, in which case they have as much experience as any of the Liberal Democrat shadow ministers. Therefore why is there a general assumption that the Conservatives are capable of running the next government, while the Liberal Democrats are not. It’s true I guess that there are currently more Conservative MPs than Liberal Democrat MPs, but all (or at least most) of those who would actually be in the next cabinet are probably currently experienced MPs.

As far as current performance is concerned, I think the Liberal Democrats have been quite impressive. Vince Cable seemed to have a good handle on the financial crisis well before either Alistair Darling or George Osborne. Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat Science Minister, seemed to perform quite well in an event discussing the future of UK science, certainly better than the Conservative Shadow Minister Adam Afriyie (there’ll be another debate in late January). Phil Willis has also, in my view, been a very good Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee (what used to be known as the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills). In fact, it was their report on STFC that prompted me to write this post. Maybe I’m biased, but the report seemed remarkably honest and straightforward and pretty much confirmed what many people had been saying. In particular, it essentially confirmed that a primary issue is that STFC was not formed with sufficient funding to maintain current programmes, saying

We remain concerned that the former PPARC community has been saddled with a £75 million (at 2006/07 prices) funding deficit derived from CCLRC to meet the additional running costs of Diamond and ISIS TS2, despite assurances from the Government that STFC would be formed without any legacy issues. We conclude that the combined budget of PPARC and CCLRC was never going to be sufficient for STFC to manage Diamond, ISIS TS2, the other large facilities and all the PPARC research programmes. This was noted by the National Audit Office in January 2007, and therefore the Government should have known and should have acted upon it. The fact that it did not has had unfortunate consequences. We believe that the Government should ensure that its original commitment to leave no legacy funding issues from the previous Councils is honoured.

Somewhat surprisingly, for what is essentially a government report and might normally be expected to be somewhat restrained, it was also very critical of the way in which STFC was being run, stating explicitly

Substantial and urgent changes are now needed in the way in which the Council is run in order to restore confidence and to give it the leadership it desperately needs and has so far failed properly to receive. This raises serious questions about the role and performance of the Chief Executive, especially his ability to retain the confidence of the scientific community as well as to carry through the necessary changes outlined here.

Of course, some changes have been made, but I suspect many would argue that these changes weren’t sufficient. The Science Minister – Paul Drayson – has now agreed in a recent press release that there are problems with the structure of STFC and intends to find a solution within a few months. My suspicion is that a solution to the structural problems will be found (even one that we may be happy with), but no real attempt will be made to resolve the legacy funding issues.

I guess this post started with a discussion of which party may end up forming the next government and has ended up back with a discussion of STFC. Let me finish by saying that I’m not arguing that everyone should choose the Liberal Democrats, rather than the Conservatives, as an alternative to Labour, or even that people shouldn’t vote Labour. I don’t belong to the Liberal Democrat Party and, in fact, am not a fan of party politics – I think the Three Line Whip is completely undemocratic. I am, however, worried that we’ll end up with a Conservative government primarily to punish Labour, rather than because everyone who voted for the Conservatives believes in their policies (maybe I’m not giving the general British public enough credit though). I also think that, as far as science funding is concerned, a future Conservative government may result in us harking back to the good old days of Labour. In truth, since party politics is here to stay I would actually rather we had three strong parties, than two parties who seem to be essentially the same as each other, or at least very similar. I might even be happy with a hung parliament. They can spend more time booing and hissing at each other in Westminster and less time messing about with things more to suit their political goals than to really make things work more effectively.

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