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Science Matters: Why Science Should Feature in the General Election Conversation

13/04/2015 17:09 BST | Updated 13/06/2015 10:59 BST

With just 23 days left until the General Election, we're releasing our new series of political interviews, Science Matters. They're as interesting for what the politicians don't say, as what they do.

It should go without saying that each of the spokespeople deserves congratulating for willingly being grilled by our interviewer Susan Watts, formerly of BBC's Newsnight. The candidates aren't professional scientists themselves (with the exception of the Lib Dem's Julian Huppert), and are often looking after science as part of a broader political brief.

Each of them gave a pretty good account of themselves, and talked up the value of science. Labour's Liam Byrne said his party would be best placed to protect investment and training in science. The Conservative's current science minister, Greg Clark, said that his party's record in government showed their genuine commitment.

Plaid Cymru and the SNP's candidates, Hywel Williams and Alasdair Allan, both emphasised how they wanted to use science to further the renewables agenda in their respective nations.

Julian Huppert said that the Lib Dems wanted to work with other parties to increase science spending and open up science to more people, while the Greens' James Abbott argued that, as well as more science, we need it to be better used - moving funds away from military research, for instance.

Based on the interviews, which are summarised on our YouTube channel, we're sure each of the candidates could be a thoughtful and measured political ambassador for science if elected.

But what we really wanted to do with these films was get under the skin of each party's science policy. Each of them regularly gets quizzed on issues that are of interest to the scientific profession, such as the methods for allocating funding within universities or the future of scientific publishing. Our aim was to go beyond that.

There's a common mantra that the 'pro-science consensus' is a good thing, and the current Conservative science minister, Greg Clark, even said in his interview that we shouldn't be looking to create divisions when the parties agree.

But science can be divisive. Scientific controversies and ethical disagreements are common, with new ones arising regularly.

There are questions on how a good science policy might conflict with a good regional development policy; if the government is allocating hundreds of millions of pounds to a new research centre, should it simply go where the scientists believe the best-quality research is, or should political and economic questions of regional fairness also be considered?

Politicians also know that science can be part of our national identity; whether that's through scientific diplomacy, such as the help proffered to Japan after the 2011 tsunami, or less crisis-driven initiatives like the new QEII Prize for Engineering, help define how the UK is perceived on the international scene.

Each of the candidates talked up the importance of science education, and made (largely) promising but hard-to-evaluate pledges to support research funding. Most of them were also keen to claim that the other parties' incompetence or untrustworthiness on issues such as the economy or tuition fees were a telling factor in how good a friend to science they would be.

But, with some exceptions - for example, a liberal drugs policy for the Lib Dems, and more investment into renewable energy for the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and Greens - they were less able to articulate how people outside the scientific profession would see a real difference if they were elected.

You might think that this is partly a symptom of the slightly strange political times we've had over the past five years. Prior to 2010 there were battles over reproductive health and embryology regulations, animal research, and the extent to which government scientists could speak their mind to the public, and more besides.

These specific issues seemed to have died down; indeed, small 'c' conservatives across the political spectrum who have ethical objections to certain scientific advances seem to have been much quieter since 2010.

But during the current Parliament we've had anti-GM protests at Rothamstead, battles over the badger cull, and plenty of debate over the merits of fracking - not to mention generational challenges such as climate change and anti-microbial resistance, and advances such as new initiatives to get more girls into science & technology and the UK's leadership on hybrid embryo research.

By and large, the candidates steered clear of these issues, preferring to stay on 'safer' topics where it's harder to disagree. It's difficult to blame them for this; where their party doesn't have an established policy on a subject, it would be a stretch to expect them to break ranks and come up with something contentious - especially during a General Election campaign.

The political parties seek to differentiate themselves on issues such as the NHS, immigration, the economy, mental health, education, nationalism, the environment, austerity, and much else. But science rarely seems to rank as even a second-tier area for political differentiation, where a party's distinctive stance helps shape their identity - and yet science plays an important role in all of those subjects.

The British Science Association's vision is of a world where science is seen as a more fundamental part of our culture and society. We'd like to see a future where voters actively question their candidates on these sorts of issues, and when science isn't seen as something that's just delegated to the science spokesperson - why shouldn't it crop up in for a such as the leaders' debates, for instance?

Until then, we'll be continuing to work with people from all walks of life to grow the community of people who identify with science. If you'd like to support this work, please join us.