With the UK general election looming large, it’s time to start thinking about which party you want to vote for – if indeed, you want to vote at all. There’s a host of regular issues that are wheeled out by the press and politicians; the NHS, the economy, tuition fees, the welfare system and immigration to name a few. It is increasingly difficult to distinguish between the UK parties on some of these important issues, making it difficult to decide who to vote for. If you’re looking for something a bit different there is one area of governance which, I suggest, encompasses nearly all of these issues, cutting through the endless equivocations and providing a handy short-cut analysis for those short on patience. That issue is science.
Scientific research and development (R&D) underpins the UK economy. Take the space industry, the UK’s fastest growing industry, worth several billion pounds remaining unfazed by the recent global depression. The UK life sciences industry is worth over £52 billion and employs over 176,000 people, and continues to grow. Moreover, the R&D output that is produced is fundamental to the future of the NHS; enabling it to deliver ground-breaking new treatments every year to fight, manage and overcome chronic and acute illness.
Progress flourishes when the best minds work together, and today’s global workforce means that getting the best people together necessitates a forward thinking, intelligent immigration policy – not one constructed on the back of fear and misplaced nationalism. Improving social welfare means inspiring and empowering people to change their own lives and help them when they can’t – the scientific model of evidence based policy is crucial in making strides into what is a vastly expensive undertaking – currently over £100 billion a year. People are arguably best inspired to make these changes when they are united by shared purpose and ambition, and if science R&D is given the resources to ignite the way, tackling issues that matter to the entire population, it will lift all areas of the economy.
The Department for Business Innovation and Skills has published a report that outlines the current coalition government’s commitment to the future of science in the UK. It is excellent to see this vision in action, but does it go far enough? Currently, spending on R&D languishes below 0.5% of UK GDP, well below the European average of 0.8%, further still behind emerging economies like Brazil (>1%) and a far cry from the powerhouses of China (1.98%) and the US (2.79%) (full list here). If these industrial superpowers and superpowers‑to‑be recognise the importance of R&D spending and are actively pursuing it, why then does the UK not make good on its commitment to become world leading, and start investing seriously in the country’s future. The UK already punches well above its weight with the existing funding, it does not take a professor to see that we could achieve even more with proper investment.
This need for investment has long been recognised by scientists in the UK, with the Science is Vital campaign and CaSE acting as major proponents for science in the UK. CaSE recently contacted all of the UK political parties, asking them to set out their vision for the future of UK science. Encouragingly, all replied with statements affirming the importance of science to them and the UK, but sadly only one party, the Green Party, responded with a pledge to spend 1% of GDP on science. Disquietingly, the Green Party are a party who openly oppose nuclear energy and GMO food; two technologies which are essential to meet the rapidly increasing needs of the country’s populace. This makes for opportunity that should be seized upon by others to state their case for improving the future, making now the time that the entire political class must put their money where their mouth is and make hard funding commitments that will see UK science launched forward, instead of worrying about falling behind.
UK science is something to be tremendously excited about. Your local politicians should be championing science at every opportunity, fuelling ambition across the economy and in our lives. If they’re not – and many of them aren’t – they don’t pass the science litmus test and don’t deserve your vote.
Written by: Oliver Coleman, Editor-in-Chief