Last night I attended a cross party debate at the Royal Society. Hosted by the Campaign for Science and Engineering, this debate brought together all of the science ministers to discuss the future of science and engineering in the UK. Here’s what they had to say.
The debating panel comprised David Willetts MP (Conservative) Universities and Science Minister, Julian Huppert MP (Liberal Democrat) Former research scientist, and Liam Byrne MP (Labour) Shadow Universities, Skills and Science Minister, and was chaired by the BBC’s Pallab Ghosh.
There was a surprising amount of agreement from all parties on most issues, with one notable exception – tuition fees.
Here, I have attempted to break down the debate into the main points.
- Every effort will be made to ensure that the ringfence for science funding will be maintained. The Chancellor is increasingly convinced of the value of science to the economy, but not enough to increase the budget. David Willetts believes that the money we do have can be used more efficiently, i.e. sharing of equipment between universities.
- David Willetts indicated that future science capital investment is likely to be focussed on a few key research areas, mentioning the German Fraunhofer model and the Technology Strategy Board. Despite this, all ministers agree that there should be more support for ‘blue skies’ research, and less of a focus on immediately perceived impacts. This could be achieved through R&D tax credits, and fostering start-up companies who are willing to take R&D risks.
- Upon being asked about the difference between what the UK spends on R&D as a percentage of the GDP, compared to other G8 countries (we rank 7th), David Willetts believes that our output could not be considered overwhelming uncompetitive.
- Public Engagement and Industry Engagement are key to addressing the skills gap and diversity issues in STEM subjects. Julian Huppert believes that the trick is to inspire children at a very early age, and teachers with a strong interest in science are the vital for this. David Willetts would like to see scientists engaging the public more with the biggest, most extravagant science projects, using Bloodhound as an example. David Willetts believes there are issues with both the demand to study STEM subjects at all ages, and the supply of resources so that they are able to do so. Despite this, none of the ministers would like to see schoolchildren forced to specialise their studies at too early a stage.
- Ministers would particularly like to see more practical training at all ages in STEM subjects. For example, schoolchildren given the opportunity to get hands-on experience with large, sophisticated research equipment; similarly undergraduates in industrial settings, though placement and apprenticeship schemes. Recently, David Willetts has been able to secure £200M funding for this, matched by an additional £200M from universities.
- Liam Byrne in particular would like to see a reinvigoration of the school careers service.
- Increasing support will be provided for graduates wishing to retrain in STEM subjects, including part time study.
- All the ministers are currently fighting for improvement in immigration policy on research/study. In the meantime, we should focus on training excellent researchers from the UK, and building collaborations. Liam Byrne in particular would like to see the UK become the world’s best place for collaborative science.
- On the subject of women in science, Liam Byrne believes that the issue is too important to be left to the politicians. The merit of awards like Athena SWAN were mentioned repeatedly. An interesting fact: the number of girls choosing to study A-level physics is dependent upon where they live. 50% of state schools don’t submit a single girl for A-Level physics. David Willetts referred to the lack of girls choosing to study STEM subjects at an undergraduate level as a ‘national scandal’. The ministers did highlight the importance of breaking stereotypes, and having female STEM role models, but Pallab reminded them that this shouldn’t come at the expense of expertise. David Willetts described a situation where girls perceive non-biology/medicine STEM subjects to be ‘uncaring’, and not beneficial to society. He believes that we are failing children in that respect, particularly in educating children about the ubiquity of engineering. He believes there should be greater flexibility and support for girls who wish to pursue non-biology/medicine STEM subjects at an undergraduate level, but haven’t completed the necessary A-levels.
- On the subject of evidence based policy and policy based evidence, all parties acknowledged that the problem of policy based evidence does exist, despite the introduction of scientific advisors in all departments. David Willetts blamed bad policy decisions on disagreement between scientists, but later acknowledged the fact that he is not a scientist himself. He’d like to see more scientists in civil service positions. Julian Huppert suggested that we each check whether or not our local MPs are passionate about science, and take the time to persuade them if not.
- On a final note, David Willetts wanted to reaffirm the positive effects that public engagement and science communication are having on Government and public support for science.
So what does this mean in real terms?
- There isn’t any more money. So stop complaining, and start thinking for yourselves. If you can’t do that, collaborate.
- The lack of girls studying STEM is a problem. The lack of female STEM researchers is an even bigger problem that nobody knows how to deal with.
- Nobody knows what to do about the fact that we don’t have enough engineers RIGHT NOW.
- There’s going to be more of a push for foundation years in universities, and more mature students.
- The results of the REF are meaningless, as nobody cares about impact any more.
- Policy-based evidence will continue to be a problem.
- Science Communication is great. Do more of that.