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Is the future of science safe?

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As the seasoned news-watchers among you might have heard, a general election is upon us. “But Matt, what does this mean for science?”, I hear you cry! Well fear not, for I have gone to the effort of providing an analysis of each major party’s position on science so that you need not sully yourself in the act of reading manifestos.

UKIP

This party has the sort of relationship with science you’d expect to find in a Woody Allen film: dysfunctional, neurotic, but oddly engrossing. A notable science-win for UKIP was in 2014, when a local councillor blamed flooding on the legalisation of gay marriage. Prove him wrong, science nuts!

More generally, it’s clear that science policy is not a priority for UKIP. The party has stated desire to cut government spending and the tax burden, and for stricter reductions in immigration. These aims are broadly at odds with the wishes of the scientific community. Stable levels of government research funding, and free movement for academics are unlikely to be top of the UKIP shopping list.

Green Party

You know your cool, avuncular, ahead-of-the-curve-on-climate-change cousin? Well, the Green Party is their political equivalent. One can assume they’re keeping up to date with Elon Musk’s successes with battery technology. In terms of policy the party is remarkably clear: increase knowledge to help address environmental issues. Such a position makes sense for a party intent on protecting the planet – if we’re going to kick our fossil fuel habit we’ll probably need to fire shedloads of money at scientists.

Nevertheless, one can’t help but wonder how much funding will go to non-climate related science. Caroline Lucas might be cool with paying for fusion-reactors, but will likely blanch at plans for a particle accelerator under the Cotswolds. What’s more, in 2015 the party was opposed to genetically altering animals – a position which might prevent vital research. So perhaps the party is less Elon Musk, and more a high-tech version of The Wombles.

Liberal Democrats

If there’s one thing researching this article has taught me, it’s that political parties in the UK do not have clear positions on science. A particular culprit is the Liberal Democrats, whose website handily avoids mentioning science policy beyond the threat caused by Brexit. While the Lib Dems calling for a second referendum is something many scientists would back given the EU’s role in funding and ensuring free movement of experts, Tim Farron studied politics at university. Can we really trust him with science?

Labour

By this point I think it’s clear that attempting to glue together fragments from previous statements and campaigns prior to the release of proper manifestos is unhelpful, and likely to be relatively inaccurate. Is that going to stop me? Obviously not!

Labour is committed to Brexit, which obviously presents challenges for scientists. However, since the party’s stance on leaving the EU is broadly “if you let us do it, we promise we’ll do it nicely”, it may be that they’re more willing to ease immigration by scientists and protect university collaboration projects. It’s worth remembering that in the 1960s, Labour was the futuristic party; you couldn’t see Harold Wilson without having him rant about “the white heat of technology”. It’s harder to see Corbyn similarly championing science, but he does have a Snapchat. So that’s basically the same thing.

Conservatives

My local MP is the current Minister of State for Universities, Science, and Research. I mention this because I find it remarkable that this is the case while I have no idea what the Conservative party’s position on science is. Are they in favour of science – in the abstract? I can only assume so, but there’s no reference to it on their website. Looking at certain members of the party, I’m left with the impression that the Conservatives treat science the same way I treat my fridge. I’m aware it exists, and it’s almost certainly a good thing – but I have next to no idea how it works, and so long as it continues working I won’t ask too many questions.

The Conservative commitment to Britain leaving the EU does pose a challenge– but their time in government has been accommodating to technological advances such as driverless cars. Whether voting Conservative (or for any party for that matter) will promote science is ultimately one for the soothsayers.

 

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