Science and the General Election – the science community needs you!

General-Election-2015With only a matter of weeks to go until the General Election, and with the dissolution of Parliament looming on Monday, the UK is about to enter into full-blown election fever.

Understandably, science is never likely to be a ‘doorstep’ matter when it comes to election campaigning. However, a lot of the issues that are – health, wellbeing and the economy to name but a few – are reliant on a productive scientific research base.

It is important that Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PPCs) are aware of this and are encouraged (or reminded!) to support science and the scientific community as part of their pre-election campaigns. It is vital that they are aware that science can improve lives, underpin livelihoods and jobs, and drive economic growth.

Our current world-leading science base rests on the foundation of historic continuous investment. However, the science budget has been ring-fenced since 2010 which, in real terms, means that it has been gradually eroding due to inflation. It’s arguable how much longer the UK science community can remain world-leading without further investment to enable it to thrive.

There is a strong economic case for increased investment in science. Research has shown that for every £1 spent by the Government on research and development (R&D), private sector R&D output rises by 20p per year in perpetuity, by raising the level of the UK knowledge base (CaSE, 2014). Furthermore if Government made a one-off increase in public spending on R&D of £450m (5% of its £9bn total R&D spend), market sector output would rise by £90m per year, every year (Haskel et al. 2014).

At the last spending review, capital investment was removed from the science budget leaving resource spending behind in the ring-fence. Resource funding is funding for scientific research and for people; capital investment is for infrastructure and equipment. The Government have subsequently made several flashy announcements of dedicated capital funds for projects such as the Turing Institute in London or the Sir Henry Royce Institute in Manchester. (Cue media-friendly shots of George Osbourne or Vince Cable in a high-vis vest and hard hat.)

While increased funds for science are obviously a good thing, there are two issues which must be considered with such announcements. Firstly, decoupling capital from resource spending means that there may not be the skilled personnel to operate big scientific infrastructure. It is vital that physical infrastructure is matched with the appropriate skills infrastructure. Secondly, such Government announcements flaunt what is commonly referred to as the Haldane Principal. This states that decisions on scientific spending should be made within the scientific community rather than within the corridors of Whitehall. The Research Councils embody this principal and operate at arms-length from the Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS).

A number of learned societies and organisations have created materials to help ‘make the case for science’ in the run up to the election. The Society of Biology has a useful webpage that details key statistics to back-up the points detailed above. The Campaign for Science and Engineering have created 2015 General Election, a page outlining the ten actions they propose the next Government take to champion science and engineering, we support this call for action. They are also posting a series of blogs from PPCs in the run up to the election in which candidates detail why science and engineering is important to the UK and how they would support this as an MP.

The UK National Academies have set out key priorities and actions for the next Government to make the UK the location of choice for world class research, development and innovation in their publication Building a stronger future.

It is vital that securing a positive future for UK research and innovation is a key goal for all PPCs in this year’s general election. A way you can try to ensure this is to write to your own PPCs and highlight to them the importance of science. MPs and PPCs are often consumed by issues within their own constituencies so it’s importance to highlight how science has an impact in their community – you’d be surprised how big this can be! Aiming correspondence at the constituency level can be a real driver to encourage your MP to take action.

I recently wrote to my representative Sadiq Khan, MP for Tooting, to encourage him to include science in his pre-election campaign. Below is the letter I wrote – I encourage you to use this as a framework or a template for an e-mail (or letter) of your own. To find out who your current MP is, visit the ‘find my MP’ Parliament webpage.

If you write and receive a response please forward it to the Policy Team at the Biochemical Society at policy@biochemistry.org.

Dear Sadiq,

Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m Cat Ball and I’m Science Policy Adviser at the Biochemical Society and the Society of Biology. However I am e-mailing you in a personal capacity as a resident of Tooting Bec and one of your constituents.

With the dissolution of Parliament and the election on the horizon, I wanted to highlight to you the importance of the science community in the UK and to urge you to support it in your election campaign. There is an active cohort of world-class researchers resident at St George’s Hospital and as such, science has a crucial role in your constituency.

Since 2010, the science budget, despite having been protected from the worst of the austerity measures, will nevertheless have depreciated in real terms by up to 20%. In fact, it has now dropped below 0.5% of GDP for the first time in 20 years. If we don’t act now, it could take generations to recover.

In parallel, near-sighted policies on immigration, and inaction on the precariousness of the scientific career structure, threaten the day-to-day business of science, and those who depend on it.

Supporting the science community is the right decision for a number of reasons:

1. Science drives investment and growth

For every £1 spent by the Government on research and development (R&D), private sector R&D output rises by 20p per year in perpetuity, by raising the level of the UK knowledge base (CaSE, 2014).

UK research is cited in 10.9% of all patent applications worldwide (Elsevier for BIS, 2013). If Government made a one-off increase in public spending on R&D of £450m (5% of its £9bn total R&D spend), market sector output would rise by £90m per year, every year (Haskel et al. 2014).
 
2. Science improves lives

One eighth of the world’s most popular prescription medicines were developed in the UK (ABPI, 2014).

A change in natural habitats that causes a 1% reduction in sedentary behaviour would provide a total benefit of almost £2bn across a range of health conditions (Mourato et al. 2010).

3. Science creates jobs

The health and life sciences industry alone employs 176,000 people and has a £51bn turnover (BIS Growth Dashboard, 2015).

I urge you to support the science community and the science budget as part of your election campaign.

Best wishes,

Cat

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