Science Debate

The defining difference between national preparedness for snow in a country such as the US and one that is less so, like the UK, is this:  in the States they carry snow chains in their car; in the UK we carry cat litter if we are lucky.

Preparedness – and more specifically preparedness for Government – is something that all the political parties will be trying to convince us of in the run-up to the General Election although I expect they’ll spend more time telling us why they think their counterparts are not fit to govern.

Last night I,  and over 400 others, attended the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) debate between the three main party political spokespeople for science: Dr Evan Harris MP (Lib Dems); Lord Drayson (Lab – Science Minister) and; Adam Afriyie MP (Conservative) held at IET in London.  If you click here you can listen to the debate again and I highly recommend you do so.

What I expected to be a rather tame affair turned out to be really quite absorbing. 

From a charity point of view I was encouraged by the respective answers each of them gave to an excellent question from Cancer Research UK about the role of charities and the Charity Research Support Fund (CRSF) – the mechanism which really is pivotal to the future of charity research funding in the UK.  But we undoubtedly need to probe them more.  During the exchanges on this question I was also interested in the extent to which each spokesperson expressed a desire to define much better the respective roles of funders and for Government to define how they themselves can be a good partner of charities in funding and promoting research.  And that presents something of a slightly ajar if not open door to us in the sector. 

But a word of caution also.  As seems to be so often the case, there was lots of talk last night about  ‘consensus’ and ‘agreement.’  So much so that I came away a little worried about the danger of us all becoming intoxicated by the mantra around partnership and consultation.  For we must not also forget our fundamental role in challenging  the political parties to think harder and deeper about what they are planning. 

Some of you may have seen the Russell Group’s article in The Guardian this week about the threat to universities of budget cuts (the Business Secretary Peter Mandelson has responded stoutly today).  Whether you agree or disagree with the Russell Group’s arguments, the fact is that it has stimulated a debate that now has gone beyond the funding issue to broader and more ideological issues about what universities are for.  And that has to be a good thing.

In the not too distant future AMRC will be publishing its own ‘Challenge to Government’ and I hope that all of us will take Evan Harris’ cue and use it to to ask of, and expect answers from, each of the parties to the specific questions that concern us most.

Only by asking the challenging questions will we be able to decide which party is planning to go into Government with snow chains or cat litter in its boot.

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