Sitting behind a Lib Dem Secretary of State on the Monday morning train to Manchester, the difference between this and previous Labour conferences was already apparent. There are the obvious signs: there are fewer MPs and fewer balloons, but also a new focus on pulling apart an unexpected opponent – a Tory-Lib Dem coalition.
At the Royal Society’s joint fringe event with the 1994 group, Shadow innovation and skills Minister David Lammy said, “the result of the general election in May was worse for this sector than any other part of the public sector”. He called the differences between Lib Dems and Conservatives “too marked” for a joint strategy, leaving the coalition without a clear direction. Vince Cable was described as a nice guy, but one who had not yet spoken convincingly about industry and science in the same way that he speaks about business policy.Lammy went on to criticise the coalition for having a strategy for cuts but not for growth. He added, “if there is no story on growth, and if science and research is not at the centre of that growth story,” then cuts will do permanent damage to our economy. He continued to argue that any economic plans should have a strong knowledge base at their core, saying that science was always central to Labour’s growth strategy – a nod to Tony Benn sitting at the back of the room.
Ed Miliband echoed this point in a statement to Scientists for Labour: “If we neglect investment in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] now, we will pay a heavy price in the growth, productivity and employment foregone in the future”.
Speaking after Lammy and Richard Jones FRS, Will Hutton reiterated the argument that growth comes from a strong research base. He went as far as to say: “I would cut the health budget before I cut the science budget. In fact, I would cut any budget before I cut the science budget.”
Hutton also discussed the future interdisciplinary nature of science. For him, interdisciplinarity makes for less predictable technological innovation. To stay internationally competitive the UK will need to stay strong in a wide range of disciplines. This is a point made recently by an eloquent letter from Lord Mandelson in the Financial Times, which I blogged on here.
With other nations investing in science, in Hutton’s view, “it’s game on”. The UK needs to retain its position as a world leader in research in order to secure its economic future. Lammy agreed: “At a time when France, Germany and China are committing to science, how can we walk away?”
At a time when nationally, we are focused on graduate taxes, top-up fees and youth unemployment, Lammy set out the key challenge ahead of next month’s comprehensive spending review of public spending. The challenge for his party, for BIS and for the research community is to make sure that the Treasury sees universities “not just as a destination for young undergraduates but as absolutely essential to the modern economy.”
Next week, we’ll be at the Conservatives’ conference. If you’re there, come along.