Glasgow SECC

SECC, Glasgow. By Dave Morris from Oxford, UK (Clyde reflection 02) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

After Labour in Manchester and the Conservatives in Birmingham, we completed our tour of the three main parties’ conferences with the Liberal Democrats in Glasgow. Julian Huppert MP, Liberal Democrat science spokesperson, joined us for a roundtable to discuss science and innovation in the UK jointly organised by the Royal Society, Royal Academy of Engineering, Academy of Medical Sciences and British Academy.

Julian highlighted the importance of science for the UK, pointing out that the economic future of the UK lies in knowledge intensive sectors that require investment in science. He reiterated his party’s commitment to a long term increase in science investment, emphasising that this is possible only if science is seen as above and beyond political divides, reaching a cross-party agreement on investment.

Research beyond academia

The role played by research beyond academia rapidly emerged as a key topic around the table, and interesting examples were presented of the wide impact of academic research. Collaborations between the academic and business sectors are vital for innovation, not only because of the greater availability and stability of funding that can come with business involvement, but also because of the broader range of facts and observation that academic researchers can access and investigate.

There was much agreement that businesses and universities should be peers in these collaborations, allowing both risks and rewards to be equally shared. A more open approach to intellectual property (IP) could also build trust and foster valuable collaborations.

Scientists, musicians and their publics

The public dimension of science was also discussed, and Professor Tom McLeish FRS suggested an analogy between science and music he further discusses in his recent book. Making music at the highest levels requires talent, skill and a lot of effort, but anyone can learn how to appreciate music and play an instrument. In a similar fashion, science should become a ‘public possession’ and a continuum should exist in science between amateurs and experts, with all participants engaging with and informing each other.

Power to the people

The discussion then moved to the shared responsibilities of researchers and society. Researchers alone cannot determine the direction of novel research and technological development. The table agreed that all stakeholders need to be engaged at an early stage to shape this and research funders should recognise the resources and time needed to do this effectively. New media can play an important role in opening up this new dimension of public engagement, and researchers should not be afraid of using them.

Emphasis was also put on people and the skills needed by the UK, and how to educate, attract and retain the scientifically minded people that research, industry and society at large will need in the future. Immigration and visa issues were discussed, and we rounded off the discussion talking about education, as many at the breakfast were heading off to an event on that topic. This left us with the reminder that our research and innovation policies need to start with science education. Science is about learning to think, not necessarily just about learning facts, and science education could be made much more exciting if this was kept in mind.