With the 2015 general election fast approaching, Britain’s main political parties are starting to draw battle lines on key issues. But where do they stand on science, and what would they do differently if they form a Government later this year?

In the hope of finding out, The Royal Society last night hosted the Campaign for Science and Engineering’s annual cross-party science Ministers debate. The Minister for Universities and Science, Greg Clark MP, and his shadow counterparts from the Labour Party—Liam Byrne MP—and the Liberal Democrats—Julian Huppert MP—faced questions from the audience on a range of topics from science funding, through to education, immigration and business.

Watch the full event:

Investing in science

The first questioner challenged the candidates to make a commitment to increase funding for science, noting that the UK spends relatively little compared to other nations. All the candidates agreed in principle, with Greg Clark clearly stating that the UK should increase funding for science in the future, as an investment.

Julian Huppert made the case for a 15-year commitment to science funding—although the others avoided being drawn on this point—but the real disagreement came over where the money would come from. Liam Byrne pointed out that protecting science within the Conservatives’ broader deficit reduction plans would mean massive cuts to the rest of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

So if the money could be found, how would it be spent? Greg Clark referenced the Government’s recently published Science and Innovation Strategy ‘Our Plan for Growth‘ throughout the evening, noting that funding needs to be more agile and facilitate collaboration. The others appeared to support some change, but all were quick to state their allegiance to the Haldane principle by which decisions about science funding are taken by scientists, away from political meddling.

Higher education funding

How should the UK fund its Universities in the future? This question caused most of the evening’s disagreements. Liam Byrne stated that University funding is “falling off a cliff”, levelling the blame for this squarely at the Coalition government’s door. Greg Clark defended changes to tuition fees and student loans, stating that a University education is still “a superb investment” and that the repayment system is an improvement.

While Byrne wants to move from a loan-repayment model to a Graduate Tax, Huppert said that he would personally like to get rid of tuition fees altogether, although he admitted he didn’t know where he would find the money. The discussion of University funding was detailed and combative, and seemed to show that under broad agreements about the direction of travel for science, the devil really is in the details of the parties’ approaches.

Importing talent and accessing diversity

On the contentious issue of immigration, the candidates responded positively to the questioner’s calls to help scientists and engineers come to the UK. With criticisms flying of the current Home Secretary’s approach to immigration policy, Greg Clark stuck to the relatively safe ground of international students. Clark wants to grow the number of them coming to the UK, which has declined in the last two years, but Liam Byrne noted that broader anti-immigration rhetoric has been damaging to student recruitment. Julian Huppert accused both of the other parties of shying away from making the benefits of immigration clear to the public.

On home-grown talent, the candidates were asked what they would do to improve the diversity of the scientific workforce, but largely batted the question back to the scientific community. Greg Clark noted the lack of women and minority groups in key leadership positions in the community, and Liam Byrne emphasised the importance of role models. Julian Huppert noted that Government could take action by for example improving shared parental leave, to help women to stay in scientific careers.

Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock chairing the debate between Liam Byrne, Greg Clark and Julian Huppert (L-R).

Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock chairing the debate between Liam Byrne, Greg Clark and Julian Huppert (L-R).

Broadening support for science

Although there were clear differences in their policy plans, the debate showed support and enthusiasm for science among the Ministers. However, discussions about funding, education and immigration highlighted that many important policies are beyond a Science Minister’s remit; the candidates will have battles to fight within their parties—and perhaps with others as part of a coalition—if they are to form a Government that supports science to the fullest.

Beyond Government, Julian Huppert also reminded the audience that many MPs “just don’t care” about science; he urged the crowd to make the case to them that science is a constituency issue. Liam Byrne joked that recent films about Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking were “a masterstroke” in convincing the public of the value of science, another reminder that wider public support for policy decisions is important too.