Science ministers: the players

 We have a general election just around the corner, so I thought it’d be timely to take a look at how the three major parties stack up when it comes to the issue of science. Of course, they may be other issues you want to base your vote on, but science is what we do here.

First up on our rogues gallery of politicians who deem themselves worthy to be responsible for science is Adam Afriyie, conservative shadow science minister.  London born and the first black tory MP, Adam is currently in the Windsor seat. He’s been dealing with science since 2005 when he was elected and immediately joined the science and technology select committee. Although he displays a decent knowledge of scientific issues, he doesn’t have a scientific degree, but rather one in (snore) ‘agricultural economics’.   It seems like he is much more of a business man than a scientist; he’s been the chairman of various IT and communications companies and was a finalist – but amusingly didn’t win – Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2003.

I heard a talk from Adam a year or so ago, where he mentioned he wanted to introduce a ‘science induction’ for all new conservative MPs, so they would have a good grounding in basic science. Well, that sounded like a pretty nice idea to me.

I couldn’t find any information on this anywhere though, so I emailed his office to ask whether the idea had fallen through. Eventually I spoke to one of his aides, Daniel Gilbert, who explained the office were still in discussions with conservative whips and POST as to what to include in these inductions and how to structure them. I’m a little disappointed that there’s been so little progress on this issue. I can’t help thinking it might be like so much of what we hear from politicians; great in theory, but not actually as important to them as they make out. Daniel also told me the conservatives would be happy for their initiative to be implemented across all the parties once finalised. Taking the moral high ground he emphasised that they ‘do not wish to politicise science’. So far though, the other parties have been less than keen to get behind Mr. Afriyie’s idea. 

Dr. Evan Harris, liberal democrat shadow science minister is rather a different kettle of fish. Trained as a medical doctor at Oxford, Harris is shrewd, sciencey and liberal almost to the point of rudeness. He’s one of those people who seem to specialise in finding obscure but strangely valid causes for concern. He then lobbies hard for reform.  For example, he almost single-handedly brought about the abolition of the outdated blasphemous libel laws a few years ago. He has also been involed in a bill which plans to stop the tradition that only the eldest male in the royal family can become the monarch. If Evan got his way (and it seems that he will) this will change so the eldest child (male or female) can suceed the throne. All this points to him being a thoughtful and fair-minded sort of chap. 

He also recently wrote a piece in the Times Higher Education supplement in support of David Nutt, which seems comforting given the disdain that labour have shown for the former chief of the ACMD. It seems Evan really does care about using scientific evidence as a basis for principles and policies.

Completing the trio is the current science minister, Labour’s Lord Paul Drayson or as I like to call him, ‘El Baron’ (he is actually a Baron, so that’s not completely weird of me). Drayson has a degree in engineering and a PhD in robotics, so comes well versed in science. The reason labour like him so much, is because he has vast experience in turning scientific ideas into companies and profit. He’s been the C.E.O.  of a few companies including one specialising producing vaccines, so their hope is that he can use his skills to turn british science into economic growth.

I say that’s the reason they like him, but it probably also has something to do with the fact that he gives them lots of money. Scandal surrounds Drayson and his peerage, since soon after he had been made Baron of Kensington and a member of the House of Lords, he gave the Labour party £500,000. Coincidence?

The most interesting thing about Drayson, I think,  is his policy that we should  ‘focus on our strengths’ when it comes to funding science during a recession. For example he’s dead keen on investing in developing renewable energy from wave power; since we’re an island with thousands of miles of coastline, it’d be crazy to neglect our potential advantage in this market. That’s all fine, but it may mean sciences with a less than perfect track record here in  the UK are sidelined from reasonable levels of  funding, especially if Drayson doesn’t think they add anything to our chances of securing investment and profit in the long-term.

That could be bad for science. So called ‘blue sky’ research, that is research involving experimenting with things ‘just to see what happens’ (so no obvious financial benefit) is often where our most important discoveries come from. The UK currently makes lots of money from genetic engineering companies, but if Watson and Crick hadn’t done the basic experiments in the first place, then this couldn’t have happened.

So there you have it, the B21 take on the people who can potentially control the attitude of our country to science after May this year. What I want to know now is, who’s your favourite? 


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