A ringfence is not enough

sunlight-over-picket-fence_w725_h544The party has recently been trailing hints of the content and priorities of the new manifesto. One released last week was an announcement touting a ringfence of the science budget. They write:

The manifesto plans include ringfencing the science research budget and introducing a green innovation arm to the British Business Bank.

It’s great that the manifesto team have chosen to flag investment in science and innovation as a reason to vote Liberal Democrat in the 2015 general election, but what a meagre and unambitious announcement this was. One worrying sign is the wording mentioning only the ‘research budget’, which raises the concern that this ringfence might be a fig leaf hiding underspending in capital investment for science, as we saw in the early years of the current coalition government – though the 2014 budget went some way towards plugging the gap in capital spending in the sector.

The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) have already published an article highlighting their concerns of the gradual erosion of our research base after five years of flat-cash allocations. They also highlight the UK’s slipping position in the global rankings of investment in R&D, falling behind the EU average and spending only three-quarters as much as the OECD average (as a percentage of GDP) on research and development.

The United Kingdom consistently performs well in being able to ‘do more with less’ in research output, but much of this will be momentum gained in earlier periods of investment, with well-supported researchers choosing to settle and build teams in British institutions, not to mention the global dominance of the English language in science publishing and practice. Today, early-career researchers are too often given a better deal abroad, while strict migration controls discourage many talented scientists from joining British labs.

Naomi Weir, CaSE’s assistant director concludes:

If we’re serious about science, and want to reap the benefits of a healthy science and engineering sector we need to invest.

CaSE wants to see Parties committing to setting out a ten year framework for investment in science and engineering on an upward trajectory that AT LEAST matches growth

The Liberal Democrat party made that commitment in September 2012 by unanimously backing the party’s science policy paper ‘Developing a future: Policies for science and research’, which proposes a 3% increase, year on year, of both the research and capital science budget for the next 15 years. The paper also proposes removing international students from migration statistics as well as exempting individuals with a doctorate or chartered scientist status from settlement restrictions.

The Lib Dem manifesto team have clearly identified that distinguishing the party on science and research is a worthwhile message. If that is the case, they should highlight the distinctive policies backed by conference in 2012 rather than merely trailing more of the same.

This article was originally published on Lib Dem Voice.