Leadership contest: responses from Tim and Norman

The date of the election for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats is now only 10 days away. Earlier in the campaign, we sent a list of 5 questions to both candidates, chosen from among many of the key concerns raised by our membership. We have now received responses from both Tim and Norman and, although many members have voted already, we hope they are of interest for those who are as yet undecided.

Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 20.11.48Response from Tim Farron

1. Research spending

The UK currently invests 1.7% of GDP (combining both government and business spending) in research and development. This is far below the EU target of 3% and below the EU–28 average of just over 2%.

Do you agree that R&D spending should be increased and how would you use your position as leader to make this case?

R&D is crucial for both Britain and globally – not least because if we are going to have any chance of tackling climate change we must invest in R&D on how to do so!

In terms of a specific percentage of GDP on R&D, I think it very much depends on the economic climate – it’s certainly a good idea in principle – but I would also want to look more holistically into how we fund and what we choose to fund. A big part here is played by Europe – we get more back in grants from the European Research Council than any other country, and our Research Councils depend on it for much for their funding so we must make this case during the referendum. It is vital that people who think we should leave the EU realize Horizon 2020 funds 33% of world’s science output.

Something that hampers science too is the issue of visas. Science works without borders and we must ensure access for researchers who need to travel. Having been a university employee, I am aware that we also need to improve research career conditions which is an investment in the future of science.

I hope that reassures you of both my commitment to the importance of R&D, and my interest in the whole question of how we prioritise, structure and get the most out of R&D.

2. Education

What policies should the UK government pursue to improve the standing of British pupils in international STEM comparisons and ensure that school leavers thrive in a knowledge-based economy?

Science education in primary school is important to ignite the enthusiasm of children about science.  Really good teachers are necessary, and I support having a scientist in every school, as well as STEM ambassadors into schools. It is important that we have a population that is more scientifically literate, and that can be helped too with coding and the integration of science in answers in the curriculum.

Science becoming more embedded in our culture now with scientists like Brian Cox popularizing it which is good, but we are still losing real talent later on – women for example because too many girls are either put off sciences or don’t study at A level. This means that careers are closed to them and scientific subjects lose the talent and expertise from half the population. I’d like to see the good schemes that encourage more girls and women to take up, and keep up, science like Athena SWAN continue to expand in our universities.

For the next generation of scientists in schools and universities I’d like to see the government show more support in nurturing research careers. For example, the last government gave MSc and PhD students access to loans which is a good step, but it is only available to people under 30yrs of age. I’d like to see that age barrier removed because it prevents people from returning to education to study science. Also the leadership in Institutes and Universities are not as representative as it should be – it is 72:28 men and women. I’d prefer to see it reach 60:40 as a realistic goal.

A lighter touch REF would help, as too much time is spent now making scientists  justifying what they do instead of letting them get on with it – or give them time to do some outreach activities like Science Week to help start the passion off in the first place!

3. Industrial and economic strategy

Under Vince Cable, BIS began to develop an industrial strategy and long-term approach to economic prosperity. However, UK productivity is still low and our balance of payments is edging further into the red.

High tech industries, such as space and biotech, are an area where we compete well internationally. Should we pursue policies to support strategic sectors in order to address our trade deficit and low productivity? If so, how?

Future success depends on scientific success and there is strong consensus about investment in science and I am proud that the Coalition government increased the science and innovation budget. The British are great innovators. We invent well and we design well. What we don’t do well is market and sell. Looking back at the amazing technological innovation of Concorde – an innovation which defeated NASA – was the result of co-operation between the British and the French (and we did the most exciting bits!). The difference in the aftermath is that the French developed an entire aeronautical industry on the experience, and we didn’t.

We need to support creative companies, industries and universities in design and development. But crucially, we also need to be on the ball when it comes to the payoff for all the hard work so the issue of technology transfer was important then, and it is vital now!  And this needs to be supported.

With that in mind there is a also strong case for support for strategic sectors and this includes housing and infrastructure in areas where the strategic areas of growth are.

4. Evidence

Both of you signed an EDM in 2007 supporting provision of homeopathic medicines through the NHS but then revised your support after a Commons STC report questioned the evidence in favour of homeopathic treatments.

What resources would you call on personally as leader in order to obtain expert advice and how could the parliamentary party make better use of evidence?

Systematic reviews and more support for real research are obviously important. I’d also like to see more openness and transparency in trial reporting because at the moment selective trial responses betrays trial participants and harms patients.

As a party we are lucky, FPC is stacked with people with PhDs and we have many members, and of course groups like ALDES, with scientific expertise.

As far as resources go, we have a party process which is democratic but still quite unwieldy. Many of new members who want to get involved in policy and will have expertise to give policy input may not know the arcane structures they feed into. The good news is there is going to be a consultation about policy process, as well as content which starts in July. This way we can find an even better way to make use of the evidence in our policy making structures.

5. Effective opposition

With only 8 MPs, how can the party effectively shadow government ministerial positions and respond appropriately to Conservative policy plans, particularly with regard to education, the environment, industrial strategy and research spending?

As most council groups know we cannot hope to cover every brief in the commons, so we cover core areas.  We have to listen to science on climate, crops, fracking, and food safety and use this evidence in our opposition strategy on the issues you mention. We do have many good peers and we have to use their expertise too to push for our policy in these areas. One of my main jobs will be to make sure our voice is then heard on the media so the public understands what we are opposing, why we opposing it, and what we would do instead so we can be an effective opposition.

Read more about Tim’s campaign

Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 20.14.42Response from Norman Lamb

1. Research spending 

The UK currently invests 1.7% of GDP (combining both government and business spending) in research and development. This is far below the EU target of 3% and below the EU–28 average of just over 2%. Do you agree that R&D spending should be increased and how would you use your position as leader to make this case?

R&D spending is a crucial investment in our economic future.  Not only does it directly create jobs in science and engineering, but it also makes sure we remain competitive globally in valuable sectors like pharmaceuticals and hi-tech manufacturing.

Britain is home to some of the best research universities, and leading pharmaceutical and engineering firms in the world.  We should lead the way in R&D spending.  As leader I would want to highlight and support some of Britain’s research success stories – and not just the big established firms (although these make a crucial contribution to our economy) but also our fantastic community of tech startups. We should also focus on the role universities can – and do – play in spinning out enterprises.

2. Education
What policies should the UK government pursue to improve the standing of British pupils in international STEM comparisons and ensure that school leavers thrive in a knowledge-based economy?

No child should leave school without a good grade in maths GCSE – and far more students should be studying maths to A-level.  Up to GCSE we should invest in extra maths teaching support, starting from primary school, so every pupil who is struggling to keep up in maths lessons gets extra 1:1 or small group help sessions.

We should also recognise that very many jobs – not just in science and engineering, but across the economy – will now require some maths skills beyond GCSE level, particularly in statistics and quantitative analysis, to secure employment and achieve career progression.  Pupils should therefore always be encouraged to study maths A-level if they have the ability to do so – even if it is in conjunction with other humanities subjects.

We should look carefully at why not nearly enough girls study STEM subjects, or go on to careers in science and engineering and take steps to address the imbalance.

We should also work much harder to address the scandal of innumeracy (and illiteracy) among a significant part of the adult population – which entrenches disadvantage, and leaves us with a less competitive workforce.

3. Industrial and economic strategy 

Under Vince Cable, BIS began to develop an industrial strategy and long-term approach to economic prosperity. However, UK productivity is still low and our balance of payments is edging further into the red. High tech industries, such as space and biotech, are an area where we compete well internationally. Should we pursue policies to support strategic sectors in order to address our trade deficit and low productivity? If so, how?

If we are to tackle the challenges of low productivity and increasingly negative balance of payments, we need to continue the work started by Vince Cable in developing effective industrial strategies to support growth in key sectors.

Crucially, these strategies need to be worked out and developed in conjunction with those key industries rather than simply being designed in Whitehall.  And we have to look rigorously at what works, and what doesn’t, revising and updating our approach regularly based on the evidence from each sector.

As implied above, a key priority will be supporting R&D investment (including potentially through the tax system) and making sure that our schools and universities are training a generation of young people with skills to provide our future workforce in hi-tech sectors.

4. Evidence

Both of you signed an EDM in 2007 supporting provision of homeopathic medicines through the NHS but then revised your support after a Commons STC report questioned the evidence in favour of homeopathic treatments. What resources would you call on personally as leader in order to obtain expert advice and how could the parliamentary party make better use of evidence?

With a diminished force in the House of Commons, we will rely more than ever on those outside our Parliamentary Party to develop policy and make sure our voice is heard on a range of issues.

We have some fantastic scientists in our party – not least the brilliant Julian Huppert, who will be very gravely missed over the next five years – and we should make much better use of them.  I would want to work closely with ALDES to identify ways that you can contribute to our policy-making on an ongoing basis, helping sense-check the decisions that we take in Parliament and identifying the key issues for us to campaign on in the coming years. We must also be willing to open up our discussions to involve Liberal thinkers from beyond our party to help us come up with Liberal solutions to the big challenges of our time.

5. Effective opposition 

With only 8 MPs, how can the party effectively shadow government ministerial positions and respond appropriately to Conservative policy plans, particularly with regard to education, the environment, industrial strategy and research spending?

We will rely on spokespeople outside the House of Commons, appointing experts from the wider party with credibility in their field who can speak for us nationally.  I would want to work with ALDES and other groups to identify the best people to fill these roles.

There will also be a crucial role for members of the House of Lords – many of peers have tremendous expertise and are widely respected in their fields.  I know our lords are determined to play as active role as possible in working towards our fight back!

However, we must not make the mistake of spreading ourselves too thinly.  If at the last election most people didn’t know what we stood for as a party, it will be that much harder to get our message across to people now broadcasters and newspapers will be giving us much less airtime.  We need to pick our fights carefully, and campaign on a limited number of really important issues that speak to our core liberal values.

Read more about Norman’s campaign