Yesterday Don Braben circulated to the signatories of his anti-impact petition the responses of our political leaders to a request for their policies on education and research in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). The request had come from the Campaign for Science and Engineering, chaired by Professor Hugh Griffiths.
The difference in the responses was revealing. The Labour Party sent nothing. The Conservatives, a rather informal letter from their leader (“Dear Hugh … Yrs, David”); the Liberal Democrats, a shorter and more formal letter (“Dear Prof Griffiths and Mr Dusic … With best wishes, Nick Clegg”) enclosing an eight-page policy document containing evidence of some serious thought.
I am guessing that the contents are in the public domain now, so my comments will be very brief.
David Cameron’s letter is very much politician-speak: “It is absolutely vital that the UK develops and builds on its outstanding record in science and engineering”. He does say a couple of things worth noting. For example, he promises to “postpone the REF by up to two years while we review the evidence behind this new system”, and on the subject of 25% of the assessment being for impact, “If we can find an impact measurement that is robust and accepted by the academic community, then we would adopt that. If not, we would remove it from the framework.” A bit weaselly in my opinion, but we should remember this and bring it up if they get elected and fail to deliver on these (though with “up to two years”, they can’t really fail, can they?)
The Lib Dems’ policy document is much more substantial; I cannot summarise it all, but here are a few points:
- They recognise that poor teaching is a major contributing factor to the lack of qualified people in STEM subjects, and propose specifics to address this (abolishing tuition fees, replacing the golden hellos for teachers by a graduated subsidy of student loan repayments, auditing the quality of careers advice, etc.).
- They promise to put pressure (backed by funding) on universities not to close physics and chemistry departments when demand drops.
- They recognise the bottleneck at postdoctoral level and will find ways of putting more funding into this.
- They would introduce exit interviews for everyone leaving publicly-funded research posts, to collect data on their reasons for departure.
- They support libel reform, recognising that scientific progress “utterly depends on criticism”.
- They will “ensure that when public funds are used there is a level playing field between conventional and open access publishing models”.
- They support evidence-based public policy and would introduce a Chief Scientific Adviser at the Treasury.
Interestingly, both leaders mention and support the Haldane Principle – defined by Cameron as “that decisions on individual research proposals are best delegated to scientific experts”.