More than 200 leading scientists and politicians rendezvoused at the Palace of Westminster on St. Valentine's Day for discussions that were more straight talk than bill and coo. With speculation growing that a General Election will be called for May, the UK's major scientific and engineering bodies organised the meeting to ensure that science plays a prominent role in the election campaign.
They may not have any choice. Public outcry over genetically modified crops, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and, recently, threats to Huntingdon Life Sciences and the Alder Hey scandal has dogged this parliament and is unlikely to fade before the election. "We ignore at our peril the antiscience feeling that has developed post-BSE," warned Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund.
Prime Minister Tony Blair, with Science Minister Lord Sainsbury and Royal Society of Chemistry President Steve Ley, receives a Valentine's gift from the UK's science and engineering professional bodies. The cake reads: "We love science and engineering."
Although everyone agreed that better communication was crucial, both sides tried to shrug off the responsibility. Scientists came under attack from Conservative science spokesman Richard Page MP, who claimed that "scientists are Trappist monks when it comes to talking to the public." But Lib-Dem spokesman Evan Harris MP defended scientists' record on communication. He said that "Ministers have to lead the way" when it comes to issues such as defending the right of scientists to carry out legally sanctioned experiments using animals, for example. Harris paid tribute to both the science minister Lord Sainsbury and the Prime Minister for "the way they are prepared to put themselves on the line for science," but he suggested that this was not an attitude that was widespread throughout the current Government.
The meeting participants also took up the issue of science funding. Over the past 3 and a half years, the Labour Government has reversed the Conservative's 5% cut in funding and announced a series of cash injections, said Lord Sainsbury. If he holds on to his job following the election, Sainsbury has two priorities for the next term: improving science education at the school level and improving the salaries of scientists. Conservatives echoed this call. Page, a DTI minister under the last administration, said he regretted the Tory's budget cuts and promised that they would keep to Labour's spending plans for science if voted in.
Just how Sainsbury intends to fund an across-the-board salary increase for lecturers and researchers he did not say. But the Lib-Dems have concrete plans. Harris said that their 1997 election pledge to increase income tax by 1p in the pound to boost the education budget still stands and that £750 million of the resulting revenue would be earmarked for higher education. Of this, £300 million would go directly to supplement salaries, with the remaining portion aimed at tackling student debt. The Conservatives' plans for overhauling higher education funding are radically different. Their idea is to privatise the universities, providing them with individual endowments. Cutting the apron strings to public funding in this way would allow universities to set their own salaries to attract the best people, claimed Page.
Whatever the outcome of the election, it is certain that Britain's scientists will continue to press the politicians on issues such as salaries and career structure. And politicians will need the help of scientists to develop policies and strategies to deal with issues such as global warming and the aging population. "The science and engineering community stands ready to help the Government and parliament of the day," promised the Royal Society of Chemistry president, Professor Steve Ley.