Doorstep Challenge: Put the Candidates on the Spot

As the General Election approaches, each of us becomes more powerful than at any other time, because the Parliamentary Candidates want our votes. They want to tell us about their views on issues that matter to us, and if we tell them that science matters, then they have no choice but to listen.

Politicians almost never say that they have no opinion about a subject. On all the important issues of the day, every one of them is quite prepared to tell you what they think about education, the health service, taxation, industrial relations, rural affairs, European integration, foxhunting, and the Millennium Dome.

But mention science, and many of them suddenly become very quiet. Science, they will tell you, is not their subject. They know nothing about it and, therefore, they cannot comment. They can vote in Parliament on issues like stem cell research and policy on mad cow disease, they can pass the Government's science budget without even knowing what it says, but they cannot actually engage with the scientific community.

This kind of attitude is no longer acceptable, because science is itself a mainstream political issue. You only have to read the newspapers or turn on the television to be bombarded with stories about BSE, the epidemiology of foot-and-mouth disease, measles mumps and rubella vaccine, the Internet, cloning, environmental sustainability, and mobile phones. Indeed, scientific issues now account for 6% of questions and debates in the House of Commons, so politicians need to take an interest.

Save British Science has been organising a series of meetings around the country to make sure that local politicians listen to what local scientists and engineers think in the run-up to the General Election. From Aberdeen to Aberystwyth, from Cambridge to Cardiff, and from Bristol to Bradford, MPs and would-be MPs have been put on the spot by researchers, science teachers, and high-technology businesspeople, and the results have been so fascinating that I want to encourage everybody who cares about science to contact the candidates in their own constituency and ask them a question about their views on science.

There are hundreds of issues you might ask about, but here are just a few ideas:

Career Structures for Young Scientists in the UK leave a great deal to be desired. Deeply committed graduate students, postdocs, and young lecturers generate much of the best work that comes out of the science base. But they are paid appallingly, and nobody can blame those who choose to leave science altogether, or to go to the United States or elsewhere, where the conditions are better. The current Government has gone some way toward improving the funding situation for UK science, but the Science Minister, Lord Sainsbury, recently admitted that low salaries remain a problem.

Ask the candidates in your constituency what their party will do to ensure that the UK science base continues to attract some of the world's best scientists.

The ways in which Government obtains and interprets scientific advice have not been good enough. The report of the BSE Inquiry said unequivocally that advisory committees had been used "inappropriately" and that senior advisers had not been given the freedom they needed. A culture of secrecy has meant that crucial information has been kept not just from the public, but also from Ministers.

Ask the candidates in your constituency about their Parties' policies on seeking and using the best scientific advice.

Science teachers in schools often have to teach material with which they are not familiar, because of a shortage of specialists in subjects like physics. In primary schools, the numeracy strategy has made progress by giving teachers who lack confidence in mathematics the materials and support they need to improve their confidence. As a short-term measure, a similar approach might work in secondary schools, while longer term actions might encourage more science specialists into teaching.

Ask the candidates in your constituency how their Parties will attract more good scientists into teaching, and how they will bridge the gap until the new teachers are recruited.

University students have intense financial pressures and the evidence is that many are being put off applying to go to university. This is particularly true of certain groups, such as ethnic minorities, those whose parents are not well-off, and women with children. Tuition fees are not easy to find, and the thought of running into debt frightens many young people. In Scotland, fees have been abolished in favour of a graduate endowment, and many people feel that this is a fairer system.

If you live outside Scotland, ask the candidates in your constituency how they will ease the financial burden of studying at university.

UK businesses invest less in research than their international competitors, except those in the pharmaceutical industry.

Ask the candidates in your constituency how they will encourage business to invest more in the knowledge economy.

You can find the names of the Parliamentary Candidates in your constituency by contacting your local Town Hall, or the local library or newspaper. The Political Parties all have Web sites that list their candidates. If you do not know what constituency you live in, Parliament provides an Internet facility through which you can look it up.

If you speak to any of the parliamentary candidates in your area about science, let us know what they have to say. Post to our forum or send us an e-mail.

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