This afternoon/evening there will be the second televised debate (C-SPAN in the U.S., around 3 p.m. Eastern) between the three major parties in the U.K. election, with a focus on foreign policy. The big deal coming out of last week’s first debate is the possibility that the Liberal Democrats – a third party – has gained significantly in most national polls. Since the U.K. is a parliamentary democracy where citizens do not vote directly for the prime minister, it seems a long shot that the Liberal Democrats would gain enough seats (they currently have about 10 percent of Parliament) to form a majority government (a gain of roughly 260 seats). The election is May 6.
But it does not seem such a long shot that an improved standing from the Liberal Democrats could make a coalition government necessary. (Such a coalition government would likely not last long.) As part of any power-sharing arrangement, the Liberal Democrats could obtain assurances of certain policy objectives, ministerial appointments, or other priorities. Like it or not, the position of science minister, even if returned to official cabinet status, may well be one of those “minor” jobs given to the Liberal Democrats as a carrot to join a government. I use quotes to indicate I don’t think the job minor, but realistically it is not considered a plum ministerial spot. Remember, these are politicians serving in the position, not civil servants.
Even if Dr. Evan Harris – the Liberal Democrat shadow minister for science – does not become science minister, it’s worth looking at the manifestos of each major party to see what they have for science.
The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) in the U.K. has done this. (As an aside, CaSE has done excellent work in pursuing responses from parties on science issues, much better than U.S. counterparts did in 2008. Whether that reflects the relative attention to science in that campaign or the organizational power of U.S. advocates is an open question.)
CaSE sent each party leader a letter asking for their positions with respect to science and technology issues. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have responded so far (while the Conservative leader kept mum on science before the campaign, now it’s the Prime Minister who has yet to speak on it). Of the two letters, the Liberal Democrats have offered more detailed proposals than the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats have also addressed issues of specific interest to the U.K. scientific community to a much greater degree.
Each party has also released a manifesto, in which you can see their language on science and technology, and get some sense (if only implied) of the relative importance they place on the issue. You can access those documents, and CaSE via the CaSE Diary on the subject (entries dated April 12 and 13). Outside of the issues I’ve followed in this blog (science advice, Research Excellence Framework, ring fenced budgets) or have seen reported extensively in the U.S. (hacked emails), I don’t know enough about some of the issues addressed here to comment effectively.
While it would be easy to say that the Liberal Democrats represent the science vote in this election, it’s not that simple. Certainly of the three parties they’ve committed the most resources to science issues in this election. But they are a smaller party aiming to hit some niche constituencies that the larger parties may take for granted. Also, in at least one science issue – the use of impact criteria in the Research Excellence Framework – the Conservatives have taken the strongest stance against it (delaying their use two years for further review). Dr. Harris, while talented in being an opposition figure, may lack the political skills or willingness to compromise seen by his counterparts in Labour and the Conservatives.
Of course, Liberal Democrat leader Clegg could get clobbered in today’s debate, rendering most of my speculation moot.