BSPP News Summer 2001 - Online Edition

The Newsletter of the British Society for Plant Pathology
Number 39, Summer 2001 

Science Policy Priorities 2001 

The Institute of Biology launched a discussion document entitled "Science Policy Priorities 2001" at a meeting of the IoB's Affiliated Societies, of which BSPP is one, on 6th April 2001. The document is a framework of concerns raised by many of the Affiliated Societies which aims to provide an overall sense of direction. 

Launching the priorities document, Professor Peter Caligari (Reading University), vice-president of IoB and chairman of its Science Policy Board, said "Both those who formulate and implement UK science policy have a stake in the way policy develops with regard to the biosciences. While the IoB is pleased to continue its role in facilitating debate, the way forward should be led by the Affiliated Societies themselves. Societies are encouraged to discuss within their membership the issues raised by the priorities document and to feed these views through to the IoB. Societies whose Council or Executives which do not contribute to the debate, may find little future movement on their particular concerns. With this in mind, a summary of Science Policy Priorities 2001 follows, along with a précis of responses received from political parties. 

The principal areas of concern include: 

  • The state and status of the UK research community (top concern)
  • Researchers' career structure and renumeration
  • The post-genome challenge
  • Public understanding of science
  • Science underpinning sustainability
  • Education

Over half of all the comments received related to either the state or status of UK research, or careers and short-term contracts. Many of the contributions from IoB's Affiliated Societies concerned the need for a long-term perspective, notably: 

  • The short-term nature of much of current R&D funding.
  • The dominance of short-term contracts making science less attractive as a long-term career.
  • The need for a longer-term view to be taken regarding the post-genome challenge. Molecular expertise now needs to be applied to whole-organism and biological systems.
  • The need for greater "public understanding of science", especially that the research of today will have techological applications tomorrow.
  • Good science required to underpin environmentally sustainable policies.
  • "Education" as a long-term concern, as good education is needed for the next generation of scientists, industrialists and consumers.
  • The need for security of long-term research programmes.

The IoB made 12 recommendations. They include: 

  • Clarification by the Office of Science & Technology as to what steps will be taken to ensure the effectiveness of the Research Concordat on researchers' careers, and what steps have been taken to ensure that high-calibre researchers embarking on their career will have assured future prospects. Given the continued strength of feeling within the life-science community, this is a matter of great urgency that should not continue to be marginalised.
  • A review of the way science is funded across Government departments. Ideally, the Affiliated Societies would like to see a return to the early 1980s level of funding as a proportion of GDP. This would enable the UK to develop and support a meaningful strategy for science.
  • A review of the balance between fundamental, applied and policy-driven research in state funded research.
  • Identification of the steps required to implement the Independent Review of Higher Education Pay and Conditions.
  • A review of the balance between molecular and whole-organism research because it will be through whole organisms that many of the benefits from molecular biology will be realised.

All three major political parties responded to the Science Policy Priorities 2001 document. This is a précis of their replies.

Lord David Sainsbury, Minister of Science, replied for the Labour Party.
"We have followed a three pronged approach focusing on excellence, exploitation and building public confidence. British science under Labour is more confident, better funded and more enterprising than it has been for a generation. On entering office, we inherited a science base woefully under-funded. We needed to increase our spending on science, an in particular in some of the new areas which will underpin the performance of successful British companies in the future. The 1998 comprehensive spending review gave science the largest percentage increase of any area of public finance - a public/private package with the Wellcome Trust of £1.4 billion over three years. 

"The second part of our strategy was to ensure that our great tradition of experimentation and discovery was properly converted into goods and products. The government began that task by establishing the University Challenge Fund which provides seed venture capital funding for knowledge transfer within universities. The Science White Paper, "Excellence and Opportunity", established the Higher Education Innovation Fund to build on universities' potential as drivers of growth in the knowledge economy. And to help Britain attract the best scientists and turn the brain drain into a brain gain, we established a new bursary with the Wolfson Foundation and Royal Society to attract 50 of the world's top researchers with salary packages of up to £100,000. 

"Unfortunately, the last ten years have seen a deterioration of public confidence in science and scientists. The growth of the biological sciences and an ever greater awareness of the environment has led to an unprecedented focus on modern science. The controversies surrounding BSE, GM crops and advances in gene therapy have shaken traditional understandings of risk as well as faith in public science. Yet the recent study by the Wellcome Trust for the British Association showed a continuing belief in the contribution of science and the value of scientists. However, there is much work to be done by government, scientists and the media. Scientists must strive to communicate an understanding of their work, and the contribution of their science to health, the environment, and wealth creation. 

"The record of this government has been a strong one in science. We have funded it, we have set up the mechanisms for exploiting it, and we are building the foundations for stronger public confidence in it." 

Lord Sainsbury did not comment on one of the Affiliated Societies' main concerns, the career structure of researchers, other than noting the Wolfson Foundation/Royal Society "brain gain" scheme.

For the Conservative Party, Richard Page MP wrote a response:

"The Conservative Party welcomes this opportunity to add our views in this important discussion.  Conservatives will strengthen British science's worldwide reputation by encouraging both research itself and its practical application for the long-term benefit of the economy. We will encourage a culture of respect for the scientific method in decision-making, and greater public awareness of the value of science and its contribution to public welfare. 

"Public Understanding: The ongoing campaign against the activities of Huntingdon Life Science highlights the need for properly informed debate. Government has a responsibility to work alongside the scientific community to ensure an understanding of the importance of such activities. We will stand up for the organisations at the leading edge of research when they are faced with intimidation and violence. 

"Education and skills: We will allow our universities to take back their rightful place as the best in the world, allowing them to build new centres of excellence in research. Though our policy of progressively endowing universities with the proceeds of future privatisations and spectrum sales, we will liberate universities from existing financial and regulatory constraints which hold them back. Under our plans universities will have the autonomy to develop spin-out companies and incubator units on their own initiative. Universities UK have described our endowment policy as "one of the few schemes that could give universities increased autonomy and independence of action if the right terms are agreed". 

"Enterprise society: We have already announced plant to improve the tax regime for share options which can be offered because we recognise the need to increase new business and entrepreneurial activity. In encouraging such innovation, as in fostering an understanding of science issues, the media has influence in its representation of entrepreneurs. 

"Conclusion: In a global economy it is vital that Britain builds upon its reputation for excellent research. The celebration of entrepreneurial success and elevation of entrepreneurial role models combined with a tax system which rewards risk takers is effective at engendering an enterprise society. The next Conservative government will pursue such an approach." 

Mr Page did not comment on the career structure for researchers

Dr Evan Harris MP replied as Liberal Democrat Shadow Science Minister

"The four biggest challenges facing science and scientists are funding, careers, education and public understanding. It is important that some Government success on the first of these does not delude the science lobby into letting up on the growing campaign against policy failure in the other areas. 

"Funding: There is a vital need for significant real, increases in funding over many years. The Higher Education budget contribution to the funding of overheads and salaries of scientists in our crucial university departments has been a bitter disappointment. The Liberal Democrats recognise the need for continued and sustained real growth in science funding. The savings delivered through ethical reform of the export credit guarantee scheme which subsidises arms sales abroad, will be ploughed into the science base. Our commitment to raise income tax will deliver £750 million to Higher Education. 

"Scientific Careers: The uplift in research council funded doctoral stipends is welcome but must only be the start of a process of allowing our University labs to offer a living wage to the brightest graduates. Their plight is make worse by the deepening debt forced upon them as undergraduates by successive student finance policies. Liberal Democrats will: abolish undergraduate tuition fees and restore grants for the poorest students; raise the income threshold at which loans are repaid; raise academic salaries and reduce short term contract working to make an academic career more secure and attractive. 

"Education: The Government has failed to tackle the teacher recruitment crisis; in particular, there are chronic shortages of maths, IT and science secondary school teachers. The Lib Dems would pay trainee teachers a full salary at the first point on the scale. 

"Public Understanding: Never since the Scopes Monkey Trial has the scientific community been so concerned about the manipulation of public opinion against scientific progress and rationality that it is now. The Government's performance in defence of its policies has been woeful. With GM food it was unnecessary secrecy and failure to hold an early debate in public that caused many of the problems. An early concession on labelling and environmental protection would have forestalled much of the reasonable criticism and allowed the industry and Government to deal with the scare-mongering. A proper Freedom of Information Act as the Liberal Democrats propose will help the cause of progress not hinder it. 

Dr Ian Gibson, MP, Chairman of the all-party Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, replied:

"We really must overcome the problem of short-term contracts and provide researchers with a decent, secure career structure. The present situation acts as a disincentive to the brightest youngsters entertaining a career in science. Also, too much mental energy is expended by those currently undertaking research to secure the next short contract. 

"The public understanding of science is a phrase that has had its day. It is demeaning and implies a one-way flow of information. The challenge is to have a real debate with members of the public contributing on the basis of an appreciation of the processes of science and the limitations of scientific knowledge. The ethical and moral dilemmas could then be debated more rationally and progress made on the basis of sounder assessments of the potentials of benefit and risk. 

BSPP welcomes comments on the IoB's priorities from its members. Please contribute in the form of a letter for publication in the newsletter, of if you prefer to comment privately, to the Secretary, Dr Avice Hall. IoB's Science Policy Board will review progress on the issues raised in 2002. BSPP will be best placed to make a meaningful contribution to the debate if its members make their own views known