From an outright majority in Parliament for the Conservatives, to the decimation of the Liberal Democrats and the extraordinary rise of the Scottish National Party, the United Kingdom’s election on 7 May was full of surprises — many of which will have implications for science.
For months before the vote, opinion polls had predicted a knife-edge race. But in the event, incumbent Prime Minister David Cameron was able to announce by lunchtime on 8 May that he would form a new Conservative majority government.
Although not all the political ramifications are clear, scientists should expect an emphasis on austerity allied to economic growth — a central pillar of the Conservative-led coalition government of the past five years. Ahead of the election, analysts at the Institute for Fiscal Studies in London said that the Conservatives' plans to further reduce the nation’s deficit would amount to £30 billion (US$46 billion) in cuts to spending by government departments.
Like the rival Labour party, the Conservatives made no promises before the election to protect science funding. In the past five years, the nation’s science budget has been frozen, and has dropped in real terms.
But Paul Nightingale, deputy director of the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, UK, says that there is support for science in Westminster, as well as a strong understanding of its relation to the economy. So cutting the research budget would be a “hard sell”, he says.
“Instead I think there is more likely to be movement within the research budget, perhaps towards innovation policy, as well as more explicit attempts to align research with economic growth,” says Nightingale.
He is not alone in this view. As leaders of the coalition government, says Naomi Weir, acting director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering in London, “the Conservatives provided relative protection for science and engineering, recognizing the benefits it brings to economy and society". She adds: "The new government will now have the opportunity to make transparent and ambitious plans for science, investing for the long term in a national success story."
The current Minister of State for Universities, Science and Cities, Greg Clark, was re-elected as a Conservative Member of Parliament (MP). But overall, there has been a high turnover in Parliament as a result of the election, which could present a challenge for the science community, says Mark Downs, chief executive for the Society of Biology in London.
The crash in support for the Liberal Democrats — the traditional third party — who conceded 49 of the 57 seats they held in the last House of Commons, saw business secretary Vince Cable lose his seat; he had overall responsibility in government for science and universities funding.
The loss of Julian Huppert, the former Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge, will also be keenly felt. Previously a biochemistry researcher at the University of Cambridge, UK, he was vocal on science issues throughout the last Parliament and was popular with scientists.
"The science community will have to work even harder to ensure that new parliamentarians understand the critical role of science,” says Downs.
North of the border, the Scottish National Party (SNP) increased its representation in the House of Commons from 6 to 56 seats out of a total possible 59, making the party the third-largest grouping.
The move towards nationalism in Scotland is likely to lead to a greater focus on regional development across the entire UK, says Nightingale. This could manifest as a tendency to allocate funding directly from the Treasury in London to regional projects such as the UK National Graphene Institute at the University of Manchester, he says, rather than through the traditional system of allocating cash through national funding agencies. This trend for direct funding began with the previous government.
One of the most certain outcomes of a Conservative win is that by 2017, the United Kingdom will hold a referendum on whether to leave the European Union (EU). Leaving the EU would be “pretty terrible for the UK science system”, says Nightingale, although he suspects that people will vote to stay in.
Even if Britain did leave the EU, it is unlikely that it would be cut out of European research programmes, says Kieron Flanagan, a science-policy researcher at Manchester Business School. But the country would feel the loss of cash from a different EU pot, known as structural funds, which are increasingly used to fund science-related infrastructure, he says.
Elsewhere, some scientists took to Twitter to express their disappointment with the election result. University of Sussex researcher Peter Coles tweeted: “Dear Other Countries, Any of you need a middle-aged bearded astrophysicist?”
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