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High stakes for science in UK election

The new government may have to make cuts — but which party will slice deepest?

Robin Weiss was one of 22 prominent scientists to sign a recent letter to The Independent newspaper, endorsing the United Kingdom's ruling Labour Party in the run-up to next week's general election.

But Weiss, a virologist at University College London, is now unsure whether he will vote Labour on 6 May, partly because of his unhappiness with the government's recent push to milk more short-term economic value from fundamental research. "I'm pretty pissed off with Labour as a whole," he says.

Weiss is not alone. An informal e-mail poll by Nature of more than 260 researchers in Britain has found reduced support for Labour compared with the last election, and roughly a quarter of respondents said they were unsure how they would vote (see 'The science vote'). But, like many scientists in the United Kingdom, Weiss holds a dim view of the main opposition party, the Conservatives, who slashed public spending on research and higher education in the 1980s.boxed-text

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According to national opinion polls, Labour will struggle to get re-elected, but the Conservatives may not win enough parliamentary seats to form a majority government. The third major party, the left-leaning Liberal Democrats, is rapidly gaining support, and the election could produce a hung parliament, in which two or more parties form a coalition government. More than a quarter of the scientists polled by Nature said they planned to vote Liberal Democrat.

Regardless of the outcome, Britain's next government will face a soaring budget deficit, rising inflation and a sluggish economy, and it will have to move quickly to raise taxes, cut public spending, or both (see Nature 463, 410–411; 2010). How those cuts fall could dramatically alter the research landscape in Britain, says Nick Dusic, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK, a think tank devoted to increasing the profile of science in government.

The economic crisis could mark a turning point for a nation that, in recent years, has enjoyed relatively strong growth in fundamental research. Since Labour came to power in 1997, annual funding for basic research has more than doubled to £3.7 billion (US$5.7 billion), along with extra cash for university facilities and laboratories. But more recent actions by the Labour government have not sat well with scientists. The party has increasingly emphasized the need for scientists to show the 'economic and societal impact' of their research, and its new Research Excellence Framework (REF) will take such metrics into account in allocating research and development money to universities. Many scientists were also riled by the government's decision to fire drugs adviser David Nutt over his statements playing down the risks of the drug ecstasy, based on his research (see Nature 462, 11–12; 2009).

All three parties are courting scientists with their agendas, and roughly 80% of scientists polled by Nature say that the candidates' attitudes towards science will affect how they vote. Labour vows not to raid the science budget to fund other priorities, and the Conservatives promise a multi-year budget to "provide a stable investment climate for Research Councils". They would also delay the unpopular REF and review the metrics it uses. The Liberal Democrats have responded to the Nutt affair by promising reforms to "prevent government from bullying or mistreating advisers". Dusic says that, in a nation where roughly 3.3 million people have some scientific training, the commitments are evidence of science's growing profile (see 'A guide for the scientific voter').

According to Nature's poll, scientists see the Liberal Democrats as the party most likely to formulate scientifically based policies. Evan Harris, member of parliament (MP) for Oxford West and Abingdon and the Liberal Democrat spokesman on science, says that the party has a proven track record of respecting scientific advice on issues such as research involving human embryos. "Do we think there's a sizeable science vote? Yes we do," he says. The science supremos for Labour and the Conservatives declined Nature's interview requests.

Do we think there's a sizeable science vote? Yes we do. ,

The Conservatives seem to have seen little benefit from their science pledges. Only one in ten scientists polled by Nature say they would vote Conservative, and 70% feel that the party would make the deepest cuts to funding if elected. Martin Rees, an astronomer at the University of Cambridge (not speaking in his capacity as president of the Royal Society), says that despite campaign pledges, "the average MP from the party has very little understanding of science".

Ultimately, the tight financial situation is likely to be the biggest player in the election. Because of it, none of the parties has committed to increasing or even maintaining the current level of science spending. And none has promised to roll back the cuts already planned, notes Keith O'Nions, the acting rector of Imperial College in London.

Late last year, the Labour government announced that universities and research would face £600 million in cuts by the 2012–13 fiscal year. And there remains the strong possibility that universities and science will see further budget pressure. All will be determined by the emergency budget that is expected to be drawn up immediately after the election by the new government. "There are some very big questions that have to be answered," O'Nions says.

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Survey work by Sara Grimme and Fiona Watt.

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Brumfiel, G. High stakes for science in UK election. Nature 464, 1254–1255 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/4641254a

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