With Hung Parliament, British Scientists Wonder Who's the Boss?

Deputy News Editor

Britain this morning woke up to an uncertain political future—and British scientists continue to remain in the dark about how expected government funding cuts will slice into research efforts. The Conservative Party, led by David Cameron, won more seats than any other party but not enough to govern alone it appears. This hung parliament leaves the country wondering whether Gordon Brown's Labour Party can somehow retain power through a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, whose leader, Nick Clegg, turned out to be more popular than the party's platform—Clegg's poll numbers had dramatically risen after several national debates with Cameron and Brown, but the Lib Dems may earn fewer parliamentary seats than they did in 2005.

Whoever ultimately grabs the position of prime minister, and it's most likely that Cameron will, British science has lost one of its staunchest advocates. Liberal Democrat Evan Harris, a longtime member of the House of Common's science committee, failed to retain his seat in the election, and scientists are offering a string of statements lamenting his departure. Liberal Democrat Julian Huppert, a rare practicing scientist to stand for election, might be able to fill Harris's shoes as Huppert won the Cambridge vote. The newly founded Science Party, the brainchild of science writer Michael Brooks, faired poorly in its debut as Brooks came in last in his Bosworth voting district—he earned just 197 votes.

Despite the best efforts of British researchers, science was never a significant issue in the general election, with the topic barely being noted in the three debates between Brown, Cameron, and Clegg. There were several debates among the science representatives of the three parties, but they struggled to differentiate their parties on most issues, including the central question of future research funding. Not surprisingly perhaps, none of the party's science advocates would specify which research areas would be cut to help address Britain's massive national debt.

On the assumption that Cameron will indeed craft a governing majority, ScienceInsider has used the Conservative Party's manifesto, speeches by its officials, and news interviews in other publications to compile the Conservative Party's position on some key issues related to British research:

Energy: The Conservatives have embraced new coal plants but ones incorporating methods to capture and store released carbon dioxide. They are also in favor of new nuclear plants for Britain, a position that could be tested in a coalition with the Lib Dems, who are opposed to nuclear power.

UKCMRI: This proposed biology superlab in central London, the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation, was developed under the Labour Party's watch and thus might be seen as vulnerable to looming budget cuts, but Nobel laureate Paul Nurse, who developed UKCMRI's science plan and will be the Royal Society's next president, has expressed confidence that the project has Conservative support for the estimated £250 million that government plans to spend.

Research funding: The Conservative's manifesto vaguely promises "a stable investment climate for Research Councils" and also pledges to "delay the implementation of the new funding system for universities—the Research Excellence Framework—and work with academics to ensure that there is a robust and acceptable way of measuring the impact of all research." Conservatives also promise that research grants will be reviewed on quality, not predicted economic impact.

GM crops: Conservatives do not oppose research into genetically modified foods and other crops, but demand strict regulation and labeling

Science advice: The firing of drug policy adviser David Nutt has led to a row in the United Kingdom about how the government should handle independent scientific advice. Adam Afriye, who speaks on science for the Conservative Party, has addressed the matter, saying, "We mustn't fight political battles over science. Science should be the least ideological area in government. It's difficult enough to raise the level of public debate about science, without unseemly squabbles among politicians."

Badgers: In a divisive issue that has drawn in some of the country's leading scientists over the past decade, the Conservatives come down in favor of selective killing of badgers to thwart the spread of bovine tuberculosis despite some studies suggesting that such culls will not be effective.

Environment: The Conservative Party accepts human-induced global warming is a threat to the planet's life and pledges to reduce Britain's carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. It also calls for creating "marine conservation zones" and would "pioneer a new system of conservation credits to protect habitats and create incentives to invest in wildlife."

Space: Cameron and his party want to develop U.K.-run satellite options to end dependence on others for space-based intelligence.

Animal research: The Conservative Party accepts the need for research on animals for medical purposes but seeks to reduce their use by encouraging the development of alternative methods.

Stem cell research: The Conservative Party has not opposed such research in the past.

Posted in Europe