Science and Politics at a local level

After blogging about the manifestos of the three main parties, I thought I’d email the three main party candidates standing in my constituency (Frank Dobson (Labour), George Lee (Conservative) and Jo Shaw (Lib Dem)) to find out what their personal views on these kind of issues are, so I sent them the following email:

Dear …,

I am writing to you and the candidates from the other major parties to find out your views on science and education issues in the General Election and I will be posting all responses to my blog at and updating the Skeptical Voter wikipage ( so that all can see where you stand. I think these issues are particularly pertinent to this constituency given the large number of HE institutions within it, so I hope you will find time to answer these questions.

Do you support the use of public funds to provide unproven health products such as homeopathy? Including funding of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital within the constituency?
Do you agree that testing on animals (within strict criteria) is a necessary part of the development of medicines?
Do you believe the science budget represents a sound investment? Will you act to protect science funding?
Do you support the concept of tuition fees/top-up fees, along with any cap?
Is a good Science education as important as one in English or Maths? Why?

I realise your party’s stance on some of these issues is clear in their manifesto, but I would really value your personal opinions on these and I know others in the skeptic and science community will too.

James Streetley

Some questions are taken from the Skeptical Voter Survey and others I have invented. Feel free to use them to quiz your own PPCs if you wish. I will post back as soon as each replies to me.

The Green Party Manifesto

Yesterday, the Green Party manifesto was launched. Last year I remarked (in passing and via a Times article) that the Green Party are not that hot on science/research in their manifesto for the European elections. This year in their general election video, the story is not that different, with some of the same pledges coming out to play. I have already blogged on the main parties manifesto commitments to science and education, but coming later than the other parties, and being sufficiently, well, interesting, I’ll dedicate a whole post to their pledges.

Firstly, I should mention that the word “science” doesn’t appear at all in the manifesto. However, they do have some pretty far reaching science pledges, such as this one. (emphasis throughout is all theirs.)

Immediately ban causing harm to animals (including but not only primates) in research, testing and education, and invest in the development of alternatives to animal experiments.

I’m not entirely sure I have the words to describe what I think of this pledge. Use of animals in research is clearly necessary for progress in medical research (as are humans and human tissue), despite being a fairly terrible reality. I think the BBC sums up the arguments in both directions quite well, particularly the quote from William DH Carey in a letter to the BMJ. This pledge would halt some aspects of medical research; killing people and disadvantaging us as a nation. To me this alone means I could not vote for a Green candidate. Strong regulation is one thing, but an outright ban is preposterous.

Next an onslaught again genetic modification (GM).

work for a complete ban on genetically modified food in Europe.

Here we have a technology that could help end some of the more dubious farming methods that their manifesto also discusses at length, and yet the Green Party are against it. The mind boggles.

Finally, they have this beauty on CAM.

Make available on the NHS complementary medicines that are cost-effective and have been shown to work.

Another “words fail me” moment. Cost-effective and proven to work, yes. We call that evidence-based medicine, though, not complementary. I think Tim Minchin says this best in Storm:

You know what they call “alternative medicine”
That’s been proved to work?

In the interest of balance, I tried to find some science policies that I thought were positive, but alas there were none. Education is at least slightly better.

Move towards ending the need for private education by creating a programme of voluntary assimilation of private schools into the state sector. Schools that remain in the private sector would have charitable status removed and would pay all relevant taxes, such as VAT.

Finally, something I agree on. I feel strongly that education should be provided on a merit-based system, so that the brightest, not the wealthiest, get the best education. It is both best for the best individuals to be well-educated and for society who will eventually reap their benefit from the output of our brightest. Making it hard for private schools to operate is a step in the right direction.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of great things in the Green Party manifesto to be excited about such as pledges on:

  • ban sale of eggs from battery hens
  • maintain and extend blood sports ban
  • increase spend on waste management and recycling

and other both predictable and laudable pledges that you would expect from the Green Party. Sadly just not in the areas that are strongest to me.

Overall: Pitiful on science, a party I could not vote for.
Full Manifesto

Science in the Manifestos

So following my earlier blog post on where the parties stood on libel reform, I thought I’d continue by examining another subject that I feel strongly about: science and science education. Now that the 3 main parties have published their manifestos, let’s see where they stand.


Labour were first out of the traps to release their manifesto, so it is only fair they get to go first.

[They] are committed to a ring-fenced science budget in the next spending review

This is great news, although an improvement and increase would be better. As Prof. Brian Cox has said (over and over), investing in science creates wealth, so an increase would actually help the economy in the long-term, and to cut it would make such a small saving in the short-term compared to long-term losses as to be non-sensical.

To help us do better in turning research outputs into innovation, we will provide focused investment for Technology and Innovation Centres, developing technologies where the UK has world-leading expertise

Not sure about this one; sounds very good, but we already have enough “focus” on impact statements for researchers and trying to second-guess how useful the research will be. The problem is, sometimes you can’t know what the eventual outcome of the research will be until you do it. The oft-quoted example is Sir Tim Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web that came out of CERN with an outcome beyond that originally expected.

We will also support university research through the Higher Education Innovation Fund…

Not entirely sure what they are getting at there. This isn’t a new body, the HEIF already exists to the tune of £150m this coming academic year. I presume they just mean they will continue what they have already announced. Not much of a pledge.

More young people will be able to study single science subjects

We reject a return to the 11-plus or free-for-all admission system

…raising the education leaving age to 18.

Single sciences are definitely the way forward to inspire young people to continue in science. Enjoyment of any subject comes from having a good understanding of it, and this is particularly true in the sciences, and I think this can best be taught separately. And whilst the sciences do all converge, it is also important to recognise that there is no such thing as “science” as a single entity and that the subjects can be quite different and so it is perfectly possible to enjoy different facets of science without much reference to the others.

Continuing to be against the 11-plus is no great surprise, although as a someone very much in favour of Grammar schools (and educated at one), it does disappoint me.

As for raising the leaving age, I can’t say I’m thrilled at that. Diversification of education and apprenticeships might lessen the blow somewhat, but I still remember being at school with those who distinctly didn’t want to be so left when they could. Not sure I could have taken it for another 2 years!

Overall: Nice, but vague.
Full Manifesto


Second out to be published and my party of choice, but what do they have to say?

a multi-year Science and Research Budget to provide a stable investment climate for Research Councils

delay the implementation of the Research Excellence Framework so that it can be reviewed – because of doubts about whether there is a robust and acceptable way of measuring the impact of all research

Multi-year is good, long term would be better for Research Council stability. Where is the increase? Or at least ring fence as Labour have promised. I am disappointed that there is not a more concrete promise in there.

The explicit recognition of the problems encountered when measuring research impact is excellent. It is a minefield and so the implication that the Conservatives want to find a “robust and acceptable” measure is exciting indeed. This also pleases my sense that manifestos should contain specific detail!

creating a better focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects in schools

Another admirable ambition, but I feel that it is almost pointlessly vague.

allow all state schools the freedom to offer the same high quality international exams that private schools offer – including giving every pupil the chance to study separate sciences at GCSE

As someone who attended a state school that taught the International Baccalaureate Diploma, studied separate science from the age of 11 and has gone on to 2 science degrees (soon to be 3), I am living proof that a detailed science education can be inspiring and empowers those who want to learn. Therefore, I can’t sing highly enough the praises of this pledge.

Overall: wishy-washy, especially given the length of the document, more detail would have been nice.
Full Manifesto

Liberal Democrat

Last out of the blocks this morning, and one that I have been eagerly awaiting having seen Dr Evan Harris talk before about the Lib Dem commitment to science. I have to say, I was not disappointed:

Respect the convention that the science budget, once allocated through the Comprehensive Spending Review process, is not used for other purposes

Not as strong a way of pledging to protect the science budget, but I suppose “every little helps”. Still no ring-fence and certainly not a pledge to increase it though. Sad, but probably honest at least.

Ensure that the decisions on the funding of research projects are made on the basis of peer review not Whitehall interference, while recognising the need for government to identify broad strategic priorities in a transparent manner.

Reform science funding to ensure that genuinely innovative scientific research is identified and supported, instead of basing funding decisions on narrow impact factors.

These two pledges are similar to the Tory pledge on funding and the Research Excellence Framework, and are welcome. Along with the introduction to the science section of the manifesto, I think the way these pledges are worded is proof that the Lib Dems get science. To me they just seem to hit the mark better than the similar Tory pledge. I wonder if it is more of Dr Evan Harris’ work.

Ensure that all state-funded research, including clinical trials, is publicly accessible and that the results are published and subject to peer review

A pledge for open-access publishing! I really didn’t see that coming as it isn’t exactly of mainstream interest and I wonder how the higher cost of open-access publishing would be covered with the inevitable increased grant funding it would required. To me, just the recognition of the issue is brilliant though, and something the Lib Dems should be commended for.

Safeguard academic freedom and the independence of scientific advisers by amending the Ministerial Code to prevent government from bullying or mistreating advisers and distorting evidence or statistics

They also sneaked in this pledge regarding evidence-based policy into their science section, which again, I’m sure will go down well with the science community.

Give 14–19 year-olds the right to take up a course at college, rather than at school, if it suits them better. This will enable all children to choose to study, for example, separate sciences or modern languages at GCSE, or a vocational subject.

This completes the set of parties wishing to bring back single science education at GCSE level. It is worrying that they don’t think it should be taught within the school but offered as an option elsewhere, in contrast to what Tories appear to pledged though.

Overall: With more detail and specific science pledges, it seems like the Lib Dems understand the science vote.
Full Manifesto
 (edited 2015 to point to an archived manifesto)


In many ways, it is hard to differentiate between the parties based on their science pledges, with them all wishing a return to separate sciences and to review the way in which science grants are allocated, so it is very hard to definitively choose based on science policy alone. To me the Lib Dems have the upper hand at the moment, both because they have some superior content and pledges, but also because the way it is written and the specifics it goes into just seem to show a better understanding and honesty over the current science issues, but I think that is purely a personal feeling.

In fact, I think that applies all the way through the Lib Dem manifesto from my skim read of it so far, and it is almost making me turn from committed Tory voter – especially if I want to stand a chance of outing Frank Dobson in my area – but that is another story entirely.

To help us
do better in turning research
outputs into innovation,
we will provide focused
investment for Technology and
Innovation Centres, developing
technologies where the UK has
world-leading expertise

Simon Singh Celebration and Westminster Skeptics gets political

Last night was a special edition of Westminster Skeptics, celebrating Simon Singh’s recent victory at the Court of Appeal over the meaning of the words he is being sued over (or as Dave Gorman put it “the 2nd Annual Simon Singh free-speech event”) and it was also a chance for us to hear what each of the three main parties had to say on the matter, which is of particular interest given the general election coming up and the manifestos being released this week. The Lib Dems were being represented by the veteran of Westminster Skeptics, Dr Evan Harris; the Conservatives by Joanne Cash, their PPC for Westminster North and Labour were Lord Bach, one of their Justice Ministers. This was followed by a panel discussion between Nick Cohen, Padraig Reidy, Sile Lane and Allen Green. As with every Skeptics in the Pub event, I was again pleasantly surprised at how engaging and educational standing in a pub and listening to what these renowned speakers had to say.

Dave Gorman

Dave Gorman opened proceedings with his fantastic line from above about this being the “2nd annual” event, to much applause from the crowd, before giving a both comedic and serious version of the story so far. To someone that doesn’t hang off of every word from Simon’s case (or in my case, have it distilled for me by Jack of Kent),  we must be a strange bunch with a lot of skeptic/libel reform in-jokes, and it was nice to see that Dave Gorman is someone who is fully in that crowd as it could be so easy for someone famous to put their name to a campaign without having the intimate knowledge at his fingertips that Dave Gorman appears to have.

He observes that the BCA have more-or-less failed in their mission to promote chiropractic by inviting more criticism than they previously had, and by trying to measure up to science. (I might be slightly paraphrasing here, as my notes aren’t as good as I thought)

both practitioners and customers know that the evidence isn’t up the standards set by science…that is the reason for their custom…they like to be “outside of science”

Indeed, why try and square up to science if you are purporting to be alternative?

He continues this train of thought throughout the whole case, talking about the right of reply and apology in the Guardian:

to not take the right of reply was to spectacularly miss an open goal

They were basically given the opportunity to put their side across that they don’t need evidence and operate beyond science, and they missed it. He then discusses the oddity asking for an apology and trying to understand just what sort of apology would have sufficed. After all, the BCA are apparently most upset about the idea that they were dishonestly promoting treatments (something the article is now deemed not to imply by the Courts). He puts forward a short potential apology:

They honestly believe this stuff works, but it doesn’t and they are stupid.

Well, it seems to cover their bases…

The final quote of the evening from Dave Gorman was a serious one about libel chill, and really the one that we are all worried about:

[some articles] are retracted before they’ve even been published, and that is what really scares me.


(He sums this all up very neatly on his own blog too)

Simon Singh

Simon only took to the stage briefly as some of the politicians were on a tight schedule, but he (as many of the speakers did), thanked the blogosphere, the twitterers and all the supporters for helping this campaign to reach critical mass in the time it has, and putting libel reform into the limelight:

every major political party is backing libel reform

and updating us on his outlook following the judgement earlier in the month:

the case has changed position…looking a lot rosier

The Politicians

Lord Bach – Labour

Lord Bach (and Labour party) was much more committed to libel reform than I had initially expected and had some very powerful quotes to give to the room on where labour stood on the matter.

[we have] the full backing of the Government party

“new legislation on libel” in the manifesto

Labour are fully behind the movement, no matter what the election outcome

this is a firm commitment

Very strong words indeed, although as Evan Harris later pointed out, their manifesto still refers to “defendants” in libel cases; somewhat presumptuous.

Joanne Cash – Conservative

I was eager to see Joanne Cash for myself for two reason: as a Tory voter myself I really wanted to hear the party’s commitment to reform and she has been talked about at length in the media/blogosphere so I wanted to see for myself. I have to say that after the hype I was somewhat disappointed, but I suppose if someone has been built up in your mind, that is almost inevitable. As a libel barrister, I thought she would have more to say on the issue, but instead she kept it quite short and sweet and outlined their position as follows:

  • a commitment to change the cost regime
  • Dominic Greive plans to widen the comment defence
  • Commitment to new legislation if required

Dr Evan Harris – Liberal Democrats

As Allen Green said:

no meeting of Westminster Skeptics would be complete without a talk from Dr Evan Harris

and so it happened. Evan is really on home turf here and as a result he came across the best, especially when talking about the wider issues of libel chill and its existence throughout writing. He knows that the devil is in the details too, saying all the parties (even his own) might shy away from legislation if they haven’t promised us details. Consequently, here are his details:

The Lib Dems are committed to a statutory public interest defence

automatically qualified privilege for peer-reviewed journals

no reason that companies should be able to sue for libel…and a number of other things

I’m particularly interested in qualified privilege for peer-reviewed journals: seems to me like a brilliant idea, as long as there is adequate peer-review to stop nonsense becoming “qualified nonsense”!

Panel Discussion and Questions

The panel discussion was a somewhat rushed affair, and I think everyone (including me) was dying for a break at this point, but still a few good points were made by each speaker. Nick Cohen spoke at length about Conditional Fee Agreements and the recent defeat of a move to abolish them, lead by Tom Watson, but probably his most rousing quote was that we need libel refrom to

protect the freedom the internet has given

Allen Green then re-iterated that while Simon’s case and the recent judgement is important, it is not the end of the campaign and is relatively insignificant for most.

some writers will be more protected now, in some disciplines, but still no public interest defence and no end to libel tourism

And finally Padraig Reidy told the story of how Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz, who sued Cambridge University Press regarding a book he claimed accused him of funding terrorism. CUP promptly apologised, pulped the books and donated a sum of money to Unicef on his behalf, despite the authors maintaining they had done nothing wrong.

Cambridge University Press folded at the first hurdle

I think this very neatly sums up the libel chill in this country.

So now, more than ever, we need to be watching our PPCs and their pledges as we go into this general election and make sure we have all signed the petition: lets get to 100,000 before Parliament starts again. The election gives us a chance to make a difference and change the law.

Sign the Petition

Prof. Brian Cox, Science Policy and the General Election

This is just a few highlights of tonight’s Westminster Skeptics as: 1) I’m not a journalist (infact barely a blogger) and 2) it being in a pub, I’ve had a few pints!

Prof. Brian Cox kicked off the night with an excellent presentation on science funding and how it is so small that to cut it would be insignificant; except for the huge advances and increase in GDP that it brings. To see for yourself how small government science funding is, check out this graphic from the Guardian and see if you can spot it! A good illustration of the point is that the Apollo program paid for itself 14 times over its cost in terms of GDP generated for the American economy.

After this we heard from Nick Dusic of CASE (Campaign for Science & Engineering in the UK). His basic message was that there is a science vote out there to be won, and we as voters need to be stronger, more vocal and show our presence. This is a point I totally agree with.

Dr Evan Harris MP (Lib Dem Science Spokesman) was also there, but he basically re-iterated Brian Cox, so I shan’t bother re-writing. He did come out with one beautiful quote during the Q&A session, but I promptly forgot it so will have to paraphrase. He was discussing the Government funding of humane animal research and said he advocated writing on the pill bottle “Only made possible by the public spending on humane animal research and testing”, and went even further to suggest we should disclose how many animals went into a treatment in the original (he suggested MRC) press release for the treatment, making very sure the public spending is acknowledged. I like this point very much: scientific triumphs need more proper celebration rather than derision or ridiculous hyperbole.

The rest of the session was unremarkable (as far as I have noted anyhow), but enjoyable as ever. And we only managed to slip into homeopathy once, which I presume is some kind of record for the skeptics!

Science in the European elections

With all the current talk about the recession and the economic meltdown – to use two of the oft used phrases – it is important to remember that the European elections are about much more than economics.

The MEPs we elect tomorrow will be making policy on a huge number of areas for the next five years and while some of these economic pledges may sounds like a great quick-fix, I think it is important to review all the policies of a party rather than voting on the headline grabbing ones.  The point is demonstrated particularly well by the The Times’ discussion over the Green Party’s scientific manifesto, but I think the point generalises to all parties and all areas of policy.

The Campaign for Science and Engineering has a breakdown of all parties’ scientific policies here. Also, VoteMatch is a webiste that can tell you your overall leaning, based on asking you about your thoughts on some policies.

Certainly something to bear in mind before we hit the polls tomorrow.