westminster_palace_600_300This Wednesday the Royal Society hosted the annual CaSE (Campaign for Science and Engineering) debate between the science spokespeople for the three main political parties – Universities and Science Minister Greg Clark from the Conservatives, Liberal Democrat Cambridge MP Julian Huppert, and Labour’s Shadow Minister for Universities, Science and Skills, Liam Byrne.

The panellists responded to questions submitted by the crowd including on investment, how to encourage diversity in science and engineering (particularly in senior roles), and on the need for evidence-based policy-making. While much of the debate focused on academic aspects rather than the translation of science into industry, the debate provided an opportunity for the MPs to demonstrate their commitment to and interest in the sector.

Greg Clark stood by the government’s recent Science and Innovation Strategy and stated that ‘the future of our country depends on science succeeding’. He focused largely on the need to increase diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) and the need to boost collaboration as science and business become increasingly global endeavours.

Liam Byrne and Julian Huppert meanwhile made some passionate arguments for reform. Claiming that ‘if the global race is anything it is a science race – and right now Britain is falling behind’, Byrne emphasised that now is the time to strengthen rather than question the UK’s relationship with Europe. He also said that the current student funding system for loan repayments is not sustainable and suggested a shift to a ‘graduate tax’ system instead.

In response to Byrne’s call for a 10 year science funding framework, Huppert reasoned that a 15 year framework would be long enough to give certainty to researchers at an early stage in their career that would help to retain talent in the UK. He emphasised that having the right people in the sector is key, which should include enthusing young people about science, retaining our skilled workforce and improving immigration policy. Huppert recommended that come election time the public should vote based on which MPs care about evidence-based policy making.

When questioned why government aren’t investing more in science if they recognise it is so important to economic recovery, all the panellists including the Minister agreed they would like to see more investment in the future. Huppert said that government and industry both spend ‘far too little’ in the UK on R&D and that there should be repeated and reliable investment of sustainable funds. Byrne said that a Labour government would have ‘a different pace of deficit reduction’ and would seek to avoid destabilising Research Council funding.

On immigration policy there was broad agreement that the current system for post-study work visas needs reform and that highly skilled STEM workers should be welcome in the UK. Huppert called for Tier 1 visas (for entrepreneurs, investors and exceptional talent) to be easier to obtain, and for students to be taken out of the net migration statistics.

For more information on the debate take a look at the Royal Society blog or to review the twitter activity from the night and look out for the video when it’s released, see #casedebate15. If you’d like to feed in your thoughts on policies to support the UK life science industry, get in touch.