7 things manifesto writers should know about science

Ahead of the upcoming UK election, what should the political parties bear in mind as they outline their policies for science?

typing on a laptop
A photograph of the author, Martin Smith.

Martin Smith

With a UK election called for 12 December, the scramble is on for the political parties to pull together a manifesto that will capture the imagination and lead to votes.

That means teams of policy wonks are assembling in party headquarters, developing exciting policies for their leaders to carve into headstones and plaster on the sides of buses. As they write, they live in fear of accidentally coming up with the 2019 equivalent of the 'Dementia Tax' that could scupper their party’s chances of electoral success.

Some of them will be charged with coming up with policies for science. With those brave souls in mind, here’s seven things you need to know about science if you’re a manifesto writer.

1. It’s a team sport

If the first thing that comes to mind is a lone genius discovering a cure for cancer on their own, then you’re way off the mark. Science is done by teams of people – some of those are eminent professors, but science wouldn’t happen without postdocs, technicians and students. A narrow understanding of 'the brightest and best' can mean focussing on the captain, and forgetting the team they lead onto the field.

2. It thrives on stability

Short-term funding and one-off windfall investments can stifle ambitious research. New medicines typically take 10 years to develop, so science thrives on funding that is long-term, predictable and reliable. Germany recently announced that it will increase research funding by 3% every year for the next decade. That’s the sort of commitment researchers and companies seek out when deciding where to call home.

3. It's full of surprises

Science is a source of solutions, but often from unexpected directions. Investing in fundamental science – or science without an immediate use – has delivered revolutionary new answers or insights into the problems facing humanity. The geneticists who started examining the microbes living in our gut would never have predicted they would be linked to our mental health. If we fund science with an open mind, we’ll be better equipped for whatever the future holds.

4. It starts in school

The UK is good at getting young people excited about science, but science careers don’t always feel relevant and accessible to everyone. While nearly half of young people are interested in a science career, only a quarter of STEM workers are female. Something doesn’t add up. If young people face barriers to becoming scientists, then we’re missing out on great ideas. It all starts in the classroom.

5. Its lightbulb moments need lightbulbs

You can’t see the test tubes if the lights go out. While universities receive major funding to conduct research, most are struggling to cover the day-to-day running costs needed to run laboratories. Institutions are having to source these 'full economic costs' from elsewhere, cross-subsidising research with income from tuition fees. Funding for research needs to make sure the bills are paid.

6. It’s global

There’s no such thing as UK science. There’s just science. Researchers based in the UK regularly work with colleagues across the world, and the amount of collaboration is only increasing each year. The first image of a black hole took a 10-year collaboration across over 20 countries. This international collaboration makes science stronger – it has improved life expectancy, driven economic growth, and furthered our knowledge.

7. It needs government funding to unlock support

UK research is more dependent on charity and foreign investment than any other country. Reaching the government’s target of increasing R&D investment to 2.4% of GDP by 2027 will require an extra £20bn of public funding, and double this from private investment. The good news: more commitment from government will leverage more from the private sector. The bad news: with the clock already ticking, we can’t afford to hang around.

Comment on this article on LinkedIn