Last Friday the Government again tried to portray itself as the defender of science as Osborne gave his first set piece speech on the importance of science to our economy. However, we had already commissioned the House of Commons research which showed they had cut departmental science spend by 7.6% in the first year of this Parliament alone, while total spending on science last year is down by 6.4%.
While ministers came into office promising to protect the science budget, in fact they are cutting it by the back door. Whitehall departments are seeing reduced science spending, which is of crucial importance to areas such as advanced manufacturing and life science, which receive funding from the Ministry of Defence and Department of Health for example.
The Tories have tried to wrap themselves in the science flag because they know it reassures the business and Higher Education communities who have emphasised its importance to future growth. Investment in science and innovation pays dividends for years to come. In the short term it boosts business confidence and provides increased skills capacity. In the long term it can lead to whole new industries with high quality jobs as well as improving our quality of life more generally. Take the space sector, the fastest growing industry in the country: In Surrey, UK engineers are employed to launch satellites for Nigeria, the US and India as a direct consequence of publicly funded space research at Surrey University in the 1970s.
The economic rewards of investment in science and innovation are well documented, which is why none of our major competitors are cutting back and countries like India and China are increasing their investment. But for a progressive party, science should not only be a matter of economics, important as that is.
It’s also a question of social equity and social justice.
I often observe that Parliament is the most diverse environment I have ever worked in. With 20% women and 6% ethnic minorities it is hardly representative of the country but engineering – my previous profession – is still a long way behind.
Only 6% of professional engineers in this country are women and only 5% of physics professors. This is reflected in the fact that 95% of fellows in the Royal Society, science’s ‘great and good’ club, are male as are 99% of electricians. That’s right: in 2012 there are still professions were women practically do not exist – and subjects: 50% of state schools are not sending any girls to study physics A level. Like childcare and reproductive rights, physics is a feminist issue.
Engineering and the physical sciences also perform poorly with regard to socio economic, BME and disabled representation. In 2009 the Sutton Trust found that 42% of top UK scientists went to private schools as opposed to 7% of the general population and concluded that independent school pupils would continue to be significantly over-represented among the next generation of leading scientists.
Why does it matter? Well firstly there is the loss to the country and the economy in excluding the potential science and engineering talent of so much of the population. Then it also contributes to gender and ethnic pay gaps as these groups miss out on higher paid engineering and ICT jobs.
But it is there is a greater, less tangible loss in having a science and engineering community so unrepresentative of the country. What kind of scientific breakthroughs would follow on from a more democratic talent base? What would technology by the many not the few look like? How would one nation innovation change society?
I believe it would deliver technology that was less aggressive and more people friendly, supporting our desires rather than imposing ‘Computer says no’ unintelligible barriers. It is difficult to say exactly what more that might mean, in practise, but it’s not too much to hope that a science which was of the people, by the people for the people would help reduce social inequality.
The first industrial revolution changed the world for the better in many ways but it also brought pollution, green house gases and increased inequality as craft jobs were lost and industrial fortunes rose. We are on the brink of another industrial revolution as we deal with the carbon legacy of the last one and emerging markets industrialise. We need to make sure that the rewards of this revolution’s innovations are distributed more fairly than the last. For that we a strong economic policy with fairness at its heart. And a science and innovation base which is more representative of the country.
Chi Onwurah is a shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills
This piece forms part of Jon Cruddas’s Guest Edit of LabourList