Why science matters to Labour

November 17, 2012 10:17 am

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

  • TomFairfax

    Just to echo the diversity in engineering issue. I work with two female engineers. Both foreign nationals. However, ethnic diversity isn’t a problem where I work.

    I deal regularly with a partner company in Sweden where the proportion of women engineers is much higher, same when I dealt with a French partner company.
    This is a pecularly British problem, and yes, we are losing the race in building a knowledge economy to those who don’t put career and lifestyle barriers in place to half the population.

    • Quiet_Sceptic

      Are there barriers though? It implies that there are people there wanting to do something but being stopped or held back.

      As this article points out, a big issue is that many students, particularly female students are not taking the courses at school and college level necessary to go down a engineering/science career path. Do we think that schools are putting barriers in place to dissuade students from taking those courses?

      If anything it’s a far more difficult issue of changing perceptions, of people self selecting away from certain career paths.

      Take an opposite example, men are hugely under-represented in the nursing profession but do we believe this is because there are barriers in place to stop men entering the profession. I don’t, I think it’s more about male perceptions about those careers.

      • HCDayantis

        I agree that the barriers are not formal, but rather barriers of perception. This is obviously much harder to bridge without being patronising – does anyone remember the abysmal “Science, it’s a girl thing” advert released by that EU division a few months back?

        The problem clearly starts at schools, so I think more needs to be done by teachers to encourage female students to take more science courses other than biology.

      • TomFairfax

        I was treating ‘barrier’ as a obstacle regardless of whether it’s cultural, psychological, not a physical object. Simply someone passing over a woman for promotion because they might take maternity leave at some point isn’t the only such obstacle. In the UK case a lot of it is cultural, for want of a better word.

        Regarding your point on nursing. Clearly something does stop suitably qualified men pursuing that career. That’s a barrier to recruiting male nurses. If steps are taken then the perceptions would eventually change unless men really are incapable to doing a job requiring them to do multiple things at the same time.

        The problem is one of those foreign women I mentioned is a Chinese national. We won’t be able to compete unless we stop pigeon holing categories of careers as ones for men and ones for women.

        It’s a bit defeatist to take the attitude effectively of ‘that’s the way it is’ when clearly we compete on a global scale with societies with some get up and go that have not only decided to challenge perceptions of that type, but succeeded. The problem with this government is the talk a good game but cram the cabinet with old Etonian white men. If I was the headmaster I’d be ashamed of the incompetence and shambles they are making of things.

  • http://twitter.com/bencobley Ben Cobley

    I think it is desperately unfair and also silly to blame engineering and science for somehow “under-performing” when it comes to representation of certain groups. These are primarily cultural issues about fashion and the way that people follow trends. We have a general lack of ‘representation’ in these professions, but not just of certain groups so-defined but of people as a whole – that is why we get so many foreigners (of all races and both genders) to keep our capacity up.

    I also think it is a lazy way of looking at the sector to just pick on a few numbers detailing these things on a spreadsheet without engaging in any more detailed analysis of what is going on. You are going to learn very little that way, and it points to a serious problem we have about science in this country, and also in the Labour Party of course. This is that we, quite frankly, do not understand it. We have no respect for scientific disclipline and scientific rigour. Applying a bit of those things to the argument in this article finds it desperately wanting unfortunately. It is all about central management – putting x person here and y person there and expecting that is going to solve a cultural problem. It is not. To ‘solve’ a cultural problem as much as you can, you need to address the culture – to change people’s minds about science and engage them in it. The argument here doesn’t even begin to do that.

  • http://twitter.com/Bickerrecord Paul Cotterill

    “50% of state schools are not sending any girls to study physics A level. ”

    Can you be clearer here? Roughly half of all schools don’t send anyone at all to do A Levels, because they are 11-16 only. So what’s the source for your data and what’s your denominator? Makes a big difference if in fact only 25% don’t send girls for A level physics, not least as hypothetically at least 25% may not send boys. I empathise with your point but we need to be accurate.

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