'If we get to power ...'

In the first of a series of election interviews, Charles Arthur found Nigel Jones, science spokesman of the Liberal Democrats, surprisingly bullish
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I discovered that Nigel Jones, the Liberal Democrats' spokesman on science and technology, was better than me at forming hypotheses a couple of minutes into our conversation. "If the Lib Dems were to hold the balance of power after the next election

Well, there's a thought: a Liberal Democrat government on 2 May. Not just making a coalition work (as the Liberals did with the last Labour government) but actually having enough MPs to fill the Cabinet and other ministerial posts.

Certainly, it is a hypothesis, even if it does demonstrate that politics, like sport but unlike science, tends to be about promising before the struggle that you will achieve everything, then explaining afterwards why you didn't.

Mr Jones used to work for ICL, the British computer company (now owned by Japan's Fujitsu). "Quite why I gave up a company car and took a salary cut to do this job is quite another question, and one that's a bit difficult to answer when it's asked by the wife."

She may find herself asking for a while: his majority in the constituency of Cheltenham is only 2,000, but Labour is far behind. The office psephologists at The Independent predict that the Tory vote is hardly likely to grow there. Hence, the Liberal Democrats may be able to count on that seat again.

Why ask the Liberal Democrats what their science policies are, given that they are very unlikely to form the government? Because their policies will influence the other two major parties, if only by being a triangulation point from which to view the others' prospects.

The questions were provided by the British Association for the Advancement for Science. None of the parties was given advance notice of them.

How do you propose to have science and associated issues represented at Cabinet level?

"We'd have a Cabinet committee with the Prime Minister chairing it. Put it right at the heart of government."

Who'd be on this committee? "Obviously people from DTI [the Department of Trade and Industry], the chief scientific adviser, and representatives from academia and practical science."

What proposals do you have to raise the quality and standards of science and mathematics teaching at GCSE and A-level? In particular, how would you attract excellent scientists into teaching?

"You'd need to speak to Don Foster [the party's education spokesman] for the specifics ... I've been talking to him a lot about up-skilling teachers so they're not afraid of new technology, because they are. Teachers at the school that my children go to won't use 'one of those things' [computers], they use pen and paper and chalk and talk, whereas the school is reasonably well-equipped. Not perfectly, but well. I would give a piece of kit to each 10-year-old ... You're still going to need the teachers to help you through the difficult bits, but kids will be able to learn interactively by discovering at their own pace. There's a real need to get kit into schools. I can see in the not-too-distant future there being educational electronic warehouses, where the school plugs into their catalogue and the teachers download it on to the school machine and produce the material there. Rather than books - there is a great shortage of books, but I think you'll get into a lot electronically. And a great advantage of the electronic form is that you can keep the material up to date. Books tend to date, with a new version each year."

What intentions do you have to address the backlog in equipment investment which is troubling senior industrialists, plus the pounds 500m shortfall in basic equipment for research? [A report by the pressure group Save British Science last August reckoned that it would cost pounds 500m just to bring university laboratories up to existing health and safety standards.]

"I think the extra pounds 150m I've got [allocated from the Lib Dems' budget calculations from tax rises] in terms of budget would go part way towards that. It doesn't come cheap, that's the problem, and I'm aware of it. People at Glaxo were telling me that it takes them a long time to get the people they recruit up to speed."

But the universities' concern is that they have a lot of very old equipment which they can't afford to renew.

"That's the problem, yes."

How would you address that?

"pounds 150m is a lot of money - that would help. I know they're talking about pounds 500m - it would be pounds 150m three times, an annual commitment. So over the period of a parliament that additional money, if it can be sustained, will make up that shortfall which this government, disgracefully, has allowed to occur."

Basic research funds have been declining in real terms for many years. What are your intentions regarding halting the decline, and re-establishing modest real-term growth - possibly linked to GDP performance?

"We have made a commitment to 0.35 per cent of GDP, compared to 0.2 per cent which it is at the moment. That is all costed into our overall budget." [Using the 1996 GDP of pounds 635.9 bn, that would put the science budget at pounds 2.22bn, rather than the forecast pounds 1.33bn for 1997/8 - which was a fall in real terms of 1 per cent. For the future, the overall real-term fall is expected to be 5 per cent.]

Are you aware of the relative decline in academic salaries over the past 15 or so years? Should this worry you? What are you going to do about it?

"I think it should worry us. In Germany I stayed with a professor of nuclear physics, and he was regarded almost as a lord of the manor. The science community here doesn't get that kind of respect. I think the best thing you can do for the scientific community is to try to move away from short-term contracts. At the moment nearly everyone is on a short-term contract and it takes them a couple of months to get into the job, and if they're on an 18-month contract you get only a year's work out of them because towards the end they're looking for the next job."

How do you propose to work with industry to stimulate greater market demand for high-quality scientists and engineers and to reflect that demand in more attractive career opportunities and salaries?

"A number of important companies have told me that the best of British scientists still rank with the best, but there aren't as many of them as there used to be, so they have to look abroad to recruit. But they're also telling me that we're not producing enough lab technicians, people at a slightly lower academic level but important for the process. I think you've got to lift the basic salary; people at the top earn enough anyway. Obviously we'd ask industry those questions. Is there any way we can make particular university courses more attractive to people who have done science at school?"

Why should a scientist vote for the Lib Dems?

"I think we're the only ones who talk about money for the science community. If you're voting Labour you're voting for the same Tory policies which led to the decline. I don't know what the Labour Party stands for any more. I know what the Tories stand for. They made a hole in the public finances so they are constantly having to find things to sell off, and they're running out of things to sell off. If they get re-elected they will look at the research councils again and that will lead to more uncertainty, more short-term contracts, probably a continuing squeeze on funding which they will dress up as an increase. Part of the problem is that military R&D has been reduced as the Cold War ended and the Government has not invested that in civil R&D. I call it the Hovercraft syndrome - we invent it and someone else exploits it."

Finally: suppose there's a situation where the Lib Dems hold the balance of power, and you are made minister of science and technology. What is the one thing that you would want to have achieved by the end of that parliament?

"We are uniquely placed in Britain: good at telecommunications, computer software, and broadcasting. Put those three together: that is what the information revolution is. But BT is kept out of cable - American companies have come in and cherry-picked the cities and towns. But the country areas are missing out on this revolution. I think we've got to let BT back in. I would do it tomorrow. If I could achieve universal access [to the information superhighway] by the end of the parliament, I would think that I had done my duty."

This is the first of three interviews with the major parties on their science policies. Your comments and observations on the parties' approach are welcome. If there are enough, they will be collected and appear on the Tuesday before the election. Write to the Science Editor at The Independent, or e-mail carthur@independent.co.uk.

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