Science: Engaging with the future

In the last in our series of interviews with the main parties' spokesmen, Labour's Adam Ingram tells Charles Arthur that his biggest hope is to build a wider appreciation of science, particularly among the young
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Adam Ingram chortled as the photographer moved round on the other side of the table. The bottle of whisky from which the shadow Minister of Science had offered a wee dram as a cure for my coughing fit (it worked) was about to come within range of a well-aimed lens. "You don't catch me like that," Mr Ingram said. "I used to be Neil Kinnock's PPS [parliamentary private secretary], you know."

Which means that besides knowing how to avoid embarrassing photos, he has been near to power - and close enough to see it snatched away. His East Kilbride constituency (reflected in his thick brogue) is a safe Labour seat, but it's worth bearing in mind how deeply sobering the night of the 1992 election was for the Labour Party; it has directly influenced every member now seeking election. This interview took place before the election had been announced, but Gordon Brown had already announced that Labour, if elected, would use the Treasury forecast for the next two years to inform its spending plans. No shadow minister is about to depart from that. Indeed, they expect that, if elected, they will uncover "fiscal time bombs" - disguised gaps between spending commitments and revenues - left behind by the outgoing Conservatives like kippers under the armchair seats.

And for the same reason, you're about as likely to find any shadow minister making an individual stand to increase funding for their specialism as you are to catch them being photographed in their offices with open whisky bottles on the desk. While Mr Ingram has no formal scientific training, his office is tidily strewn with journals festooned with Post-It notes, and he has the air of a fighter.

The basic questions he was asked were provided by the British Association for the Advancement for Science. None of the parties' spokesmen questioned in this series was given advance notice of them, or saw the responses of their counterparts in the other parties.

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

Well, first by the Chief Scientific Adviser, who clearly has an important role to play in dealing with cross-departmental strategies assessing the worth and value of the science and technology base, in spending terms and outputs. That assessment can be achieved only by someone who is independent of the individual departments.

And, of course, also through the Cabinet minister who has direct responsibility for specific areas in science and technology; that, at the present time - and it will remain the case - is the Office of Science and Technology (OST) reporting to the President of the Board of Trade.

Would you move the OST back into the Cabinet Office?

No. We did look at it. Science can sit comfortably anywhere within government. What we have inherited is a structure which we have felt would not be desirable to reassemble quickly in some other shape or form. Undoubtedly within that part of British industry which more directly interfaces with the science base, there is an acceptance that it's better to leave things as they are.

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?

Well, that is not strictly speaking the responsibility of the OST. But this is one of the key areas; something which I've been saying for some time is that it's about the quality of the educators, not just those being educated. My feeling is that there is a negativism prevailing at the primary education level, that science is seen as something which is detrimental not positive. We have to change the culture and the attitude which prevails at primary level, which I think would then feed in to the quality of the pupils coming through.

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 it would cost pounds 500m just to bring university laboratories up to existing health and safety standards.]

It's clear that what the Government has done has had a damaging effect on the university research base. But after the Dearing report [on higher education, expected in June] we may be dealing with a changed beast, so to say simply "There's been an underfunding of such a magnitude and therefore it should simply be put back in ..."

What about using the money from the windfall tax to fund this investment?

The answer to that is that all things must be considered, but all things must be justified. All we can do is give a qualitative assessment of what's happening, of what we think needs to be done, and to make a bid in terms of the determination of spending priorities. That is decided initially within the Treasury, and then within the Cabinet.

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 said that we will inherit an existing budget which we will use as a spending approach for the next two years, and in year one there will be a need to examine all spending in terms of objectives and relative priorities. To make spending predictions in advance of that examination may raise expectations which then cannot be met, so why create possible disappointments unnecessarily?

I thought the whole thing about politics was raising hopes unnecessarily - giving people aspirations, that idea that they'll vote for one person rather than the other because it feels as if things will be better.

I agree with you on that. But I think that most people get inspiration from honest politicians, not those who tell lies. What we have had is a government which consistently, before every election, has told lies to the electorate. And that's why the Labour Party is very specific that it is not going to make promises it cannot keep.

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

Again, this is not a matter for the OST - we don't drive the solution to that particular problem. That argument could be advanced by a range of people in the public sector. That's one of the economic decisions that has to be taken about raising the quality of those who educate the raw material that we need as an economy, the school pupils and university students. But it's a decision that will be taken elsewhere, not by me.

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?

It's not the function of government to create all those jobs. It can only assist up to a point. It would be nice to think we could have the football culture at the top level, but I don't think we're going to get companies offering a pounds 2m transfer fees for signing engineers.

I think it has got to be addressed in terms of the way in which society generally views scientists and engineers. We have got to promote the successes, show the wider public that it's an attractive proposition.

Why should a scientist vote for you?

Because we are offering a range of policies which encourage the territory in which scientists live and work. We have initiated, and will pursue to a conclusion in government, a corporate tax review to look at how to encourage industry to invest in areas which have a direct impact on the science and technology base through research and development investment.

The Labour Party has a history of being enthusiastic about engaging with the future, and not living too much in the past. We will have the same motivation. From Tony Blair downwards, we do understand the importance of science and technology in every area.

Finally: suppose that you win, and are made minister of science and technology. What is the one thing that you would want to have achieved by the end of the next parliament?

Something which can be achieved, and that is an immediate improvement in the way in which the wider public assess and appreciate the importance of science - what it has achieved for humankind, the capacity of science to feed the world, and to enhance people's knowledge for knowledge's sake.

And I say that as a non-scientist, who is absolutely enthused about science and technology, and has been so ever since I was aware of it at school.

This is the last of three interviews with the major parties on their science policies. Your comments and observations are welcome. Some have already been received: if, following this, there are enough, they will be collected and appear next Tuesday, before the election. Write to the Science Editor at the Independent, or email carthur@independent.co.uk.

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