The General Election: What do the Conservatives Think About Science?


Between hugging huskies and looking at glaciers, David Cameron came to office with a promise to be the "Greenest government ever" with a steadfast commitment to science.

So did Dave keep his promise to commit to science and environmental protection? And as we head towards an election, what would five more years of a Tory government spell for science? (Policies here)

Budget: Originally an austerity target (set for massive budget cuts), thanks to strong public lobbying the science budget was instead held steady from 2011 to 2013/14.

Despite cash injections (like £600 million into high tech industry), the freeze has meant that inflation has eroded the budget from £5.7 billion to £4.8 billion. Meanwhile, UK science funding slipped below 0.5% of GDP in 2012; the lowest in the G8.

George Osborne has outlined plans to fund science equipment in line with inflation for the next Parliament, but we don’t know if there will be moves to fix the underfunding of UK science.

Climate Change:

Commitments to tackling climate change by this government have been mixed.

Ministers have pushed for more ambitious climate targets, provided £860 million worth in renewable heating subsidies (rising to £4.5 billion in 2020), and £400 million for low emission transport, as well as introducing a Carbon Tax. The UK also secured £250m of EU funding for CCS technology.

However it’s not all been good news. Cuts to grants (like Warm Front) have meant that renewable uptake has stalled. The Green Investment Bank also lacked borrowing and lending powers, so not much investment got off the ground.

But the biggest obstacle to tackling climate change has been other Conservatives. 53% of Conservative MPs have doubts over manmade climate change, while 18% outright deny its existence.

George Osborne has opposed green legislation in the past. In 2011's Autumn Statement, green policies were singled out as a ‘burden’ and a ‘ridiculous cost’ to British business. He also pursued a potential opt-out on the 2011 carbon reduction agreement, and has previously referred to Parliamentary climate change campaigners as ‘Environmental Taliban’ over renewable commitments in a 2013 Energy Bill.

Moves to decarbonise energy by 2030 were shot down by the Conservatives, and the fourth carbon budget (50% reduction on 1990 levels by 2025) was left unchanged.

Cuts to green energy levies reduced government and company obligations to cut emissions, and significantly cut the amount of homes insulated. A manifesto pledge to build 100,000 discounted homes for first time buyers is rumoured to be funded through zero carbon home exemptions.

With Cameron signing a cross party pledge to tackle climate change, a second Tory led government needs a better record than the first one.

Energy: Conservative policy going into the election on energy will be similar to the one under this Parliament. Focus remains on nuclear and shale gas operations as part of a low carbon energy policy (which can't be used to keep warming in the 2C limit, and as I discussed with UKIP, won't be as fruitful as frackers are hoping), with the end goal of keeping energy bills for business down.

This change of course caused investment in UK renewable energy in 2013 to fall to a four year low, and the UK fell in the Renewable Energy Country Attractiveness Index, due to a lack of certainty about government targets and increasing moves to shale.

Both the Manifesto and the Conservative Environmental Network have called to move away from government intervention and towards a free market fix to climate change. In practice, this has meant cutting onshore wind and solar subsidies.

While this reduced uptake, cuts in subsidies have been driven by falling prices (solar panel costs fell by 50% between 2011 and 2013). In areas like offshore wind, subsidies increased (so much for the free market).

Subsidy cuts haven’t stopped the renewables industry growing in line with government targets either, although the National Grid doubts solar capacity will rise to 20GW by 2020.

Public Health and Pharmaceutical Regulation:

The government rolled out the Responsibility Deal in 2011 to improve public health through public-private sector deals. Some have argued it's been too soft on alcohol and tobacco industries, following the decision not to introduce minimum alcohol prices. Two papers published in the Journal Addiction were critical of the alcohol policy. As was the BMJ and Sheffield Alcohol Research Group.

Which? has similarly criticised the deal for not doing more to encourage healthy eating.

Meanwhile, while plain packaging legislation got cross party support, strong lobbying by the tobacco industry has meant not much action has been taken to make this law a reality.

Pharmaceutical industry regulation is improving. Conservative MEPs voted in favour of increasing clinical trial transparency, but they could go further (such as declaring results for abandoned drugs and auditing massing data, both of which are still legally withheld from doctors and patients).

Farming and GMs:

Government policy, which will only plant GM crops if proven safe, is outdated, but otherwise sensible. The fact the UK pushed for the change in GM policy in the EU does show a commitment to more sensible policy surround genetic engineering and broader agricultural policy.

Conclusion: Though making some good decisions, and making a pledge to tackle climate change, the Conservatives have sometimes mis-stepped on their policy. Basing energy policy around shale gas and not committing to decarbonising energy raises questions about their commitment to climate and green energy.

While steps have been taken to better regulate pharmaceutical companies, public health initiatives like the Responsibility Deal failed to achieve what they were set out to do.

Science funding (while being spared the full force of austerity) has seen its real term budget fall considerably, although pledges have been made to keep science funding safeguarded against inflation.

#Politics #Conservatives #SimonAllan #General #TheGeneralElectionSeries #TGE

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