The General Election: What do the Liberal Democrats Think About Science?

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The Guardian Litmus Test voted the Liberal Democrats as the party with the best science policy in 2010. So have the Lib Dems kept the top spot this time round? (Policies here and here).

Budget: The Lib Dems are calling for an immediate ring-fencing (separating) of the UK science budget and protection of the funding for 10 years. Since a frozen budget is a declining one due to inflation, there have also been calls to get cross-party support to increase funding by 3% above inflation over 15 years.

The party would also provide bursaries for students studying STEM, access to STEM in primary schools would increase, and high tech industries and Private Sector research would be subsidised through tax credits. It would effectively mean the government would partially fund private sector science funding.

Because you can't talk about the Lib Dems without bringing up tuition fees, it's worth talking about the shift of University funding towards students. A bill which would have allowed MPs to scrutinise this never materialised. The loss on student loans which won't be repaid has ballooned from 30% to 45%.

As the scheme matures the outstanding loan balance is projected to peak at £330bn in the mid-2040s. If repayments by graduates continue to underperform, then how funding for research will be provided by BIS is anyone's guess.

Climate Change:

The Lib Dems, with their five point environmental plan, have some of the clearest policies concerning the environment.

Their transport bill would rapidly increase electric transport infrastructure, only allow low emission cars on the road by 2040 and increase cycle and public transport access by reforming city planning.

Their house efficiency and insulation targets (i.e. zero carbon homes) are weaker than the proposals passed under New Labour (calling for zero carbon construction by 2016), instead being "nearly zero carbon". They also say the UK will reach zero carbon emissions from energy by 2050 - in line with IPCC, and beyond the goals of the Climate Change Act.

The Nature Bill would expand marine and coastal reserves, plant one million new trees, extend the “Right to Roam” Act and introduce legally binding targets to protect biodiversity, air and water. But these already exist in the form of EU environmental legislation.

The extension of right to roam, if badly managed, could have negative effects on wildlife and undermine their biodiversity targets.

The goal to plant a tree for every new child isn't much to write home about. Given 700,000 births (UK 2013 total annual births), only 280 hectares would be planted a year (assuming a Woodland Grant Scheme density of 2500 trees per hectare). To put this in perspective, 13,000 hectares of new woodland was made between 2013-14.

Energy: The Lib Dems have said they would pursue energy decarbonisation, but while in government they've been criticised for being quick to tow the Tory line. Thirty voted against decarbonising energy by 2030.

The Lib Dems say they'll decarbonise as fast as the economy will allow. They will also phase out coal fired power plants in the 2020s (which, due to an EU directive, will happen whoever's in charge).

While decarbonisation by 2050 has been deemed necessary to stay in the 2 degrees celcius limit, the Lib Dem policies are less ambitious than other parties. Labour has fully committed to energy decarbonisation by 2030.

They've also changed their outlook from 2010 to support nuclear where renewable technology isn't deemed viable, and will invest in large scale tidal energy plans in the River Severn (which could provide 6% of UK electricity consumption).

A policy to divert half the tax revenues from fracking into a low carbon transition fund (hidden in the finance section of their manifesto) also hints at a quiet support for shale gas.

Public Health and Pharmaceutical Regulation:

Ad restrictions on junk food, alcohol and sugar have been proposed as a way to improve public health by the Lib Dems (which can be a part of, but not the whole, solution). They've also pushed for a minimum alcohol price (like the Greens), and an additional tax levy on tobacco (like Labour).

Like the World Health Organisation, they support better access to sport centres and a register for all clinical trials. They also voted for increasing clinical trial transparency.

A lot of the policy is tied to environment. This translates to policies which improve access to green space and reduce air pollution. There's a lot of evidence to suggest that increasing access to green space is beneficial to public health. Same with reducing air pollution (although extending right to roam access to golf courses might not be great for public health).

Farming and GMOs:

The Lib Dems have come out in favour of GM technologies, and have played a key role in defending the technologies. It was the Lib Dems who wrote to Jean Claude Junker to keep the EU’s Chief Scientific Adviser role over the issue of GM crops after all.

Residual concerns over the harm to organic farming till exist in the more Green wings of the Lib Dems, but the biggest policy factor is their love of all things democracy. They've argued that any policy surrounding GM crops would have to take public opinion into account.

Conclusion: Commitments to securing a ring-fenced budget for 10 years, with a 3% rise above inflation for 15 years and tax credits for high tech industry are welcome, but not as ambitious as other policy such as the Greens, who call for 1% of GDP to go to science funding. And no one’s really answered the question about the BIS funding black hole left by the change to tuition fees.

The Lib Dem climate and energy policies are in step with the IPCC's. However other environmental commitments, like their nature policies, have largely been enacted.

Their public health policy and commitment to pharmaceutical regulation are areas that stand out as evidence-led policy, but their GM policy hinges on public opinion - not evidence.

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