General Election 2017: The Conservatives on Science


Simon Allen

When the election was called a few weeks ago, Theresa May held a commanding lead over her opponents. But now Labour is closing the gap, can Theresa May woo any scientifically minded voters to back her party on June 8th?

(Manifesto here)

Brexit and Budget:

Brexit sends a snowball of uncertainty barreling down the hill of “fuck you” and crashing into the cabin of composure that is British science*, so how will the Tories aim to keep the same EU benefits and reduce uncertainty?

The manifesto claims that freedom of movement will end, and that the country will decide on a case-by-case basis which EU projects to contribute to.

It’s hard to imagine Horizon-2020 or FP-9 being snubbed by any government. But ending free movement may prompt the EU to restrict Horizon-2020 and FP-9 access, and reduce the leading role the UK currently plays in many projects. It will likely make UK science less competitive, too.

The Tories don’t guarantee EU citizens an automatic right to stay, making them the only party not to offer such rights. Even UKIP offer EU nationals the right to stay. UKIP!

When the amendment came up in Parliament, only Ken Clarke and Tania Mathias voted in favour. ~16% of EU academics haven’t lived in the UK long enough to gain permanent residency. A lot don’t earn enough to earn skilled labour visas. If the rights of these citizens aren’t guaranteed, there’s potential for a brain drain from the UK.

Many scientists are critical of their immigration targets. And counting students in said targets. And expecting students to leave the country at the end of their course unless they meet “higher requirements” allowing them to stay.

Funding wise, chancellor Philip Hammond said the Treasury will underwrite Horizon 2020 projects the UK is currently bidding on or committed to. This includes projects that’ll finish after we’ve left. The chancellor also treated scientists with a £2bn windfall. Over the next 10 years, the Tories pledge to raise R&D spending to the OECD average of 2.4% of GDP. This would still leave us with lower R&D spending than places like the US, Germany, Belgium and Israel.

Party faithful argue 2.4% is more achievable than the 3% Labour pledged, or the 3.4% from the Lib Dems. Opponents argue both Labour and the Lib Dems have costed their pledges. The Tories haven’t.

Climate Change:

Decarbonisation targets laid out by the 2008 Climate Change Act have (so far) been stuck to. Before the election, the Conservatives said they’d adopt the Fifth Carbon Budget which aims to reduce carbon emissions by 57% from 1990 levels. The act only goes as far as an 80% reduction on emissions from 1990 levels by 2050. The IPCC say we need to decarbonise faster than that. Nevertheless, the party has committed to tackling climate change.

The party pledges to upgrade all energy poor homes to at least a C efficiency rating by 2030, make companies more energy efficient, and roll out smart meters for all by 2020. A House of Commons report recommends keeping EU efficiency guidelines and mirroring them. The “Great Repeal Bill” will enshrine these regulations in UK law.

Arguably the big climate loser is Europe. The Tories deserve some credit for securing stronger EU climate deals during the coalition years. For example, the wording behind targets to cut emissions by “at least 40% by 2030” is important, since many scientists (like a Vice-Chair at the IPCC) argue EU climate goals need to go further. It was David Cameron pushed for the “at least” wording in the agreement.

Poland tried to block the 40% emissions target the UK proposed. They only signed up after winning concessions to subsidise coal. Now we’re leaving, it’s easier for members to derail climate legislation.

Looking beyond Britain, if this report telling diplomats to “scale down” climate change in favour of trade deals is anything to go by, don’t expect climate to feature prominently in Tory diplomacy.


The manifesto states energy policy will be based on producing “reliable and affordable energy”, rather how it’s generated. The Tories won’t reverse the onshore wind subsidy ban, so we’ll miss out on cheap, clean wind energy according to the  Energy Transitions Commission. They do, however, want to expand UK offshore wind capacity.

Tory energy policy focuses on expanding natural gas via fracking, provided it meets “rigorous environmental protections”. To that end, they’d establish a new shale regulator with the same job as the Health and Safety Executive, and Environmental Agency. Environmental protections are likely to focus on groundwater contamination, monitoring seismic activity, and mining waste.

Worries about groundwater contamination are overblown. Evidence submitted to the Environmental Audit Committee by Professor Mike Kendall, a seismologist at the University of Bristol, says shale deposits are too deep to threaten groundwater supplies. More concerning is the impact burning shale gas will have on the climate. A committee report brands fracking inconsistent with UK climate goals.

Despite everyone in the nuclear industry saying “Don’t pull out of EURATOM”, the Tories haven’t done the industry any favours by pulling out of EURATOM. Their manifesto doesn’t address how they’ll safeguard the UK’s nuclear industry from the impending legal cluster-calhoon.

The Environment:

The Tories plan to keep EU environmental legislation after Brexit. They want to plant a million trees; about the same amount as Labour. They’d tackle litter by forcing councils to remove roadside rubbish, aim to raise recycling rates, and commission a 25 year environment plan. The party joins Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens in creating “blue belt” zones.

The party would encourage farmers to plant hedgerows to fight soil erosion, and give food/shelter to the 130 species considered a biodiversity priority that depend on hedgerows.

Public Health:

Under a Tory government, employers would need to provide appropriate mental health training, and one million members of the public would get basic mental health education. Teachers would be given mental health training, and 10,000 mental health professionals would be recruited.

The party is vague on tackling obesity. They claim leaving the EU will give us more flexibility over food labelling, but they don’t say what they’d do with their newfound freedom. They don’t say what label laws they’d introduce, or how else they’d tackle obesity. Keep in mind, the King’s Fund state obesity costs the NHS £4.2 billion a year, and they don’t have a plan to scrutinise.

The government faced legal pushback about keeping their air pollution plans under wraps until after the election. A Royal College of Physicians and Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health report says exposure to outdoor air pollution shortens our lives by about three days per person; causes respiratory issues in young children; stunts lung development in teenagers; and costs the country £16 billion a year due to ill health (or 3.7% of GDP using World Health Organisation figures)

The High Court deems this a sufficient threat to public health, and forced the government to publish its air pollution plan. So they did, and forgot to mention air pollution in their manifesto.

ClientEarth, the lawyers who first sued the government, say the plans aren’t good enough. If the Tories win, they’ll likely take the government back to court. For the third time.


The party doesn’t have a statement on GM crops, but it’s likely the current government position (case-by-case rollout with public support) will remain the policy. Brexit gives the UK more control over farming rules, so there is potential for a rollout of the technology after we leave. Scottish Conservatives are vocal in their support for GMOs.

So do they deserve my vote?

An issue the manifesto has is detail. The Tories don’t cover how their newfound label flexibility will fight obesity, or if they have new plans to tackle air pollution.

Policies where the party give more details reveal they’re less ambitious than other main parties. Funding commitments are lower, climate policy is less ambitious, they offer no safeguards to the nuclear industry by pulling out of EURATOM (they don’t even mention the body) and the party is still committed to fracking.

On Europe, EU academics face uncertainty about their rights, and their migration targets have been panned by the scientific community at large.  

#GeneralElection2017 #Politics

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