Friday, 29 May 2015

Tycho Brahe's gin

Last year I attended a conference in Copenhagen and while I was there I wanted to visit Tycho Brahe's observatory. For those who don't know, Tycho Brahe is considered to be one of the greatest astronomical observers in history, particularly in the pre-telescope era in which he lived, and he made many notable contributions to astronomy, including reporting on the 1572 supernova that now bears his name.

Hven gin, made on the island that was once home to
Tycho Brahe's observatory.
In 1576 he constructed an observatory called Uraniborg, which was apparently very impressive. It was built on the island of Hven in the Baltic Sea between Sweden and Denmark, and I was interested in visiting the observatory to see what remained. Unfortunately, as I found out,  the observatory doesn't exist any more, which is a great shame. Luckily for me though I was at least able to bring some part of Hven home with me when I found out that the island is now home to a gin distillery, and since my wife enjoys gin I was able to find a bottle in a Copenhagen liquor store and bring her a bottle home. I'm told it's very good, Tycho would have been proud!

Friday, 1 May 2015

Which parties will improve science in the UK at this year's general election?

While this year's general election in the UK may not be focussed on science and engineering, these are areas that are very important to the economy of our country. Despite this, science and research have suffered over the last decade, particularly under the last government. As a fraction of GDP the UK's research spending is currently the lowest amongst the G8 and the world's major economies, and in 2012 research spending dropped below 0.5% of GDP for the first time ever.

Science funding as a percentage of GDP (Credit: The Guardian)

The UK is clearly dropping behind these other economies in terms of research spending and productivity, which will seriously affect our future productivity and economy. Since this is an important issue it can be useful to know where the major parties stand on science education and funding, and what they plan to do about these issues if they were to get into power.

To answer this question I've trawled through the various parties' manifestos, as well as their letters to the Campaign for Science and Engineering, to try to find out what the different parties plan to do about science after the election. This meant a lot of sorting through vague statements of support for science and education to find actual plans and promises that might mean something over the next 5 years. Here's what I found.

The two main parties, the Conservatives and Labour, aren't really making any strong promises. The Conservatives are promising to continue the current science budget for another year, though since that is a fixed budget it would likely equate to a drop in actual spending power due to inflation. Labour are promising to ensure that all young people study Maths until age 18, which would probably benefit scientific literacy levels, but only as a by-product.

The leaders of the four major UK parties, but who is best to
improve science in the UK? (Credit: BBC
The Liberal Democrats go a little further, partly by promising to continue the ring-fencing of the science budget, but also by ensuring that by 2020 both research capital and revenue spending increase in line with inflation. This is an improvement over the Conservative's fixed science budget, though it doesn't go as far as other parties are promising to go, as we'll see later. The Liberal Democrats also have a more promising track record on these issues, by attempting to get more scientifically-literate MPs into parliament and also by introducing a 5p plastic bag charge into supermarkets.

The UK Independence Party are promising to abolish tuition fees, though only for students of STEM subjects who stay and work in the UK for 5 years following their graduation. Offsetting this strong move though UKIP are also promising to leave the European Union, which they claim will reduce the regulations which hamper science and technology (I can't speak for any of these regulations myself), but this will also lose UK science of up to 1 billion Euros of funding that we currently receive from the EU every year. Furthermore UKIP are promising to repeal the Climate Change act of 2008, which includes carbon budgets and targets for this half century, and this, I think, is a dangerous move given the way the world's climate is going at the moment.

The Green Party
(Credit: Wikipedia)
The Green party have, perhaps unsurprisingly, made some of the most impressive promises, including doubling public spending on research over the next ten years to reach 1% of GDP, the sort of levels already close to being reached by major research powerhouses across the world such as the USA and South Korea. In addition to this they want to end undergraduate tuition fees and reintroduce student grants, both initiatives that should encourage more people to go to University, study the sciences, and therefore improve the scientific literacy of our workforce.

And finally, while I myself can't vote for either the Scottish National Party (SNP) or Plaid Cymru, since I do not live in either Scotland or Wales, it is worth noting that both parties promise to establish free education for all, including abolishing University tuition fees.

To the majority of people in the UK, there's a stark choice between the commitments the major political parties have made to science. The two largest parties, Labour and the Conservatives, clearly think that science is important, but not important enough to make clear and ambitious promises for how to improve science and engineering in the UK. The Liberal Democrats are offering a little more, as do the SNP and Plaid Cymru (if you are able to vote for them), but none of the parties go as far as the Green Party in making commitments to science for the next parliament.

Hopefully this has been useful for deciding who to vote for in the next election. Whoever you vote for, and whoever gets into power, I hope that science and engineering do well under the next government, for the benefit of our own country and everyone in it.