General Election 2017: The Liberal Democrats on Science

Lib-dem-party-logo-2015Simon Allen

With their membership surging and poll numbers tanking, can noted milk enthusiast Tim Farron help the #LibDemFightBack with his pitch to scientifically minded voters?

(Manifesto here)

Brexit and Budget:

If the stars align and the Liberal Democrats win a majority, they’ll offer “a vote on the terms of the deal” at the end of the negotiations between:

  1. A non-Brexit Brexit, where we slide into the European Economic Area, or
  2. No Brexit. We’d stay in.

A lot of Lib Dem science goals depend on, at a minimum, staying in the single market.

Their “Save Our Scientists” campaign wants the same cross border co-operation and equal access to funding we have now, and pushing for single market membership whilst championing free movement is a good way to get it.

Under a non-Brexit Brexit outcome, the UK would operate like Norway in Horizon-2020. British universities, academics and companies would participate on equal footing under Protocol 31 of the EEA agreement.

Norway has no representation in the EU Commission or Parliament, so a single market deal would leave the UK with less say over EU research goals. But the party is offering the clearest vision of what a post Brexit UK-EU relationship would look like. It’d look broadly the same.

Scientists are a mobile bunch, and the Lib Dems want to make Brexit Britain friendlier to scientists both within and beyond the EU’s borders. They’d guarantee EU citizens the right to stay, keep Erasmus, exclude students from migration targets, simplify the visa process for skilled workers (which the Institute for Public Policy and Research say is restrictive), and reinstate post-study work visas for science graduates.

In terms of funding, they’d protect the science budget – including Philip Hammond’s £2bn windfall – and make sure it rises with inflation. They’d also underwrite all Horizon-2020 projects. Long term, the Lib Dems aim to double R&D spending from 1.7% of GDP to 3.4%. This is more generous than Labour’s 3%, or the Conservative’s 2.4%, although how “long term” long term is is left to our imaginations.

Climate Change:

In government, Lib Dem Climate Secretary Ed Davey made the UK something of an EU climate champion. Britain pushed strongly for carbon trading reform to encourage decarbonisation (by restricting carbon credits and advocating a price floor); campaigned for halving EU emissions by 2030; and put diplomatic pressure on the EU to secure climate deals globally. International pressure for climate action would be bolstered by a Lib Dem government, according to their manifesto.

If the Lib Dems are successful in keeping Britain in the single market, we’ll be bound by climate rules like the EU Emissions Trading System, Fuel Quality Directive, and Renewable Energy Directive.

At home, the Lib Dems would pass a “Zero Carbon Britain Act” to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2040, and to zero by 2050. This is in step with IPCC recommendations.

Energy:

The Lib Dems would say no to fracking, because it’s inconsistent with climate goals. Their manifesto pledges to have 60% of electricity come from renewables by 2030. Again, less ambitious than what #Milibae proposed. The party would invest in energy storage, smart grids, hydrogen technologies, and reinstate government subsidies for solar and onshore wind.

The party accept nuclear power’s role in fighting climate change, and pledge to keep the UK in EURATOM (a super important thing to do).

The Environment:

The Lib Dems would keep EU environmental regulations. The party proposes a “Zero-Waste Act” to raise recycling rates to 70% in England, and bring food waste collection to 90% of homes by 2022.

The Blue Marine Foundation will be happy to hear they’d establish “blue belts” for marine ecosystems. They’d also plant a tree for every UK citizen over the next ten years. This could either mean 64.6 million trees (the current UK population) or, if they mean each newborn, a less impressive 5.4 million.

Public Health:

The party manifesto talks about the impending doom posed by antibiotic resistance, and the need to implement the recommendations of the O’Neill report. (TL; DR: wash your hands, don’t use antimicrobials in agriculture, stop being trigger happy with antibiotics, and more research!)

The party pledges to extend green space access, which has extensive physical and psychological benefits (see: here and here). As transport costs public health £40 billion a year, and inactivity costs the NHS £1.1 billion each year, the party would implement the 2013 “Get Britain Cycling” report, which was praised by Guardian cycle-nut Peter Walker.

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, or 3.7% of GDP according to the World Health Organisation. To fight air pollution, the party would ban the sale of polluting diesel cars by 2025, and introduce a diesel scrappage scheme. They’d also extend low emission zones to major towns and cities.

On obesity, the party falters. They’d strengthen the sugar tax (meh) and force restaurants and takeaways to provide calorie, fat, sugar and salt data. As far as curbing obesity goes, the measures probably won’t work (see: here and here).

The Lib Dems want to introduce a tobacco levy (a good idea) and minimum alcohol pricing (another good idea).

There’s been a big deal surrounding the party’s desire to legalise cannabis. From a health perspective, the most comprehensive review to date by the US National Academies of Science (full report here) looked at 24,000 studies and over 2.2 million patients. It found cannabis use is linked to developing social anxiety, schizophrenia, psychosis and, to a lesser degree, depression. Cannabis use is also linked to higher uptake of tobacco smoking.

On the flip side, cannabis works for treating chronic pain, relieving chemo-induced vomiting, multiple sclerosis, and helping people with short term sleep apnea. The drug isn’t linked to illnesses like cancer or asthma; or wider societal harms like hard drug use, impaired academic achievement, worse relationships, or unemployment.

Whether drug decriminalisation, and a regulated drug market, is in the national interest is beyond the scope of this article. Here are two good pieces on the topic (here and here)

Regarding mental health, Norman Lamb has been a prominent spokesperson for years. The manifesto pledges to ringfence some of the £6bn a year increase in NHS spending to invest in mental health. They’d give equity to mental and physical illness, provide training to public service professionals to better handle mental illness, and introduce a ‘wellbeing premium’ to reward employers who measurably improve the health of their employees.

The party (reluctantly) recognise the need for animal testing by Britain’s medical community.

Farming:

It’s hard to find a Lib Dem position on GM crops. The party has been against the technology in the past. Tim Farron has expressed vaguely neutral views on the issue (to his credit, he didn’t jump on the anti-GM bandwagon) and Scottish Lib Dems motioned to reverse the blanket ban on GM crops the SNP introduced.

The Lib Dems plan to save bees by banning neonicotinoids, as mounting evidence suggests the pesticide is harmful (see: here, here, here and here). They’d reduce the use of antibiotics in animal feed to fight rising antibiotic resistance, and hint at stopping the badger cull.

So do they deserve my vote?

The Lib Dem vision for British science funding, and their steadfast commitment to Europe, provide the UK science community with more immediate stability than other parties. Their pro-immigration message should be welcomed by the highly international field of British research.

Their environment policy is, on the whole, solid. As are their energy and climate policies. Unfortunately, their obesity plans leave a lot to be desired. In addition, the party’s attitude to GM crops is confusing; and something they fail to clear up.

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