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Op-Ed: Debating science and medicine in run up to U.K. poll

Health is always a big issue in the U.K. election process. The U.K.’s National Health service (NHS), founded in 1948 by the Labour Party, delivers health and medical care for all citizens free at the point-of-delivery and is generally regarded as untouchable (although certain parts have been privatized under the current coalition government.) No party, other than the right-wing U.K. Independence Party (essentially a European skeptic Conservative Party spin-off) wants to fundamentally reform the NHS — in the case of UKIP, they eventually want to abolish it.

For the more mainstream parties, the NHS is sacrosanct and the debates are not about funding (which is a given), more about smaller, although important, reforms such as how long doctor’s surgeries are open for.

There is also a commonality of interest with medical research. A review undertaken by the medical journal The Lancet summarizes that with areas like “personalised medicine, translating scientific advances into patient benefit, increasing funding, and supporting a steady stream of bright minds from home and abroad to support future research are clear priorities for nearly all of the parties.”

The Labour Party has one focus not covered by the other parties, which is a commitment to protect data from patients in clinical trials from being passed around and sold by pharmaceutical companies which, if enacted should the party win power, would provide a level of reassurance that is missing at the moment.

In terms of science policy, The Guardian reported that the Society of Biology brought together the science representatives from the leading parties. However, at the end of a public debate little emerged to differentiate them. The Guardian has a series of videos from science spokespeople from each major party, with the exception of UKIP who could not provide any person to speak on the subject. The videos are rather bland, with the odd reference to supporting university funding and ensuring that the U.K. has a dynamic, technological driven economy. Behind the sound bites there is little in terms of concrete policy.

Moreover, when the party leaders have got together for “debates” there has been little mention of science issues. Debates is rather a loose term, especially since the leader of the Conservative Party and current Prime Minister David Cameron has refused to engage in any kind televised discussion with the leader of the opposition, Ed Milliband.

The Labour Party has made the best attempt with a policy document called “Agenda 2030“. Here the party argues that best way forwards is to put “Britain in the vanguard of innovation by investing in our science base and our national system of innovation, and supporting the transition to a low carbon economy.” The document lacks detail, but at least it is an attempt to address the importance of a knowledge-base economy.

It would seem that science is being short-changed in the election. Sure, the economy is important. But science and technology are the engines of much economic growth and should be neglected. According to the Society for Biology, for every £1 spent by the Government on research and development, private sector R&D output rises by 20 pence per year in perpetuity. Hardly spare change. However, as the BBC analysis of election manifestos reveals, science does not feature as a key priority by any major party.

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Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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