The result was the country's first coalition government in 70 years, an unlikely pairing of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

The British people, not to mention their politicians, have little experience of coalition governments at the national level, leading to some confusion over which party's policies will dominate. For scientists and engineers, haunted by memories of the savage cuts imposed on the universities by the Conservatives in the 1980s, this is a particularly pertinent question.

Before the election many scientists supported the Liberal Democrats, who were seen as the most science-friendly of the three main parties. The party had promised to protect the science budget from cuts this year, rewrite the ministerial code to protect scientific advice to government, and counted Evan Harris and Phil Willis, two of Parliament's strongest supporters of science, among its ranks'though Willis retired at the election.

With the Conservatives failing to secure a majority, the Lib Dems emerged from the election holding the balance of power, despite losing several seats (Evan Harris' Oxford constituency among them). But the question was, how many of their pro-science policies would survive the merging of the manifestos?

Those hoping for an answer in the coalition's Programme for Government, published on 20 May, were disappointed. There was a promise to “build a new economy from the rubble of the old”, but no mention of how science and engineering would help to drive that new economy.

In fact, science was mentioned only twice-in relation to teacher recruitment and badger control. The section on universities had little to say about research, beyond a vague promise to “ensure that public funding mechanisms for university research safeguard its academic integrity”.

Hi-tech companies, at least, had something to lift their spirits. The coalition plans to consider implementing the recommendations of the review by vacuum cleaner entrepreneur James Dyson to make the UK the leading hi-tech exporter in Europe, and refocus the R&D tax credit on small hi-tech firms and start ups. Maybe this is how they intend to kick-start the new economy.

A clearer statement of intent came from the government on 24 May, when Chancellor George Osborne announced £6 billion in budget cuts for this year. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills took a £836 million hit, with £200 million of that coming from the universities. This means the 20,000 extra student places for this autumn, mostly in science, technology, engineering and maths, promised by the previous Labour government in its last Budget in March have been reduced to 10,000.

The research councils, which provide the majority of research grants for UK academics, were spared any cuts in this round. But with an emergency budget due on 22 June, and a comprehensive spending review to set spending plans for the next three years expected in the autumn, researchers should not count on the science ring-fence protecting them from cuts for much longer.

The biggest change scientists can expect, though, is in the general attitude of the government towards science and engineering. David Willetts, the new Conservative science minister, will attend cabinet, though that may have less to do with David Cameron's enthusiasm for evidence-based policy than the need to accommodate a talented MP on the front bench while giving the Lib Dems their five allotted cabinet seats. The relationship between Willetts and his Lib Dem boss Vince Cable will be one to watch.

Willetts is very different from his Labour predecessor, Paul Drayson. He comes across as much less energetic and enthusiastic than the racecar driving Drayson, and far more considered and cerebral-fitting for someone nicknamed “Two Brains”.

Drayson, a biotech entrepreneur, embodied Labour's instrumental view of science and technology. Public investment in research would spur private sector innovation, and so spur economic growth. The STEM subjects were king, and everyone was expected to be able to point to the “impact” of their work.

Willetts, it seems, takes a more philosophical view of science. At his first press conference, a few days after getting the job, Willetts reflected that the scientific mindset was one of the most important shared ways of thinking that we have, and that scientific evidence was one of the best ways to reach out to the public across ideological, religious and cultural lines. Willetts seems much more open

The Conservatives' “Big Society” programme will require the input of social scientists and historians. So the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, long used to having a direct line to Whitehall, will now be balanced by the British Academy and other social science and humanities groups.

There is one last part of the coalition deal whose significance may have escaped the notice of many scientists and engineers. The government has committed to reform of the House of Lords, to make the second chamber wholly or mainly elected. This would be a step forwards for democracy in the mother of all Parliaments, but it could have serious consequences for science.

Moving to an elected upper chamber would mean the government would lose the ability to appoint competent technocrats to the jobs that benefit from some technical know-how. Indeed, Labour's most effective science ministers, Paul Drayson and David Sainsbury, were both Lords.

There are also several eminent scientists who are peers, including zoologist John Krebs and Royal Society president Martin Rees, who make important contributions to debates on science issues. It is unlikely they would be interested in standing for election.

There is reason to hope, however, that in a coalition between two parties that have some really fundamental differences, science and research may be one area in which it is easy for them to find common ground. Provided, that is, that this marriage of convenience lasts.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(10)70111-5