As I write this column, the UK is about to go to the polls to elect a new government. In all likelihood, Tony Blair's Labour party will have been returned to power by the time you read this, albeit with a reduced parliamentary majority. It has been a somewhat subdued campaign: the UK economy is doing OK, unemployment is low, and there is a general feeling (whether right or wrong) that there is little to choose between the main political parties in many areas. The parties have focused almost entirely on their leaders; campaigns which have largely failed to enthuse the public. Many issues – science, energy, and the environment among them – have barely had a mention. This is in stark contrast to the US election, where the hydrogen economy, climate change, stem cell research, and storage of nuclear waste were sources of real debate.

This is surprising considering the furor in the last parliament over university funding and, particularly, the introduction of tuition fees of up to £3000 per year for students that can afford to pay. Here, there continue to be genuine differences between the parties. But, beyond the issue of student fees, any new government will have to face other pressing problems in UK universities.

Simon Campbell, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, argues on page 56 of this issue that the provision of science across the UK is under threat because the resources allocated do not cover the costs of teaching laboratory-based sciences. Already a number of chemistry, physics, and engineering departments have closed. Peter Main, director of education and science at the Institute of Physics (IOP), concurs: “To save physics departments in the UK, we need to stop the real-term cuts in funding. The current price weighting doesn't actually cover the real cost of teaching the subject, so departments are constantly losing money.” According to the IOP, fewer than 50 UK universities offer physics to undergraduates and >30% of physics departments have disappeared since 1994.

The Labour government is committed to a ten-year strategy for science and innovation, which outlines an ambition to increase total public and private investment in R&D from 1.9% of GDP to 2.5% by 2014. But any increase in public funding always seems to come with more time-consuming measures to assess the research process. This only adds to the burden of hard-pressed university departments. George Smith, head of the Department of Materials at the University of Oxford, believes that Britain now has the most over-regulated and micromanaged scientific community in the developed world. On page 48, he suggests that the increase in bureaucracy is actually harming British scientific success.

Much has been made by all parties as to whether the public can ‘trust’ Tony Blair again, particularly after the Iraq war. Perhaps the new UK government also needs to trust world-class scientists to produce world-class research without so much evaluation.

Read full text on ScienceDirect

DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(05)70914-7