How big a part is science and technology going to play in a forthcoming general election?
The date hasn't been called yet but already there have been more mentions of scientific and technological research that I can recall. I'm too young to have heard Harold Wilson's 1963 white heat of technology speech but it looks like the parties are jostling to echo those sentiments.
The trouble is: Wilson's speech was made when Britain was still an economic powerhouse - the pre-eminent country in western Europe when it came to science and technology - the parties at this election are going to make pledges against a backdrop of public spending cuts when financial commitments are thin on the ground.
Nevertheless, there have been three reports in the past few weeks that look at future scientific funding: the Council for Science and Technology's A Vision for UK Research, The Royal Society's The Scientific Century: Securing our future prosperity and James Dyson's report for the Conservative Party, Ingenious Britain.
It's an impressive trio - especially the Royal Society's manifesto, which was written by a group containing two Nobel laureates and two former ministers of science (one Labour, one Conservative to crush any perceived political bias). And what's more impressive is that all three speak with a common accord, stating that economic recovery is going to be driven by high-tech companies, governments shouldn't be cutting research budgets,should be considering tax credits for R&D, should appoint more scientific advisers, should shake up science in education, and should be investing more in science and technology.
It's an impressive list of proposals but all the indications are that the voices are going to go unheeded. As the New Scientist reports, a debate on the Royal Society report produced political clichÃ©s a-plenty but little in the way of firm commitments.
Certainly, we can expect little from Labour. The sacking of David Nutt as a scientific adviser shows that as far as the Labour party is concerned, scientists are only listened to if they toe the party line; science in its own right is little respected, And when it comes to IT, I've little reason to expect any better: I've blogged before on its attitude to open source software, preferring expensive, proprietary US software companies over cheaper open source offerings.
But the lack of specifics from the Conservatives suggest that the situation is not going to be much better. At least they have made firm commitments to look at open source alternatives in software procurement, a move that has got be welcomed but their noises about cutting government spending deeper and quicker than the Labour party proposes suggests that science and technology is not going to have an easy ride.
Against such a background, it was strange to see the BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, releasing a guide to the top 10 online resourcesas its contribution to the election debate. Strange because most web-savvy citizens will be perfectly aware of sites such as They Work for You or that you can use Google alerts to notify you what your MP is up to. I live in a three-way marginal and follow the three candidates' Twitter feeds so I can see how frantically they're campaigning as the election gets ever nearer. Judging by the number of followers they all have, there are plenty of constituents following the action, so the BCS guide strikes me as a little patronising.
I'd love to have heard more from the BCS about what they'd like to see from the political parties in the run-up to the election: what sort of level of funding commitment would they like to see? What promises on IT procurement should the government be making? What's the future of off-shoring? What government help can the industry expect for technology training.
Personally, I'd like to have seen more from all parties about how technology is going to shape our lives in future. Should there be financial inducements to encourage home-working or videoconferencing to cut down on unnecessary travel? Should there be more online participation in society with easier two-way participation between politicians and their representives? Should broadband be a fundamental right and if so, how is it funded (an area where both Labour and Tories are conspicuously woolly)? Should UK cities become giant Wi-Fi zones?
The three reports mentioned above don't go into great detail - nor should they, their aim was to sketch a long-term future. But all political parties should address such concerns and not seek to hide behind platitudes.Science and technology will be strong drivers for economic change and whatever government is in power should recognise that.
I've been writing about IT for more than 20 years and I can honestly say that the pace of change right now is faster than I can ever remember it. And yet, for all their enthusiasm for Twitter and Blackberries, political parties seem to be far behind the curve when it comes to handling IT issues. I would love it if IT were at the forefront of this election - but I'm not holding my breath.
Follow Maxwell on Twitter @maxcooter
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