IOP blog explores the political context for physics in Scotland, Wales and Ireland

17 June 2016

The IOP’s national officers have assessed how science might be affected in Scotland, Wales and Ireland after the recent elections in their nations that brought new administrations into power, and their comments have been published on the IOP’s blog.

IOP blog explores the political context for physics in Scotland, Wales and Ireland

As the IOP’s national officer for Scotland, Alison McLure noted the return of Nicola Sturgeon as first minister, with the Scottish National Party (SNP) forming a minority government and the Scottish Conservatives being the main opposition. John Swinney has been made cabinet secretary for education and skills, with overall responsibility for higher education (HE) and science, while Shirley-Anne Somerville has been given a specific remit under him for further education (FE), HE and science, McLure noted.

“With this new ministerial team in place, let’s hope that the new Scottish Government recognises the importance of STEM to the country and that they will put in place policies that will invest in this essential area,” she said.

In its manifesto, the SNP had made several pledges, including support for research and development initiatives between academia and business, implementing a Scottish STEM strategy and putting education at the forefront of its programme. “The IOP will continue to emphasise to politicians and government that physics matters and that it requires sustained investment. With the help of members, we will remind them of their promises,” McLure said.

David Cunnah, the IOP’s national officer for Wales, noted that the outcome of negotiations since the election had been the formation of another Labour government in Wales, but with former Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams as cabinet secretary for education.

Several Liberal Democrat manifesto pledges were in the programme for government, he said, including the likely implementation of the Diamond review’s recommendation on student tuition fees. Welsh students currently receive a grant payment of up to £5,190 towards fees, wherever they study, and it seemed likely that this level of support would not continue, at least for those studying outside Wales, he said.

Before the election, the IOP had joined several other organisations in calling for protection of the Higher Education Funding Council Wales (HEFCW) from proposed cuts. These cuts were reduced but HEFCW’s budget still shrank by 10%, Cunnah said. “Given the importance of this funding to blue-skies research, it would be deeply worrying to see further erosion of the already stretched fund... As an expensive subject to teach, physics is likely to feel the impact of any reduction in funding more acutely than other subjects,” he said.

After elections in Northern Ireland, almost all ministerial posts are now held by Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) from the Democratic Unionist Party or from Sinn Fein, the IOP’s national officer for Ireland, Sheila Gilheany, explained.

The Northern Ireland Executive’s recently-published draft programme for government framework “has many aspirations that would be well-served by investment in physics at all levels” including a strong, competitive, regionally-balanced economy, Gilheany said. The document acknowledges that the main drivers of this are innovation, R&D and improving the skills of the workforce, she said, but though physics-based industries are an important part of the Northern Ireland economy, the sector lags behind the rest of the UK.

The framework has no explicit mention of the role of science education in Northern Ireland and investment is needed in all areas of physics education from primary to university, she said. “It is essential that the new government address some of the major challenges faced by all involved in physics in Northern Ireland. Many of these issues are interlinked and require measures across a number of government departments,” she argued.

South of the border, the general election in February was followed by 10 weeks of negotiations, finally resulting in a minority government led by Fine Gael with support from independents and an agreement with the largest opposition party, Fianna Fáil.

There was little about science and research in the new administration’s lengthy programme for government document, Gilheany said, but Fine Gael’s manifesto had promised full implementation of the five-year strategy for R&D, science and technology: Innovation 2020. This was published by the Interdepartmental Committee on Science, Technology and Innovation in December 2015, and though it might be assumed that this would now be carried out, a statement to that effect would have been welcome, she said.

The programme contained welcome commitments on education, she said, but there needed to be clear statements on addressing the lack of Leaving Certificate teaching in physics in more than a quarter of Irish schools, and the funding crisis in third-level education.