Manchester Town Hall

Manchester Town Hall. Photo credit: Mark Andrew on Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

The Labour Party kicked off this year’s conference season last week, and the Royal Society organised two fringe events outside their Manchester hub (you can also read about the other one). After an early start, we joined colleagues from our sister Academies—the British Academy, Royal Academy of Engineering and Academy of Medical Sciences—to host a breakfast roundtable: “Research and innovation in the UK: leaders or followers?”

The Shadow Science Minister, Rt Hon Liam Byrne MP, spoke about science and innovation providing the UK’s route out of the ‘cost of living trap’, building a bigger knowledge economy and creating better jobs for the UK. The Academies have long advocated putting research and innovation at the heart of Government’s plans for growth. With parliamentarians, researchers and academics, charities and industrialists in attendance, we were well placed for an informed discussion about what a future Government should and could do to support research for the future of the UK. Below are some highlights from the discussion:

Science in parliament

How can we ensure parliamentarians are well-informed about science? Constituency issues are always a priority for MPs, so we were reminded to think locally. Experts can help by filtering the data and providing relevant information at the right times. We also talked about ways to help newly elected, as well as long-standing, MPs to access expertise and be confident in using it. The Royal Society runs an MP Pairing scheme every year, and experiences like this can be useful in bridging the gap.

Science across sectors

Much research and innovation in the UK happens in the public sector, but there is also huge investment from charities, and the majority of research is actually performed in industry. So what can Government do to support all of these actors? Innovation policies and incentives for research can help, but many basic aspects of the research system are important too – long-term confidence in Government support and access to skilled workers were some of the top priorities.

Strategic and translational research

How can Government use its investment in science and innovation to support economic growth? Liam Byrne talked about the value of multidisciplinary research, building on the UK’s excellence across a broad range of disciplines, but researchers in the room were keen to point out that to stay at the leading edge, there needs to be focussed work within disciplines too.

Science in the local economy

With Labour’s interest in devolution and the Scottish referendum a recent memory, local and regional support for science and innovation came up throughout the conversation. There were more questions than answers about the role of local structures—from Universities to combined authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships—in their local economies, but making better links and supporting innovation at the local level was a popular idea.

Education, Education, Education

Maybe it was the shadow of Tony Blair’ pre-1997 conference speech, but education and skills were a key focus for academics, businesses and charities alike. Stable routes for development of technically and scientifically skilled workers will be fundamental to a knowledge economy in the UK. Liam Byrne wants to create more diverse routes to skilled jobs. The Royal Society’s Vision for science and mathematics education sets out what we think school education should look like to support this.

To conference and beyond

As the discussion closed the attendees rushed off to other events across the city or back to their day jobs. Hopefully the discussion provided useful food for thought for Labour. We responded to their draft plan for science over the summer, and in the New Year we’ll be setting out our vision of how research and innovation can be central to prosperity in the UK, and how the next Government—Labour or otherwise—can support it.