As the UK parliament takes a break for the annual party conference season, it is a good time to reflect on what will be some of the big issues over the coming months.
The 2015 spending review
Work is underway in Whitehall on the UK spending review, due to publish on 25 November. The Society is working closely with the other Academies to make a strong case for long-term, stable investment in scientific research and innovation. This has included contributing to the Commons Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into the Science Budget, due to come out ahead of the spending review, and making a strong case to Treasury calling for the government to increase its investment in R&D to at least match the OECD average of 0.67% of GDP by 2020. We highlight five areas for this investment to maintain the UK’s scientific and economic leadership: rebuilding UK research, multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research, increasing agility, capacity building in strategically important emerging fields and regional development.
A green paper
The Minister for Universities and Science is preparing a green paper that will set out proposals for a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), originally outlined in the Conservative manifesto. Government will consult on these proposals but in the meantime, the Commons Business, Innovation and Skills committee has launched an inquiry to explore how such a framework might operate. Reforms are also planned to reform the higher education and research system architecture, the latter informed by the Nurse review that is due to publish towards the end of this year.
Elections and a referendum
Meanwhile Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – to which some aspects of higher education are devolved but which share parts of the UK research system architecture – are gearing up for elections in May 2016. And, while the government is yet to set a date for a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, the House of Lords science and technology Committee has launched an inquiry into the influence of EU membership on UK science. In the EU an interim evaluation of Horizon 2020 is planned in the Commission’s work plan for this year.
The Migration Advisory Committee is completing a review of the tier 2 route by which many international researchers enter the UK to work. The Society is working hard to highlight the value of ensuring the UK can attract the best from around the world to strengthen our knowledge economy. The Commons Home Affairs committee is also looking at this issue and the Society has responded.
A central theme running through all of these issues is the role that research and innovation can play in creating growth in the UK. UK productivity lags behind many other G7 countries and UK productivity growth has slowed since 2007 and in a time where finances are tight, government is focused on creating growth. In the government’s ‘productivity plan’ – Fixing the Foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation, they make reference to clear and robust evidence of a link between R&D spend and national productivity. The Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee is now conducting an inquiry into this plan to which the Society has responded to emphasise the importance of investment in R&D to help reverse recent downward trends in productivity growth.
The Society is also heading to the Labour, Conservative and SNP conferences to continue this discussion about the role of research and innovation in boosting UK productivity, jointly with the Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Academy and the Royal Academy of Engineering. We will hear from universities and businesses around the UK about how they are working together with Local Enterprise Partnerships and other on-the-ground initiatives and discuss some of the challenges and opportunities they face.
A skilled workforce also plays a central role in maintaining and growing UK productivity. At the moment, the UK is facing a shortfall in the science, technology, engineering and mathematically (STEM) skilled staff that employers need – estimates suggest that one million new science, engineering and technology professionals will be required in the UK by 2020. To address this, we need to encourage more young people going through school now to consider STEM careers. At the Labour and Conservative party conferences, we will be highlighting one approach to doing this: business and school partnerships aiming to bring science and maths alive in the classroom and give young people an insight into where these subjects can take them. We will be hearing from some students, teachers and businesses that have been involved in these partnerships and discussing the role that government and others can play in opening up opportunities to more young people and employers across the UK. I hope you can join us for what will be an interesting discussion.