Manchester Museum of Science and Industry

The Conservative party descended on Manchester this week for their annual conference, in their first outing as a party of majority government since 1996. With the 2015 spending review fast approaching we were keen to hear where research and innovation would feature in their future plans. The messages for science were mixed.

Signals in speeches

Although the Chancellor is known to be supportive of science, across the conference there were signs that research and innovation are not everyone’s top priority. The Business Secretary, Sajid Javid MP—who heads up BIS (the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills), home of the science budget—made no mention of universities or science in his speech.

Jo Johnson is clear that he wants to attract international students to the UK, and free movement of researchers is crucial to UK science. However, the Home Secretary Theresa May MP gave a hardline speech to the conference on immigration, emphasising the government’s continued commitment to reducing net migration and showing no signs of yielding to pressure to remove students from the figures.

Support from the science Minister…

There was clearer support for research at the national Academies’ fringe event. Fellows of the academies and representatives from academia, industry and charities, were joined by Conservative MPs including Jo Johnson MP, Minister for Universities and Science, and Nicola Blackwood MP, Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee. Professor Graeme Reid chaired a lively discussion of the role of research in fixing the UK’s productivity problem.

Jo Johnson was keen to highlight the Conservatives’ track record of support for science in this, and the previous, parliament, as a “solid base on which to start things”. With the Chancellor’s announcement of the spending review looming, he made no commitments on funding, but described science and innovation as central to the government’s vision for the economy, reiterating the party’s manifesto ambition to “make the UK the best place in the world to do science and to innovate”. While stating his support for the Haldane principle and excellence-based funding, he also indicated that he wanted to support regions to compete more effectively for funding, through the local science and innovation audits.

…and the science and technology select committee

Nicola Blackwood discussed some emerging findings of her committee’s inquiry into the Science Budget. She said the UK is a ‘science superpower’, which the government has a duty of care to support, and she was keen to see better alignment of capital and resource budgets. She also spoke passionately about the need for a long-term plan, extending beyond parliamentary cycles, to increase the UK’s public and private investment in research. This could build confidence and long-term thinking at home and abroad, and it is something the academies have called for too.

Investing in research, innovation and growth

Professor Luke Georghiou, Vice President for Research and Innovation at the University of Manchester, discussed some of the evidence about returns on public investment in research, its ability to leverage private funding, and the importance of business engagement for innovation. Mike Houghton from the German company Siemens said that the company has offices in Manchester and Oxford because of its relationships with those universities. The group discussed ways to encourage business investment, by improving access to finance and leveraging new sources of funding with a more long-term outlook, such as sovereign wealth funds.

The power of people

Professor Ottoline Leyser FRS, Chair of the Society’s Science Policy Advisory Group, argued that skilled people are key to the role of research in productivity growth. Researchers who can flow freely between academia and industry—taking their knowledge, skills and networks, with them—could support innovation. To develop a critical mass of skilled people, better careers advice, properly trained teachers and a more diverse workforce could help; both Blackwood and Johnson spoke passionately about getting more women into STEM. Researchers could also be supported to develop broader skills. Specialists who have the leadership skills to excel in industry or the entrepreneurial spirit to start a business could be drivers of innovation across sectors.

Will the Conservatives’ support for science be coherent?

From the academies’ event it was clear that research and innovation have the potential to support economic and productivity growth in the UK, two key priorities for the Conservatives. Both Blackwood and Johnson were clear that they would be making the case for research and innovation within government, and they concluded the discussion on a cautiously optimistic note.

However Blackwood reminded the group that BIS, which includes the majority of support for research and innovation, is still expected to deliver significant cuts over the course of this parliament. The research and innovation ecosystem’s ability to support economic and productivity growth will depend on a positive outcome from the Spending Review on 25 November, but to reap the full benefits of public investment, policies across government—such as on immigration and skills—will also need to align.