UK from space at night

Image Credit: NASA’s Earth Observatory

The Government published its long-awaited Science and Innovation Strategy this week. ‘Our Vision for Science and Innovation’, sets out how Government plans to support science and innovation in the UK over the next ten years. So what does this mean for science?

The Strategy is signed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and both the Minister for Universities and Science and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, providing some hope that it might genuinely sit across Government. Much of the Strategy’s content had been trailed in the Autumn statement, but the document provides some indication of longer term thinking in Government; Five cross-cutting themes (excellence, collaboration, agility, place and openness) run through the Strategy’s six chapters, outlined in turn below.

Deciding priorities

Government wants to take an active role in meeting the grand challenges faced by society, so how should the key questions and priorities for research and innovation be identified? This seems to be an open question, with no clear mechanism for future decision making laid out here.

The Strategy indicates there will be continued backing for emerging technologies—building on the eight great technologies—and help for the private sector to commercialise them. Industrial strategies for key sectors will also see continued support, with science and innovation being central to industrial strategies, as the Society called for in its submission to the strategy.

Nurturing scientific talent

Skilled people are crucial to science and innovation. The Strategy sets out various measures aiming to improve STEM education in schools, with more specialist teachers and an ambition for maths to be studied to 18—as the Royal Society called for in our Vision report—as well as support for vocational training and apprenticeships. There will be a new postgraduate loan system for Masters students and some broader efforts to support careers in science and innovation.

When it comes to imported scientific talent, the foreign nationals in the UK research base receive relatively little mention, and there is no reference to the recent decline in the number of international students choosing to study in the UK.

Investing in scientific infrastructure

Alongside preparations for the Strategy, Government ran a consultation on how to invest the £5.9 billion budget for 2016-21 science capital spending. The results of this were published with the Strategy, although the headlines had already been revealed in the Autumn statement. The budget is split roughly equally between funding for large capital projects, and funding for ‘World Class Labs’—including maintenance, international subscriptions and individual capital projects.

The Society has called for capital investment to be supported by ongoing funding for maintenance and operations, as well as the need for this to be accompanied by adequate funding for people and projects, but the Strategy passes specific commitments on funding on to the next Government, to address in the next spending review.

Supporting research

There are commitments in the Strategy to both basic and applied research and to the underlying structures and principles by which most public money for research is distributed. At the same time, the Strategy announces several reviews of aspects of the system.

Universities UK will review efficiency in Universities, while the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) will be reviewing performance on knowledge exchange. Sir Paul Nurse will Chair a review of the Research Councils, and Dame Anne Dowling, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, will advise on how best businesses can share their needs with academics.

Government will itself examine how to ensure R&D spending by departments is properly prioritised against other capital investment spending, hopefully making institutions like Kew Gardens—about which the Royal Society recently submitted evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology Select committee—less vulnerable.

Catalysing innovation

This Government has implemented various innovation policy measures and investments aimed at helping industry to benefit from our excellent research base, and to catalyse research in industry.

A flagship programme of Catapult centres—technology and innovation centres—currently covers seven key specialisms, and the Strategy confirms that two further centres will open next year, with the network set to grow “as the fiscal position improves”.

There are various other business support measures, including changes to the British Business Bank to support growing companies in accessing finance, but overall innovation support is set to continue through Innovate UK and various tax measures.

Participating in global science and innovation

Various aspects of the UK’s global role in science are touched on here. The UK will play an ongoing role in international scientific infrastructure projects, although our involvement might be more systematically reviewed. There are also positive comments about engaging with the European Union, to ensure that UK gets the most out of being part of the European Research Area. For business, there is continuing focus on both attracting R&D investment to the UK and a new commitment to helping small and medium-sized businesses export.

Two further areas where the Society is keenly involved are mentioned too, with discussion of the value of the UK’s role on science diplomacy and commitment to continue its capacity building work and overseas development spending, through the Newton Fund and DfID.

A long-awaited Strategy, which now needs funding

The Strategy reflects many of the priorities the Royal Society set out in its submission, but its ultimate impact remains to be seen. The Society responded to the publication of the Strategy, highlighting the importance of Government backing it up with continued investment. Without adequate funding for science in the next comprehensive spending review, chances of achieving the broad ambitions laid out in the Strategy will be low.