Houses of Parliament
Setting a target to increase investment in R&D – a target broadly shared by the major political parties – is a very positive signal of the UK’s ambition to compete internationally as one of the best places in the world to research and innovate. But to achieve this, we need to create an environment where research can thrive, where the best people, from the UK and around the world, can work, and where businesses can exploit this creativity and innovation.

In our previous blogs, we have looked in detail at who invests in UK R&D, and have unpicked the parties’ proposals to ensure that we have the people to research and innovate in the UK. Now, on polling day, we are going to take a look at their proposals for the broader environment in which these investors and people work.

Industrial strategy

UK industrial strategy is not a new idea, but when Theresa May became rime Minister last summer, she made this a key tranche of her government’s workplan, creating a Department for Business, Energy and the Industrial Strategy. A green paper was published in January 2016, with a consultation that closed in March (see the Society response). ‘Investing in science, research and innovation’ and ‘developing skills’ form two of the ten pillars, with others covering infrastructure, procurement, supporting sectors and places and delivering affordable energy and growth.

As you would expect then, the industrial strategy is a major part of the Conservative manifesto with a big emphasis on regional growth. The proposals stretch across investment in research (covered in our first manifesto blog), investment in skills including a focus on technical and digital skills and immigration (covered in our second manifesto blog). They also cover energy (including maintaining opposition to large-scale onshore windpower in England and stating their support for the shale industry), transport and infrastructure. Universities are earmarked to lead expansion of the UK’s R&D capacity, with an ambition to establish University Investment Funds to increase the amount invested in and by universities, reaching a point where they are large enough to list.

For something that is such a key tranche of current government policy, what do the other parties have to say?

Labour also outlines an industrial strategy that seeks to create an environment for industry to thrive. They held a consultation on a Labour Industrial Strategy last year, which informed their manifesto proposals. They structure their strategy around missions, the first two being increasing investment in research (covered previously) to create an ‘innovation nation’ and ensuring that 60% of the UK’s energy comes from zero-carbon or renewable sources by 2030.

Delivery includes a focus on regional growth, with a role for government procurement. Their proposals include establishing a Council for each strategic industry modelled on the Automotive Council to oversee its future security and growth. They also pick out the importance of digital with the creation of a Digital Ambassador to liaise with technology companies to promote Britain as an attractive place for investment and provide support for start-ups to scale up to become world-class digital businesses.

Many of the other parties make light mention of the Industrial Strategy directly, but similar themes are weaved throughout their manifestos.

The Liberal Democrats state that they will build on the Coalition’s industrial strategy, working with sectors which are critical to Britain’s ability to trade internationally, creating more ‘catapult’ innovation and technology centres and backing private investment in particular in green innovation.  They also have a considerable section on low-carbon energy and transport.

And the SNP sets out to ensure the industrial strategy works for Scotland, highlighting in particular the importance of supporting the Scottish oil and gas sector. In contrast to the Conservatives, they support the development of onshore wind power, but maintain a moratorium on fracking. In particular, they set out an ambition for Scotland to be a leader in Carbon Capture and Storage technology, a theme also picked out in the Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos.

The SNP manifesto also makes one of the few references to the UK’s research architecture, calling for a Scottish representative to be a standing member of the UK Research and Innovation Board, which will allocate UK research funding. Something that was raised during debate on the recently passed Higher Education and Research Act.

Regulation

Regulation is a theme within the government’s industrial strategy Green Paper, recognizing its role in shaping the environment that research and industries operate within.

The Conservative manifesto picks up this theme, talking about ‘removing the barriers that hold back small firms with big potential’ and with specific mention to science ‘We will work hard to ensure we have a regulatory environment that encourages innovation’. On how they will achieve that, the manifesto reiterates plans for the Great Repeal Bill to repatriate EU law to the United Kingdom and enable the UK parliament, and where appropriate the devolved legislatures, to pass legislation to amend, repeal or improve any piece of EU law they choose. It also points to the ongoing Red tape challenge and one in two out rule.

The Liberal Democrats also highlight the role of regulation, stating that they will reform the Regulatory Policy Committee to remove unnecessary regulation, reduce regulatory uncertainty, and support new markets and investment, particularly in low-carbon and resource-efficient innovation.

One specific that is particularly relevant to UK medical research is pulled out by both Labour and the SNP, who highlight the importance of UK membership of the European Medicines Agency, an EU regulator of the efficacy and safety of medicines used in the EU, calling for access to this to be maintained. Concerns have been raised that it may be less attractive to develop new medicines in the UK if they would have to go through additional regulatory processes to be marketed in the UK and the EU.

Looking to the future

Part of creating an environment where research and innovation can thrive and its findings be used to improve people’s lives, is taking a forward-looking approach to identify emerging areas of research and preparing for them.

The UK is respected around the world for its proportionate approach to regulating emerging technologies, such as the application of embryology research to reproductive technologies, in a way that balances emerging scientific understanding and competing values.

Several of the manifestos do look ahead to technologies on the horizon, specifically digital technologies, with the Conservative manifesto devoting its final section to the digital age and the Liberal Democrats picking out machine learning, artificial intelligence and automation as new technologies that will transform our economy, affecting the type and the scale of employment.

The Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats focus on getting the governance framework right, highlighting the need to promote the digital economy whilst protecting people. The Liberal Democrats propose a digital bill of rights that protects people’s powers over their own information, supports individuals over large corporations, and preserves the neutrality of the internet. The Conservative manifesto also provides detail in this space, outlining plans to establish a Data Use and Ethics Commission to develop the principles and rules that will give people confidence that their data is being handled properly. They have also stated their intention to introduce a new data protection law to ensure the very best standards for the safe, flexible and dynamic use of data and to enshrine our global leadership in the ethical and proportionate regulation of data. The Royal Society and British Academy are currently developing a data governance framework which can engender trust and authority, reporting soon.

Cybersecurity is another shared theme – the UK is very strong in cybersecurity research, see our report that outlines progress and research in cybersecurity, making recommendations for how the UK can realise the benefits of this. The parties focus on this largely in the context of international security and defence, although of course it is important for all of our day to day interactions with digital technology. The Liberal Democrats focus on investment in our security and intelligence to address cyberattacks. For Labour Cyber security will form an integral part of their defence and security strategy and they will introduce a cyber-security charter for companies working with the Ministry of Defence. The SNP point to the importance of international cooperation in tackling cybercrime, while the Conservatives focus on both investment in tackling cybercrime, building on the National Cyber Security Centre and cybersecurity strategy, and introducing stronger cyber standards for government and public services.

Underpinning all of this will be increasing the number of people with digital skills in the UK, through early years education and lifelong learning. This theme runs though the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative manifestos, including introducing a right to lifelong learning, specifically in digital skills.  We looked at this in more detail in our previous blog.

This has been a whistle stop tour through just some of the parties’ proposals that will play an important role in shaping the environment for science, or are informed by science. Of course science runs through everything and will be influenced by the broader environment within which we all live and work.