Fresh from what is becoming my annual sojourn to the political party conferences (a hat trick of Lib Dem, Labour and Conservative this year), I offer a few reflections on the mood of the political community.
Science is firmly on the agenda
The science community is very effective at speaking clearly with one voice, and this is paying off. Science was weaved throughout policy discussions in party conferences, not just those labelled as ‘science’. ‘STEM’ is now a widely-recognised acronym and investing in the UK’s infrastructure, skills and innovative environment is firmly established in discussions about UK growth and industrial strategy. Which leads me on to…..
It’s all about the Industrial Strategy
Political debates over the last couple of years have been shaped by conversations about immigration and Brexit. This year, those topics were still central, but were often viewed through the lens of domestic policy, the UK’s Industrial Strategy in which scientific research and innovation is prominent.
For Labour, this appears in two missions: first that 60% of the UK’s energy will come from low carbon or renewable sources by 2030; and second to create an innovation nation with the greatest proportion of high-skilled jobs in the OECD and 3% of GDP on research and development by 2030. The Labour Party is also keen to engage the retail and services sectors more widely in R&D to better capture and promote innovation in these major parts of the economy.
For the Conservatives, a green paper earlier this year outlined initial thinking on industrial strategy and the Conservative manifesto stated their ambition that the UK should be the most innovative country in the world, committing to meet the current OECD average for investment in R&D – that is, 2.4 per cent of GDP – within ten years, with a longer-term goal of three per cent. We still await a White Paper on industrial strategy but in the meantime there were some clues in party conference discussions: the central role of research, innovation and skills to government plans for Industrial Strategy, the importance of maintaining confidence that public investment in research and innovation is money well spent, and the role of Science and Innovation Audits in ensuring government can identify and support new clusters of innovation without harming existing strengths.
The Liberal Democrats, who are also committed to doubling investment in UK R&D, now hold the chairmanship of the influential House of Commons Science & Technology Committee, placing them in a crucial role scrutinizing government’s plans for research and innovation, and the government’s use of scientific expertise and evidence. They may not have many seats in the House of Commons but they certainly have engagement in research and innovation.
What was on the minds of the research community?
It’s all about people
Research and innovation cannot take place without skilled people exploring the frontiers of knowledge, exploring ever more exciting ways of connecting research and commerce, and nurturing business and academic collaborations around the world. Researchers working in the UK have chosen to work and build families here. I heard a number of researchers during the conferences speak passionately about the work they do and the contributions they make to the economy and society. They brought home the emotional decisions they make, looking for a good quality of life, a welcoming culture and opportunities to build a family as well as their career.
Cancer Research UK outlined the findings of a survey they conducted of over 600 of their researchers. 75% told them that the ability for their partners and dependents to live, work and use public services was a key consideration when moving to another country. A White Paper on Immigration is expected later this year.
Business investment in R&D
There was consensus that creating the right ecosystem for research and innovation is key to delivering the Government’s 2.4% R&D commitment. That commitment can only be delivered though major increases in business investment in R&D and it is Government’s job, together with the research community to make the investment climate even more attractive. Building ever closer associations between universities, business, charities and think tanks could help speed up the process of translation from ideas to applications. I was pleased to hear such valuable contributions from big businesses, SMEs and entrepreneurs during the conference discussions. All highlighted the importance of the ecosystem to their success and provided a human face to the challenges that businesses large and small face in making decisions to invest in R&D. A key message was that public spending on innovation grants is not the only factor for business. They need tax incentives, business-friendly academics, skills and infrastructure that combine in a sufficiently attractive package to persuade cautious Boards that R&D investment in the UK is more attractive than other investment options.
Of course this was never far from the agenda. There was a general welcome for the government’s recent ‘future partnership paper’ on Science and innovation and the Prime Minister’s speech in Florence.
However I picked up considerable levels of concern that warm words are not sufficient and commitments need to be made. Calls were made for the government to act now by making a financial commitment to Horizon 2020 until its end; committing to being part of the next EU research programme, so ensuring immediate certainty for researchers and securing a place at the table for the UK to help shape the next Framework Programme. At the same time, there was a clear message that we are not faced with a binary choice between collaborating with the EU or collaborating with the rest of the world – we can choose to have both and Brexit can be a catalyst for building new global partnerships.
All in all, we should take reassurance from the commitment to R&D from each of these three political parties. The research, innovation and business communities now have their work cut out to help deliver these higher levels of investment. From conversations at the three conferences, I think the research community are ready to take up the challenge.
The UK national academies hosted events at Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative Party Conferences this year. Professor Graeme Reid chaired the discussions at each of them.