I have been chairing meetings at three political party conferences this autumn on behalf of the UK’s National Academies: the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Academy of Medical Sciences and the British Academy. Amidst political storms, we arrived in Brighton, Liverpool and Birmingham to blue skies and bright sunshine.
We had a terrific line up of panellists at each of the conferences, including those with practical experience of harvesting economic and social benefits from top quality science and politicians with major influence over science in parliament.
From the Lib Dems, we had Norman Lamb MP, chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, and Layla Moran, MP for one of the most research-intensive constituencies in the UK and Liberal Democrat education spokesperson. From Labour we were joined by Chi Onwurah MP, Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation. At the Conservative conference we had Sam Gyimah MP, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation.
The Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems each approached the 2017 General Election with a manifesto promise to raise R&D investment in the UK to unprecedented levels. These commitments would take us only to the average level of R&D investment in the OECD but they imply a fundamental shift in the role of research in the economy and society of the UK.
Of course this is difficult. Of course it has been tried before. Of course there will be challenges, uncertainties and delays along the way. But this commitment is so important to the future of the UK that it must surely be worth backing. The development of UKRI is important but it is only one part of a big picture. This is also about making the UK a much more attractive place for businesses and charities to invest in science and research.
The 2.4% commitment will never be reached without a major uplift in business investment. As Sam Gyimah put it in Birmingham: we are aiming for the equivalent of four additional Rolls Royces, four new GSKs, four new Oxford Universities and making Manchester and Birmingham as research intensive as the east of England.
Sam Gyimah went on to announce that he would publish two documents, setting out the Government’s plans to deliver its 2.4% commitment. The first, an R&D delivery plan, will explain what the target means and how it will be achieved – that will appear later this autumn. A second document, feeding into the 2019 spending review, will appear during the first quarter of next year.
The potential benefits if we get this right are enormous. Our panellists gave wonderful glimpses into the impact of science and research. Niall MacDougall and Gemma Whitelaw from St Barts Hospital London described new radiotherapy technologies that make huge improvements to patient outcomes. Steve Harper from Invest Northern Ireland highlighted the benefits that a major new cyber security hub are bringing to the economy of Belfast and its surroundings. Richard Jones and Andy Westwood, both of whom were involved in the Industrial Strategy Commission, described the importance – and the challenge – of improving the regional distribution of research funding and economic opportunities. Professor Bencie Woll FBA and Professor Liz Tanner FREng spoke about the wholesale cultural shift that is required to meet this target, and maximise the benefits of research that will improve people’s lives.
Several consistent themes emerged. The need to get a good deal for science from the Brexit negotiations probably the most obvious. We heard passionate, well-argued calls for improved diversity within the scientific workforce, opening career opportunities for the full range of talented people in the UK. R&D investment at 2.4% of GDP would require many more scientists and researchers so any lack of diversity is a needless and unacceptable waste of talent that could be part of our workforce.
The importance of continuing to attract international talent was highlighted over and over again. It was clear that ‘talent’ doesn’t only mean top professors. Highly skilled technicians, early and mid-career researchers, industrial scientists and scientific entrepreneurs would all play vital roles in taking the UK to new levels of research intensity.
Higher levels of business R&D investment might be the largest part of the 2.4% agenda but this must not – and cannot – be at the expense of the essential blue-skies research that extends our knowledge frontiers, is the foundation for future innovations and does so much already to make the UK an attractive location for global business investors.
It was also clear that research and innovation needed to do more for people across the country, not at the expense of the golden triangle but reaching far beyond it. (If you would like to find out more about what R&D investment looks like across the UK read the National Academies handy explainer.
Science, research and innovation have passionate allies in Parliament and Government. Opposition parties have a depth of understanding and levels of commitment that allow them to scrutinise, criticize and develop political thinking on science and research with great effect. That is welcome. But support across the political spectrum depends on a relatively small network of individuals. It is not something we should take for granted. We are living in times of political turbulence, with many interests groups competing for political attention and their share of resources.
Political support for research and innovation need not – and should not – come at the expense of other priorities. It should support them, whether it is healthcare techniques for the NHS, low carbon energy, cybersecurity, overseas development, disease resistant crops or the creation of innovative businesses across the UK. It is for the research community to promote this vision, not just to those in power, but to a wider public. These events during party conferences make small contributions towards that end, but important ones nonetheless.
This blog was written by Professor Graeme Reid, Chair of Science and Research Policy at UCL, who chaired party conference events at the Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative autumn conferences, hosted by the four National Academies.