Yesterday morning, Cicero Elections held a roundtable with former Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts. During the roundtable, a number of issues were discussed, not least the Conservatives’ ‘Long-Term Economic Plan’ (LTEP), but it was one subject in particular that struck Cicero Elections: Research and Development (R&D) in the UK.
Political debate is often dominated by battles over headline issues such as the deficit, the NHS, housing, pensions and immigration, but there is a whole host of different policy areas that need attention. As we approach the General Election, many of these will be ignored. Unless they are easy to communicate in a news soundbite, they won’t get traction with politicians or the public. However, that’s not to say there aren’t votes available in these areas.
A package of policies covering different areas can appear to be pro-business and attract that vote. By having an election narrative, like the LTEP, you’re able to generate a picture of what life would look like with that party in power. That’s not to say a specific issue alone cannot reach out to voters. A nurse may vote for the party that will increase spending on the NHS. Likewise, a researcher will be interested in R&D policy.
Politics isn’t just about the now. It’s also important to build a narrative for the future. Often, parties speak in these terms – there’s a reason hope, change and reform are popular campaign narratives – but they don’t necessarily develop policies that support this picture. R&D policy has long-term consequences. It interacts with the private sector and education (two important election considerations) as well as foreign policy, defence and international development. With a well-planned approach to R&D, parties have an opportunity to sell a dream. A dream that includes cures for currently untreatable illnesses, an internet of things and commercial space travel.
In the UK there is real talent in R&D. The 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) recently found 30% of UK university research was world leading and the UK is now second overall in the Global Innovation Index 2014. The Chancellor, George Osborne, said at the Autumn Statement 2014 “It is a personal priority of mine. Scientific advance is a human endeavour worthy of support in its own right. It is also crucial to our economic future.” Many would agree.
At a Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) event last night, Willetts’ successor Greg Clark, and his shadows Liam Byrne and Julian Huppert, advocated new approaches to education and public funding for research. They also argued that immigration rules should not discourage foreign students from coming to the UK to study; higher education is one of our best exports. Their view is that a strong R&D sector in academia and business is essential for Britain’s future as a knowledge economy. The major parties agree that there needs to be more investment into science, though only the Liberal Democrats have committed to spending more.
This isn’t just a public exercise. Two-thirds of investment in R&D is private rather than public. So a well-designed R&D policy should incorporate the currently flawed investment environment. Often, our world-leading R&D is sold to Silicon Valley investors for prices that belie its potential. We should and could keep those profits in the UK – not many voters would argue with that.
When manifestos are launched in April, we will see which party offers the best dream for the future. A dream they can sell to voters and one that can deliver real benefits to business. The pro-business package of policies would include many of the things we discussed at our roundtable: better designed immigration policy; a sensible approach to the EU; investment in infrastructure; and improvements in communications and IT. A well-developed R&D policy would fit nicely into this package. It would also appeal to voters on the left. Innovation could help solve challenges facing the NHS, make managing personal finances easier and create jobs. Better funded universities appeal to every person who aspires for their children to be well-educated.
It may not be a headline political issue but R&D policy will swing some voters at the next election, consciously or unconsciously; who doesn’t like to dream? All that remains to be seen is which party will make the best offer for a brighter future, capture voters’ imaginations and increase their chances of electoral victory.