In the last two weeks we saw the publication of election manifestos, as we approach the close of what has been a long campaign. While it is only a short time until the election – one of the most uncertain in history – the manifestos gave us a glimpse of what we could expect for science and innovation policy in the medium term.
If you were hoping that the next Government would finally commit the UK to spending a greater proportion on research (this has fallen to below 0.5%; the G8 average is 0.77%), to align it more closely with other developed economies, you’ll be disappointed. Given how difficult it is to make new spending commitments at this time, it always seemed unlikely. However, if you had low expectations, you might be pleasantly surprised. The Conservatives have a of plan for capital investment, the Liberal Democrats want to increase spending once the deficit is balanced and Labour will introduce a long-term funding mechanism. For all three parties, science and innovation featured as a top 20 theme in their manifestos; this was not true of the ‘other parties’ (according to NESTA’s Political Futures Tracker).
At this stage, while policy wonks can see the value of science spending, political parties aren’t sure of the electoral appeal of focusing on innovation. They see it as a small component of the overall economic strategy and would rather talk about top line figures like GDP growth. Otherwise, issues around immigration, the EU, welfare and healthcare dominate the campaign. In reality, science is becoming as much a part of culture as art and is already a huge part of daily life (think of all the gadgets you use, the transport you frequent and the energy you consume).
Science and engineering are crucial to economy – the parties know this. Spending in these areas has a positive multiplier effect, generating jobs and growth. New technologies can create new markets or increase the efficiency of current ones. Clearly, it is essential that the UK invests in innovation if it wants to remain a world-leading economy. The rate of global innovation is not falling and technology will only become a more, not less, prominent part of our lives. Google, Microsoft and Apple are some of the largest companies in the world; none of them are from the UK. Fortunately, innovative firms like GSK, AstraZeneca, Rio Tinto and ARM Holdings are. We need more of these.
Of all the parties, the Conservatives placed the most emphasis on science in their manifesto, mentioning it numerous times. Their plans include investing £1.1 billion in science capital each year, increasing in line with inflation up to 2020/21, as set out in the Government’s Science and Innovation Strategy. Otherwise, an already announced expansion of the ‘Catapult’ innovation hubs will be welcomed by small, innovative businesses in need of better infrastructure and access to facilities.
Labour has said they will launch a ‘Zero-Based review’ which will set out a long term policy framework for science and innovation. Additionally, their plans for a National Infrastructure Commission include an aim to make the UK the best place in the world to carry out scientific research. However, other than this, they make no commitments and do not detail any plans. Given that Labour has consistently identified the UK’s lagging productivity as an economic concern, this is disappointing. Innovation is one of the primary solutions to this productivity problem.
The Liberal Democrats provided the clearest plans for science spending. They would ring-fence the science budget so that by 2020, capital and revenue spending increase have increased in line with inflation. Innovation investment would be doubled, supported by increased public funding and the introduction of more Catapults. They would also increase current spending on science once the structural current budget deficit has been balanced and national debt is falling as a percentage of GDP (2018 under current fiscal plans).
The other parties paid some attention to science too. The SNP wants to “foster a culture of innovation”, though it is unclear what this would look like. To encourage R&D, the SNP proposes new business tax allowances. Given that the SNP want to see an end to austerity and would borrow to invest in economic growth, research funding could rise, though the lack of detail makes clear this is not guaranteed.
The Greens, long known for their anti-science views, said they were the “only real party of science” in their manifesto. Over the next ten years, the Greens would double government investment in R&D, from 0.5% to 1.0%; the boldest commitment of any party. However, the Greens want to focus on research on environmental problems – this is a noble goal, but it goes against the Haldane principle, that research funding should be allocated by researchers not politicians.
UKIP propose to increase the number of Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM) courses funded and would remove tuition fees for those choosing to study them at university, provided they spend five years in a STEMM role afterwards. This would come from the education budget. While there could be value in such a policy (though it is restrictive), UKIP do not propose improve the investment environment for R&D or commit to more spending. Moreover, UKIP’s immigration policies will concern many. Global perceptions that the UK is no longer open to foreign students and skilled science workers will harm the UK’s ability to attract such talent.
So what can we conclude from this? Science and innovation remains a low priority in politics. While each party has policies that will support science, none are committed enough, and none provide a comprehensive plan that would reassure businesses reliant on R&D. Fortunately, science is a cross-party issue. In a Parliament that will be more fragmented than ever, and is unlikely to deliver a majority, this is incredibly valuable. Policies that push forward the cause of innovation could be among the only ones that progress – as long as they don’t cost too much of course. There is further cause for cheer; science isn’t going anywhere. In 2020 and 2025, it may become a bigger political issue. Let’s just hope it isn’t too late; it would be a shame if a lack of investment causes the UK, a global leader in research, to fall far behind.