Britain has played an exceptional part in the advance of science and has benefitted from this through knowledge-based enterprises, which contribute hugely to our prosperity. But this advantage is under threat as investment in research declines in relation to our international competitors. Key factors are: inadequate public investment in science, our poor performance in maths, science and engineering, Brexit, and the obstacles that face talented scientists from abroad who wish to work in the UK. Initiatives are needed to create a positive environment for science throughout the education system, starting in primary schools. And the Government should make a reality of its commitment to raise public and private investment in science and research and development to an internationally competitive level through annual real increases in the science budget, supported by active measures to lever matching increases in private not-for-profit sector spending.
In the 21st Century, the ability of our country to provide well paid jobs for its citizens will be built upon new knowledge and technology. Ignoring this would condemn the UK to continue to fall behind, with poorly skilled workers depending on low paid and insecure employment. In addressing this challenge, the Party supports the proposals drawn up by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), which offers an ambitious and realistic programme for building a strong future for British science and research.
Radical Reform Proposes
- Investing in Science
- Science and Education
- Freedom of Movement
- Promoting Public Awareness
- The Knowledge Economy
Investing in Science
The UK currently invests 1.7% of GDP in science and research and development, compared with a European average of 2.0%, and 2.9% in Germany. We back the pledge by the Government to raise public and private investment to 2.4% of GDP by 2027 and 3.0% in the longer term, to match spending by our main competitors. It shares the concern that spending through the National Productivity and Investment Fund announced in October 2018 failed to match the annual real terms increase needed to meet this target. Government spending on research in turn levers private sector investment and plays an important part in attracting investment from other parts of the world.
An important component of publicly funded research involves answering questions about the universe which may not have immediate practical applications. Much of this work is carried forward through international collaborative projects. We recognise the importance of such work, both because human understanding is a legitimate aim for public support and because of the practical benefits that it may eventually generate.
Science and Education
Efforts to underpin a strong future for British science, and hence for an expanding knowledge economy, must start in the first years of learning. Despite being a core subject in primary schools, the amount of time allocated to science lags well behind the two hours a week, which is the average for comparable nations. Research carried out for the Welcome Trust suggests that only 30% of senior teachers currently consider science teaching to be very important to their school. Some 25% of teachers did not feel confident of being able to answer questions from pupils on scientific subjects, while the Royal Society has reported that only 3% of primary school teachers have science degrees.
Evidence from the Welcome Trust sponsored Thinking, Talking and Doing Science project, carried out in Oxfordshire in 2014-15, suggests that engaging heads, extra training for teachers, and involving pupils in challenging and creative projects can significantly improve interest in, and commitment to, science. We support the appointment of science champions in primary schools from among existing staff. A determined effort, going beyond the Government’s current proposals, is needed to raise the number of school students (especially girls) studying maths and science.
Improved careers advice and support will also be crucial in addressing the UK’s deficit in science and engineering. The Government’s 2017 Careers Strategy should be revised to strengthen the focus on maths and science through additional careers-oriented support in primary and secondary schools. Measures are also needed to ensure that students in further and higher education are not deterred by additional costs associated with studying science or engineering, and to encourage more to study these subjects at postgraduate level, where the shortfall of skills is particularly acute.
The International Dimension
Science is an international endeavour, which depends heavily on collaboration and the exchange of personnel between teams in different countries. Britain depends on this mobility to foster the exchange of new ideas and technologies and because our universities, research institutes, the NHS and knowledge-based enterprises depend on science workers from abroad to address serious skills shortages.
Brexit poses a grave threat to science funding, mobility of labour, and access to new ideas through EU initiatives, such as the European Space Agency. In terms of money alone, the UK got much more out than it put into European programmes, receiving some 15.5% of the EU’s expenditure on science, compared to its 12% contribution to the Union’s overall budget. Thus, in 2007-13, it received €8.8 billion out of total EU research spending of €107 billion and was the second largest beneficiary of competitively tendered funding after Germany, securing €6.9 billion out of a total of €55.4 billion.
But the argument for the UK’s continuing participation in European programmes rests on much more than just financial advantage. Since joining the EU, British science has moved from the situation where many of its brightest talents were leaving to work in US laboratories, to became one of the most exciting places for leading scientists to work; no longer at the periphery, but right at the centre of the largest system of international research collaboration in the world. As China pushes ahead with its drive to achieve international leadership in science, this engagement is becoming more important than ever.
Freedom of movement
While Brexit has highlighted widespread concern over immigration in general, surveys indicate that the public understand the benefits of allowing skilled workers to come to work here. A British Future study conducted in 2017, for example, showed that 86% supported maintaining or increasing the level of immigration by scientists and engineers: even among Leave voters, only 18% said they wanted the number to decrease.
The freedom of movement that is essential for science not only involves leading scientists but also students, post-doctoral staff and technical staff in different fields and occupations. Indeed, 30% of technicians currently working in British research laboratories are from EU member states. It also gives British science personnel reciprocal rights to work abroad, to develop new knowledge and skills and to develop international collaboration networks. The issue is not just one of legal restraints resulting from Brexit but also of extra costs and more red tape. Already in 2018, 14,260 applications by skilled workers who had already been offered jobs and met all the visa requirements were rejected because the Government’s annual quota had been reached.
Under pressure from science-based business, the research community, and its own Migration Advisory Committee, the Government has adjusted earlier plans, but its revised proposals still constitute a threat to the freedom of movement which British science and knowledge-based companies require. The Party, therefore, supports the call for the Government to reverse the rule limiting skilled-worker visas to applicants who have been offered jobs paying £30,000 or more, a restriction which, had it applied in the past, would have debarred 50% of the EU research technicians currently working in British universities. The problem of the costs and bureaucratic burden facing smaller knowledge-based companies, should also be addressed as a matter of urgency.
Promoting Public Awareness
The public, and young people in particular, are deeply interested in issues such as health and the environment but it is difficult for them to translate their concerns into action as information is often distorted by ignorance, sensationalism and vested interests. The lack of a clear political voice speaking for science and evidence-based policy has allowed this situation to go unchallenged.
We believe that much more should be done to enable the public to make rational comparisons between different types of risk on the basis of sound evidence. For example, people are rightly aware of the danger from ionising radiation released through medical procedures, industrial testing and past atmospheric nuclear tests and accidents, which cause about 70 premature deaths a year in the UK. At the same time, until very recently, the threat from vehicle and central heating exhausts, which are estimated to cause approaching 100 premature deaths every day, has been largely ignored.
A high priority, therefore, should be given to ensuring that the public, teachers and media professionals have the resources they need to contribute to informed decision-taking. To this end, we propose that a ministerial post be created in the Department for Education and Science with a budget for promoting public understanding of scientific issues of relevance to public policy.
This should involve close engagement with scientists and teachers and include expanding the community of specialists dedicated to promoting public understanding by reaching out through social media, schools and libraries. As part of this drive, we call for the establishment of an annual day to celebrate the achievements of British science, with funding to support activities in schools, community organisations and other appropriate bodies.
The Knowledge Economy
Despite our exceptional record in scientific research, the UK appears often to have been less successful in translating research findings into commercial products and services. While not the only justification for support for science, commercialisation plays an important part in creating prosperity and employment and in underpinning government funding.
In the past, commercialisation was held back by the fact that most scientific research in the UK was carried out in universities, which were primarily teaching institutions and often uncomfortable with the idea of acquiring intellectual property rights over publicly funded discoveries. This cultural obstacle was reinforced by regulations which prevented university-based scientists from taking a personal stake in the commercialisation of their findings.
In recent decades, however, attitudes have changed and much has been learnt from the United States and through the innovation component of the EU’s Framework Programmes. As a result, by the late 1990s, the UK had become a model of best practice, with an appropriate legal framework, clear mechanisms for targeting funding to priority areas, a strong emphasis on public/private partnership and a network of organisations dedicated to facilitating the transfer of new knowledge into marketable products and services. Since 2010, however, the drive for commercialisation has been undermined by the closure of the former Regional Development Agencies, cuts in local authority support for enterprise, and over-reliance on foreign investment resulting from failure to develop a robust industrial strategy.
Increased investment in science, proactive education, and appropriate immigration policies will not automatically enable the UK to catch up with countries such as Belgium, China, Finland, South Korea and the US. Better funding must go hand in hand with efforts to raise the profile of science commercialisation in government and promote public-private sector partnership at the national and regional levels. It is also essential that mechanisms are developed to help British businesses keep abreast of advanced research in Europe and beyond. More also needs to be done to facilitate the dissemination of best practice between universities, research institutes and the private sector in supporting viable, knowledge-based start-up businesses.
To ensure that the UK is not handicapped in its drive to build a sustainable knowledge-based economy by pressure from investors seeking short-term gain, the Government should explore how the national interest criterion can be applied more effectively when the acquisition of UK technology enterprises by foreign based companies is under consideration.
SUMMARY OF PROPOSALS
Investing in Science
- ensure the commitment to increase public and private investment in science and R+D from 1.6% of GDP to 2.4% by 2027 and, thereafter, to 3.0%, is realised through annual real terms increases to the science budget and active measures to lever greater investment by the private sector.
Education for Science
- support the appointment of science champions in schools, increase the school time for science learning and make a sustained effort to raise the number of school students (especially girls) studying maths and science;
- strengthen science and engineering related careers support in schools;
- ensure that students are not deterred by additional costs from studying science or engineering at postgraduate level.
The International Dimension
- ensure that a high priority is given to preserving and building on the UK’s involvement in EU research activities and funding;
- develop the leading role of British universities and institutes in research into global environmental threats;
- remove the bar on skilled-worker visas to applicants who have been invited to take up jobs paying less than £30,000 a year;
- reduce the bureaucratic burden involved in recruiting skilled-worker job applicants from abroad.
Promoting Public Engagement
- create a new ministerial post responsible for promoting public understanding of scientific issues and develop a strategy for engaging with the public and media;
- establish an annual day to celebrate the achievements of British science, with funding to support activities in schools and the community.
The Knowledge Economy
- increase financial support for innovation as part of the intended increase in funding for science;
- raise the profile of science commercialisation in government and promote national and regional public-private sector partnership;
- ensure that the UK has the means to learn quickly from developing best practice in Europe and beyond;
- support the sharing of best practice between universities, research institutes and the private sector in support for knowledge-economy spin-out businesses;
- ensure the national interest is protected when foreign-based companies seek to acquire strategically important UK technology companies.