We have taken a look at how Conservative policy pledges could affect UK science and engineering

We have already covered Conservative commitments to research and innovation, made by the Prime Minister a couple of weeks ago. However, with the publication of their manifesto we thought we’d take this opportunity to look again at Conservative policies that impact on science and engineering.

Plans to support research and innovation

The speech by Johnson reaffirmed the party’s commitment to increase UK research intensity to 2.4% of GDP, a pledge that has been a key focus of our work in the last couple of years. In Johnson’s speech, he pledged to double public research investment by 2024/25 to reach £18bn in that year alone. This announcement did not make its way in to the manifesto, and the accompanying costings document outlining increased investment for R&D is short of this £18bn figure. Rough calculations, helped and confirmed by some of our policy collaborators, shows that new and existing Conservative R&D commitments would see public investment reach just over £14bn in 2023/24. This is not to say that investment wouldn’t reach £18bn in 2024/25 but it would represent a significant jump in research funding in one year. Our projection work recommends that a Government seeking to reach a research intensity of 2.4% by 2027 should invest £17.5bn in 2023/24 and £18.5bn in 2024/25. The increases in the costing document are still considerable and we are pleased to see that the Conservative party is serious in its endeavour to increased research investment. We would look to work closely with any future Government to support the growth of UK science and engineering.

Also outlined in the manifesto is a pledge to create a new ARPA-style arms-length body funding risky research which featured in the Johnson speech, expected to receive £800m worth of funding over the next five years. One concern arising from the Conservative HQ communications around the speech was the lack of clarity on whether they would seek association to EU funding programmes post-Brexit. The Conservative manifesto, however, says that “We will continue to collaborate internationally and with the EU on scientific research, including Horizon”. While this still leaves the party’s position open to some interpretation as it does not guarantee full association with Horizon programmes, this recognition of the importance of UK-EU collaboration is a welcome step forward.

In a move in the opposite direction from the Labour Party, the Conservatives have pledged to increase tax reliefs on R&D activities by 1%, while reviewing the definitions of eligibility for these tax breaks. We are particularly pleased to see that the party recognises the importance of data and cloud computing for research use, something CaSE has been calling for this year.

Points-based immigration system for all world citizens

The Conservative manifesto is comprehensive when talking about their vision for the future UK immigration system. As is well documented, they wish to end freedom of movement for EU citizens and treat all citizens from across the world the same. Our concerns centre around how the party may wish to achieve this parity. Under plans for an ‘Australian Points-Based system’, the majority of individuals would need to have a job offer to come to the UK, while limiting so called ‘lower-skilled’ workers. Under these controls, restrictions will be placed on EU citizens and it will become more difficult for them to move in order to work and collaborate on research. We would discourage any levelling down on the opportunities for all sorts of talented scientists and engineers to come to the UK by applying a system as similarly restrictive to the current non-EEA system to EEA citizens. 

The party has confirmed it will still pursue plans to reintroduce a post-study work visa for international students. The manifesto also outlines plans to actively recruit “a small number of the best technology and science graduates from the top universities”. CaSE has already been involved in such discussions with the Home Office, but we are keen to show that while frictionless movement is important for such individuals, it is also required for all roles across the science and engineering sector.

Increases to School and Further Education funding

The Conservatives have committed to increasing funding for Further Education, pledging to invest £2bn. At a time when Further Education funding has been squeezed, questions remain over why this pledge has only just been made by the incumbent Government. The party has also pledged to increase starting salaries for teachers to £30,000 to attempt to solve problems of retention that have plagued the education sector in England.

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