Beyond the headlines - what do the manifestos say on science and engineering? Naomi Weir takes a detailed look.

The 8th June is only a week away. Parties have published their manifestos and campaigning is in full swing. A lot has changed in the two years since the last UK General Election, including who is leading UK-wide parties. And, of course, manifesto commitments are set in the new context of the UK leaving the EU. Party commitments therefore cover areas not previously touched on such as the customs union, the single market, free movement, and international trade deals. These issues have implications far beyond the reaches of research and innovation, but they will affect the UK science and engineering environment in areas from skills and collaboration, to trade and investment.

With that in mind, here we try to digest the main UK-wide parties’ manifestos focusing in on our six priorities for the next government on education, immigration, collaboration, investment, evidence and regulation. As we’ve done in previous elections CaSE has also written to party leaders of all parties with an MP and, despite the short time period, many parties have responded. You can read the letters in full on our election 2017 page. They add interesting context and some additional content to the manifestos – so do take a look!

An overarching observation is that narrative rules in this election. The headline messages coming from all major parties on science and engineering are strong. As are some of the headline commitments – such as the ambitious targets for R&D investment. They steal the headlines and back up lofty aims of being ‘the most innovative country in the world’, or creating an ‘innovation nation’ but, the question is will they be delivered or are they just diversion?

Ensure that high quality STEM education and training is sustainably funded, high quality, and open to all

Education is a doorstep issue. It is a live concern in every constituency, and therefore manifestos all include a wide range of policies on education and skills. Developing a larger pool of people with relevant STEM knowledge and skills is a long running challenge reflected in the many STEM occupations listed on the government’s shortage occupation list. In the run up to the election as I’ve been listening to education experts I’ve repeatedly been hearing that if the next government wants to make any progress in any other education and skills policies, from primary through to further education, they must focus on teachers. Not only are there shortfalls in the number of entries to teacher training in these subjects but science and maths teachers are leaving the profession at a higher rate than teachers of other subjects.

Its therefore encouraging to see both Labour and Liberal Democrat education policies broadly focusing on teacher recruitment and retention. Both propose getting rid of the public sector pay cap and tackling concerns over workload. Labour proposes allowing teachers to have greater involvement in the curriculum, and Lib Dems state support for entitlement and funding for CPD as well as long-term planning of initial teacher training places, specifically mentioning shortage areas such as science, technology, engineering, the arts and maths. Conservative policies do include some measures to support teachers but there is more of a focus on changes to institutions, facilities and what is being taught, such as a maths school in every major English city and expecting 90 per cent of pupils studying the EBacc combination of academic GCSEs by 2025. 

There is more agreement on the apprenticeship levy with support in all three manifestos. With such cross-party support the new government should take the opportunity to make sure it delivers for science and engineering.

There is a mixed picture on further education. Liberal Democrats propose creating national colleges with expertise in key sectors. Labour prioritise investment in increasing teacher numbers in FE rather than new institutions and support the implementation of the Sainsbury Review recommendations. There is more detail on the Institutes of Technology originally proposed by the Conservatives in the industrial strategy green paper. It seemed when they were first proposed that these would grow out of high quality existing FE provision, however the manifesto says that they will be linked to leading universities in every major city in England. They will provide courses at degree level and above “specialising in technical disciplines, such as STEM”, but also providing higher level apprenticeships and bespoke courses for employers.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Conservatives speak of these institutes being able to draw down on public funding for research on productivity and skills, and being able to gain royal charter status and regius professorships in technical education. It could be that an intention of achieving parity of esteem between academic and vocational and technical education has resulted in trying to dress technical education in the trappings of academia. Lots of questions remain.

Higher education has been in the legislative limelight in the last year with the Higher Education and Research Act passing in the rapid wash up of bills in April. It is perhaps unsurprising then that HE does not feature heavily in the Conservative manifesto, but it does set out roles for universities in the new institutes of technology and in sponsoring schools. Conversely, perhaps in response, Labour have taken a much bolder stance than in the last two elections, saying they will abolish tuition fees.   The major reviews of HE would continue under Labour or Lib Dems, proposing a commission on Lifelong Learning tasked with integrating further and higher education, and a review of HE respectively.

Science and engineering are expensive to teach, not least because they require laboratory space and equipment. None of the parties refer to this but any models for higher and further education must attempt to address the costing challenge that science and engineering education a national need, but an institutional cost.

Perhaps unlike other areas of education, universities will be affected by Brexit with highly international staff and student bodies and strong international connections. In addition to migration and collaboration, which are discussed later, the Lib Dems specifically make the link saying they’ll seek a softer Brexit to mitigate challenges for universities.

Education and skills in the manifestos

Ensure the UK has a migration system that supports science and engineering mobility for excellence, skills, education and collaboration

Immigration has been one of the highest profile features of public debate in recent years. In contrast to many media headlines, in a poll following the vote for Brexit, 86% of the public said they want to maintain or increase the number of students and skilled migrants, and scientists and engineers in particular, coming to the UK.

The Conservative narrative is positive about attracting scientists and says they “will increase the number of scientists working in the UK and enable leading scientists from around the world to work here”. And yet they also commit to continuing to “bear down on immigration from outside the European Union” and propose a suite of policies to make it more difficult and the UK a less attractive destination for scientists, engineers and students alike. For instance, they propose increasing the health surcharge migrants must pay each year, and doubling the immigration skills charge that employers must pay to hire a skilled non-EU worker. The widely-publicised aim of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands remains.

However, the longstanding Conservative cap on Tier 2 visas for skilled workers of 20,700 a year is notable by its absence. Could this mean that the cap would be removed by a Conservative Government, as CaSE and others have called for? This is a bit of light in an area of Conservative policy that is arguably one of the most challenging for science and engineering.

The Liberal Democrats immigration policy is set in the context that “Immigration is essential to our economy and a benefit to our society. We depend on immigration to ensure we have the people we need contributing to the UK’s economy and society, including doctors, agricultural workers, entrepreneurs, scientists and so many others” They propose some new measures for transparency and control on immigration numbers including through an annual parliamentary debate on skill and labour market shortfalls. Lib Dems would also reinstate post-study work visas for graduates in STEM subjects who find suitable employment within six months of graduating.

The parties differ in support for freedom of movement, with Labour and Conservatives saying it will end when we leave the EU. In its place, Labour say they would offer fair rules and reasonable management on migration. Regarding priorities in trade negotiations, Labour say they would prioritise growth, jobs and prosperity rather than immigration targets.

Labour and Lib Dems state support for high-skilled immigration to support key sectors of our economy, with Lib Dems specifically name-checking scientists. They both also talk about the benefits of international students, would remove students from immigration numbers, and speak of remaining part of the Erasmus+ scheme.

Immigration in the manifestos

Maintain and build on the UK’s leadership and collaboration in research and innovation internationally

The importance of international collaboration has been a consistent message from the sector following the vote to leave the EU. Labour states that “as we leave the European Union, keeping Britain global is one of our country’s most urgent tasks.” Lib Dems voice their recognition of the challenge Brexit is already bringing to UK leadership and collaboration in research stating that “research is vital for our long-term prosperity, security and wellbeing – but the Leave vote has already started to affect existing and proposed research programmes.” The high-level narrative is positive from the Conservatives who specifically speak of a desire to collaborate in science and innovation with the EU following Brexit. The question is how do their policies work together to support that; regulatory environment, investment, immigration policy, access to facilities and EU programmes will all have an effect.

On EU programmes, the Conservatives leave the door open saying there “may be specific European programmes in which we might want to participate and if so, it will be reasonable that we make a contribution”. But they do not set out any programmes they would prioritise. Labour and Lib Dems are more explicit about seeking to remain part of Horizon 2020 and its successor and also involvement in organisations such as Euratom. Labour also mention the European Medicines Agency.

All three parties speak of the UK’s role in global research leadership, and in particular that they want the UK to continue to play a leadership role in tackling global research challenges – each setting out their intention to continue using international development funding to support research in relevant areas.

International leadership and collaboration in the manifestos

Invest at a level and in such a way as to enhance the UK’s research and innovation environment

In November, CaSE and a coalition of other organisation began a fresh campaign for the government to commit to a target of investing 3% of GDP in R&D by 2025. Currently public and private investment combined is around 1.7% of GDP. With the uncertainty from Brexit and a new industrial strategy on the way there is both the impetus and perhaps the means to deliver it. Remarkably all three parties have made a similar commitment. The Conservatives have set a target of reaching 2.4% (OECD average) by 2027 with a long-term aim of reaching 3%; Labour have stated 3% by 2030; and the Liberal Democrats set a long-term goal to double innovation and research spending across the economy – which would get you to 3.4% of GDP.

Public and private combined investment of 1.7% of GDP represents just under £32bn a year. Reaching 3% would require an additional £24bn a year based on current GDP (GDP would likely be higher though). The public portion is generally about one third, so in addition to the £2bn a year announced in November (which all parties agree to deliver) to reach 3% we’d expect Government to invest a further £6bn a year with private and charitable sources making up the rest.

In his letter to CaSE, Jeremy Corbyn gives some additional detail saying that to begin the march to 3%, a Labour government would “commit an additional £1.3 billion of public investment in our first two years in office, to raise the total to 1.85% of GDP.” This would be in addition to delivering the £2bn a year by 2020 pledged in the Autumn Statement. Its certainly a bold statement of intent to reach the target.

Specific numbers and timelines aside, any or all of these represent significant investment. To reach these targets will require increasing public investment and creating an environment that supports and attracts private investment. And reaping the full benefits will require not only strategic use of the funds but for all areas of policy to work together to create a thriving environment for science and engineering.

On structural funds, a Conservative government would “use the structural fund money that comes back to the UK following Brexit to create a United Kingdom Shared Prosperity Fund, specifically designed to reduce inequalities between communities across our four nations. The money that is spent will help deliver sustainable, inclusive growth based on our modern industrial strategy.” A Labour government would ensure there would be no drop in EU Structural Funding because of Brexit until the end of the funding round in 2019/20, and would ensure that no region is affected by the withdrawal of EU funding in the next parliament.

R&D investment and strategy in the manifestos

Uphold and champion the use of evidence and science advice in all Government decisions, documents and messaging

In an age of fake news and widespread misinformation, we want to see government taking an increasingly evidence-informed approach to policymaking, particularly on often poorly handled headline issues such as the NHS, education and immigration. This isn’t a point of principle, it would mean expertise, evidence and knowledge can be used to make policies smarter and, ultimately, lives better. In fact, successfully delivering on many of the parties’ commitments requires robust advice structures and processes to be in place, something we’ll be following up the next government based on our recent evidence report.

From the manifestos, we only get hints of the approach each party takes to evidence, but some of the party leaders spoke of it directly in their letters to CaSE:

“The Liberal Democrats have always been proud to be a party committed to evidence-based policy. To cite just one example, our Manifesto proposals on drug reform are based recommendations from an independent expert panel following a careful study of recent international developments. I welcome the proposal to appoint Chief Scientific Advisers in every Department.” Tim Farron

“Plaid Cymru is committed to evidence-based policy-making, subjecting all new policies to randomised trials, wherever possible, and discontinuing those that fail faster than at present. We believe in the importance of having the greatest possible public engagement with the policy-making process. This not only means better communication from Government, but also a Welsh media that represents the people and policy-making of Wales.”

“The SNP agrees wholeheartedly that good government decision-making is underpinned by evidence led policymaking and in government, seeks to advocate and champion the use of evidence and science advice to inform our decision making.” Nicola Sturgeon

In reality, every party supports the idea of ensuring evidence informs policy decisions when asked, but the real test is in how government’s act. We are asking for the next government to take a lead on using evidence well. For those in scrutiny roles, we ask for you to consistently challenge poor practice and champion the good use of evidence.

Evidence in the manifestos

Ensure the regulatory environment facilitates trade and access to markets, and promotes innovation

Regulation, standards and legislation have been much higher up the list of active concerns for many of our members than they have been in previous elections. In many sectors, regulation and standards help create value. ‘Taking back control’ of decision making could provide some opportunities for the UK, for instance in promoting innovation. But the overarching priority we hear again and again is stability and preventing additional barriers to trade, collaboration and research and innovation activities. The basis on which we leave the EU, and the timelines agreed for any transition period, will have a significant impact in this area. What happens on day one? It is also an area where significant technical and scientific advice will be essential to getting it right for each sector.

The Conservatives, perhaps reflecting the amount of concern and uncertainty they’ve heard from businesses across the economy on this area, make a number of statements on regulation. They say they will seek to ensure the regulatory environment ‘encourages innovation’. There is also a significant focus on data which is something that we’ve heard concerns about right across our membership. Different approaches to the single market and customs union, leaving, retaining the benefits, or continued membership, will also have repercussions on the UK’s environment.

Regulation in the manifestos

 

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