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Analysis of the 2024 Liberal Democrat manifesto

11 Jun 2024

Monday saw the publication of the Liberal Democrat manifesto. We look at what Liberal Democrat policies could mean for science and engineering.

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Plan to support science, research and innovation

The Lib Dems have pledged to invest at least 3% of GDP in R&D by 2030, rising to 3.5% by 2034. It is likely that the interim target has already been met, with estimates indicating that in 2020 R&D spending in the UK was equivalent to 2.9% to 3% of GDP. Of course, with continued economic growth the R&D budget will have to continue to be increased to maintain the level at 3%. There is no indication in the manifesto on how they plan to reach the 3.5% target. It is positive to see the party recognise the importance of a long-term plan for R&D, which has long been a focus of our work, and is something that we are calling for in our Manifesto for Science and Engineering. A long-term plan will give the research community and the private sector the stability and predictability they need to invest in research and innovation.

The business environment

The manifesto emphasises making the UK one of the most attractive places in the world for business investment, highlighting the importance of businesses to economic growth and prosperity. The Lib Dems have pledged to create a stable and predictable business environment including through investing in smart regulation, skills, infrastructure and R&D. Specifically, the manifesto pledges to develop an industrial strategy and re-establish the Industrial Strategy Council and put it on a statutory footing. Our recent report Backing Business R&D highlights the importance of supporting the environment for business R&D in the context of a long-term, predictable and strategic framework. Ensuring business R&D investment continues to rise is vital if the UK is to achieve its research intensity ambitions. Our members have also previously told us that a stable and predictable plan, supported by sustained investment, enables businesses to plan and gives them confidence to keep on investing in R&D.

Higher education and schools

The Lib Dems have committed to safeguarding science, research and innovation in universities, and to continue to participate in Horizon Europe and joining the European Innovation Council. They have pledged to establish a review of higher education finance in the next Parliament in response to the recent focus on the financial pressures facing universities, which could have knock on impacts for the sustainability of the wider R&D sector. As outlined in our manifesto, it is critical to address the financial sustainability of the university sector, which plays a pivotal role in the research landscape.

The manifesto also pledges to report international student flows separately to estimates of long-term migration. How this would work in practice is not straightforward. However, it is imperative that measures be introduced to mitigate the financial impact of recent changes to immigration policies on our research-intensive universities.

The manifesto also makes a series of pledges to support teacher training, recruitment and retention in schools. This includes creating a teacher workforce strategy to ensure that every secondary school child is taught by a specialist teacher in their subject, introducing a programme of high-quality professional development for teachers and fair pay rises for teachers. We have previously highlighted the importance of a confident and empowered teaching workforce to support the provision of high-quality science education in primary and secondary schools across the UK.

Immigration

The manifesto outlines plans to reform the visa and immigration system. As in 2019, the party has pledged to transfer policymaking over work visas and overseas students out of the Home Office and into other departments. However, the manifesto does not specify which departments. Other commitments include reversing the salary threshold for work visas, and overhauling the Immigration Rules to make them simpler, clearer and fairer, and ensure greater parliamentary scrutiny of future changes. CaSE wants to see an immigration and visa system that does not act as a barrier to attracting the most talented researchers to the UK.

International

The Lib Dems are pledging to bring back the 0.7% Gross National Income target for Official Development Assistance, with a focus on tackling climate change as the key priority for development spending. ODA R&D funding has in the past supported strategic research partnerships with other countries. However, the manifesto doesn’t indicate whether ODA spending on R&D more generally will be a priority.

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