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How will this election impact upon science and engineering?

10 May 2017

CaSE Director Dr Sarah Main on the importance this election holds for the future of UK science and engineering

If you ask a political party if they support UK science, they will give a smile and a warm response. There’s something benign about it. What’s not to like? And it might just do some good! 

There is a spectrum of commitment across the parties to the idea that R&D will drive societal wellbeing and prosperity. But the economists are clear that R&D and human capital are universal drivers of productivity, so it sounds like a pretty good bet. 

The factors at play in this election that will determine the prospects for science and engineering are therefore less about political affirmation and more about the impact on the environment in which science and engineering is done. In five years’ time, who will be standing at the lab bench, where will they have come from, and who will be paying?

Political parties will shape that environment. Their positions on education, immigration, international cooperation and trade have an impact on who leaves school wanting to become a scientist or engineer, whether scientists are tempted here from abroad, and which research-intensive companies, universities and charities are based here in which they can work. 

CaSE has set out a vision for UK science and engineering and how the next Government can use its levers to cultivate an environment in which research and innovation can thrive. A fundamental first step is to nurture the values and culture of the UK that encourage all our young people to embrace a scientific future, and make it an attractive place for scientists from abroad to call home. Secondly, the next Government must invest at a level to support quality ideas, not just safe ideas. Finally, Government should develop the UK’s infrastructure and global connectivity to ensure that borders aren’t boundaries to collaboration and trade.

During this election campaign, CaSE is engaging with all political parties to assess and help them develop their policies for science. CaSE Chair, Graeme Reid, and I have written letters to the leaders of all political parties in which we ask them how their party will establish the conditions for research and innovation to thrive in the UK, with specific questions on education, migration, investment, international influence and regulatory framework.

Alongside this, we have clearly laid out the political commitments we believe will help the next Government cultivate a thriving science and engineering sector. Many of these are domestic policy actions which the next UK Government can pursue independent of international politics, such as setting a target for investment in R&D to reach 3% of GDP by 2025, showing leadership and transparency in good use of evidence in policymaking and messaging, aligning apprenticeships with industrial strategy, and providing certainty for EEA national scientists and engineers currently in the UK. Some commitments are to priorities for the EU negotiations, such as seeking participation and influence in EU R&D programmes and ensuring scientists and engineers can work in the EU without requiring a visa.

There is no doubt that the time for development of policies and manifesto commitments is short in this election campaign, measured in days rather than months. As an indication, CaSE sent its letter to party leaders six months in advance of the 2015 General Election. This time it is only six weeks. 

The parties bidding for power in this General Election all share a degree of warmth and enthusiasm for science. But their policies on the issues such as Brexit, immigration and education are materially different. These will have a substantial impact on the environment for science and engineering in the UK. CaSE will be engaging with all parties to inform and develop their policies for science through the election campaign and over the next Parliamentary term so that science and engineering continues to be the jewel that distinguishes our position on the world stage and brings improvements in prosperity and quality of life to people across the UK.