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Reflections on this year’s political party conferences

31 Oct 2016

CaSE Chair Professor Graeme Reid chaired a series of events hosted by the four National Academies at the 2016 Labour, Conservative and SNP party conferences, titled ‘Open for business: a nation of global researchers, innovators and industrialists’.

With the party conference season now drawing to a close, I’ve taken a moment to reflect on the events hosted by the National Academies at the Labour, Conservative and SNP conferences around the UK over the last few weeks. Each of these events provided an opportunity to discuss pressing topical issues on research and innovation with politicians at the heart of the debate. We were fortunate to be joined by, among others, the Minister for Universities and Research, Jo Johnson MP for the Conservatives, shadow Higher Education spokesman, Gordon Marsden MP for Labour, SNP Treasury spokesman Roger Mullin, and Science and Technology Committee member, Carol Monaghan MP.

(L-R) CaSE Chair Professor Graeme Reid, Directors General of the CBI Carolyn Fairbairn, and Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson

Following a summer of political upheaval, I was curious to see what our participants would make of the path ahead for UK research, innovation and industry. With the implications of Brexit, the Higher Education and Research Bill and the forthcoming Industrial Strategy on everyone’s minds, I found understandable concern about the level of risk and uncertainty facing the research and innovation community. But I was struck by the level of consensus about the nature of these challenges and by the well-ordered and pragmatic optimism that the research community can step up and tackle these challenges. From the mix of researchers, entrepreneurs, funders and business leaders around the table – Parliamentarians heard a clear vision for how the country could strengthen its reputation as the best place to research and innovate at a global, national and local level.

At a global level, we heard strong views that Government must address urgent short term issues – such as future access to EU funding and the immigration and nationality status of EU researchers in the UK. There were also calls for a longer term vision to provide the confidence needed for continued investment. The community will need to work hard to keep research and innovation high on the agenda for Brexit negotiations, supported by robust evidence.

Research is an international endeavour which draws on ideas and people from across the world. Isolationism is not an option for our universities and businesses. We heard excellent success stories, ranging from online educational courses reaching out from Liverpool to those around the world, to online tools such as SkyScanner with global audiences. This leadership and connectivity attracts globally mobile investment and the best and brightest individuals to our shores. Those around the table felt that the UK’s changing relationship with the EU offers an opportunity to redefine our approach to collaboration, both within and beyond the EU, to make Britain a global hub for research and innovation.

At a national level, public research funding is going through a significant restructuring, as set out in the Government’s Higher Education and Research Bill. Participants called for a coherent and transparent process of change to protect confidence across the research and innovation community, and noted this was an ideal opportunity for a bold and ambitious show of support from the Government. UK investment in research and innovation lags behind many of our competitor nations, and there was appetite at each meeting for the Government to raise R&D investment levels on a more ambitious trajectory to attract greater private investment, recruit and retain talented individuals, and build the “knowledge economy” that the UK needs in order to flourish. Participants wanted to make the UK an attractive environment to innovate by investing in infrastructure and connectivity, nurturing sources of investment and capital, and building a flexible, responsive and transparent immigration system. The Industrial Strategy is a chance to set out just such a coherent vision for an inclusive and prosperous economy and create a long-term vision which can evolve with the UK’s needs.

At a local level, we heard about the value of research and innovation to communities. Universities, research centres and innovative businesses deliver local impact, growth, international connections and jobs, and act as anchors for wider economic prosperity. Our universities are operating in the top flight of international rankings. Government needs to explore incentives for some graduates to build careers and develop businesses in less prosperous parts of the country. The science and innovation audits set out by the Minister for Universities and Science offer an excellent way to map local strengths and opportunities, and help nurture the global success stories of tomorrow.

Although many uncertainties lie ahead for the UK research and innovation sector, I was reassured to hear the readiness among those at the table to rise to these challenges, and build a strong, well-connected future for the UK. We heard countless examples of the UK leading the field across the whole spectrum of disciplines, and it’s clear that the UK research community has a wealth of expertise and creativity to offer to the world. But this position could easily be undermined unless effective assurances are given to talented EU nationals pursuing careers in the UK and to overseas researchers and their families who are considering a future career in the UK. The UK research base thrives on free flows of talented people.

I would like to thank all the Parliamentarians, Academy Fellows and the many other engaging and informative participants who joined us for this year’s fascinating set of discussions. Judging from the conversations, we have an interesting and eventful year ahead.

This article originally appeared on the Royal Society’s science policy blog.