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What could Boris Johnson do for science and engineering?

25 Jul 2019

Policy Officer James Tooze analyses what the new Prime Minister might mean for science and engineering

As Boris Johnson takes the helm, I’ve decided to take a look at what we can expect from the new Prime Minister with regards to science, research and innovation. I’ve examined his history as Mayor of London, as Foreign Secretary and his time spent on the backbenches.

It is perhaps unsurprising that Johnson has not been outspoken about science, research and innovation given his previous briefs. Indeed, his mentions of science in Parliament have been limited to citing increases to R&D expenditure announced by the Chancellor in the dual-budget 2017. Not a whole load to go on yet, but more can be found in other policy areas that impact on science and engineering.

Views on immigration

What may surprise many are Johnson’s views on immigration, once proclaiming that he is the only politician who is proudly pro-immigration. Johnson has repeatedly avoided questions asking him to commit to cutting immigration, or to continue with a net migration target set by previous Conservative governments. The flipside of this, of course, is that leaving the EU likely means that freedom of movement between the UK and the EU will end.

Today, Johnson has announced he intends to commission the Migration Advisory Committee to analyse the Australian point-based immigration system and how that could be implemented in the UK. That casts doubt on the current Government immigration white paper released in December last year. While it is uncertain how these initiatives will interact, it is clear that Johnson understands the importance of immigration for science. In his campaign to become leader, he directly referred to scientists as the types of people it is crucial to attract to the UK, saying “we must be much more open” to scientists coming to the UK. Part of CaSE’s job, alongside the sector and the Government, will be demonstrating the needs of the science and engineering sector in any future immigration system.

Johnson’s history of climate science

On the surface, Johnson is outspoken in support of climate action, from eponymous ‘Boris Bikes’ to opposing a third runway at Heathrow. However, examination of his Parliamentary voting record suggests otherwise, as he has frequently voted against measures to introduce carbon capture and storage and setting decarbonisation targets. His actions as Mayor of London were to introduce the first Ultra Low Emission Zone, invest in hybrid buses and zero-emissions taxis.

These initiatives as Mayor came shortly after new scientific evidence from Kings College London showed levels of NO2 were some of the highest ever recorded in London, breaking EU regulations on particulate concentration. The use of scientific evidence is something that CaSE cares about very much, both in the quality of evidence available to policymakers and the ability for government to absorb and use scientific evidence. I hope that alongside Sir Patrick Vallance and the network of Chief Scientific Advisors, to ensure that scientific evidence plays a key role in policymaking.

His inaugural speech

Johnson spoke in front of the cameras for the first time on Wednesday, minutes after officially becoming Prime Minister. His focus was domestic policy, rather than on Brexit, with a few comments that captured my attention. While no concrete policy pledges were made, there was an insight into what may be planned for research. Of particular note, Johnson said:

“Let’s change the tax rules to provide extra incentives to invest in capital and research”

R&D tax credits have been found to be an important way to attract private investment, and CaSE has recommended that the Government updates the definitions of eligibility for R&D tax credits. The policy levers that Government holds to incentivise private R&D investment will be crucial in increasing the UK’s R&D intensity.

Johnson also talked about the strengths of the UK, of which he explicitly mentioned life sciences, tech, academia and climate research. I am certainly hopeful that the recognition of strengths will translate in to commitments, not least in continuing the previous establishment’s endeavour to increase public investment in R&D.

Update: Speaking at the Manchester Science and Industry Museum on the first weekend of his Premiership, Johnson stated that ‘We will double down on our investment in R&D’. Let’s hope the Prime Minister’s actions match his words.

The elephant in the room

Of course, the biggest challenge for our new PM is to negotiate the UK’s exit from the European Union. We have been working with government departments in planning for the future of research and innovation in a post-Brexit world but without certainty on any future relationship it is difficult to know what lies in the future for the UK. We have written about the international nature of science and what stands to be lost should the UK and EU fall out rather than agree to work together. We will continue to outline that research is international and collaboration allows research to flourish, and work for our members to ensure Westminster supports the endeavours of research and innovation.

CaSE's reaction to the new Prime Minister

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