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What does the SNP victory mean for science and engineering?

11 May 2016

Following the Scottish Elections on 5th May, CaSE considers what might be on the new Government’s agenda for science and engineering.

On 5th May Scotland did indeed re-elect Nicola Sturgeon and her SNP Government. So can we expect business as usual? Perhaps not. All be it with the caveat of the EU referendum outcome, we have been told by the SNP that there will not be another referendum on Scottish Independence which took up a substantial portion of their last term of Government, but they have committed to “undertake new work, starting this summer, with the aim of persuading a clear majority of people in Scotland that independence is the best future for our country”. Also, there are new taxation powers being devolved to the Scottish Parliament which gives the Government a new set of options. And perhaps most remarkably, the election outcome has resulted in a minority Government with a new official opposition in the form of Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservatives.

So what can we expect to be on the agenda for science and engineering?

From their manifesto commitments, we can now expect four potentially relevant new strategies from the SNP Government – for STEM, for energy, a Labour Market strategy and a strategy for digital learning and teaching.

Education is a priority area of devolved responsibility, and one where the SNP’s report card might read ‘could do better’. It isn’t all bad news but amid falling literacy and numeracy standards, Nicola Sturgeon said that improving the Scottish education system would be the “driving and defining priority” of her government. In their letter they stated that “if re-elected, the SNP will continue to focus, invest in and drive forward study of STEM subjects at all levels of education and beyond.” In particular they highlighted their commitment to increase modern apprenticeship starts to 30,000 saying it “will boost training in STEM related areas”.

We can expect their STEM strategy to focus on making children, and girls in particular, aware of the opportunities science, technology, engineering and maths can offer. Their manifesto also commits to expanding school STEM clusters and developing a Scottish STEM ambassador network, which could all form part of the same strategy.

In their letter to CaSE, they also set out how they have invested in science education through the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre also set out a commitment to continue to invest significantly in educational opportunities relating to STEM.

Their letter mentioned their Developing our Young Workforce Strategy from 2014 which includes a focus on STEM, so it will be interesting to see how their New Labour Market strategy, which we can expect in the first 100 days of Government, joins up with this.

Towards the end of the last term there were some areas of contention between the Government and universities, in particular around autonomy and governance. Following the introduction of the Higher Education Governance Bill in April, the SNP manifesto has committed to developing a compact with universities “that captures our shared vision for education and the economy, and sets out shared priorities for action”. Interestingly the new official opposition’s manifesto stated that in opposition the Scottish Conservatives “will support the autonomy of the higher education sector, resisting any political interference”. This will be something to keep a close eye on.

On innovation, the SNP stated they would develop a range of specific actions to boost productivity through innovation. I understand some of this will take the form of a review of the innovation system and structures in Scotland, including the 8 innovation centres – to which they’ve pledged continued to support.

Over the last Parliament CaSE and others have raised concerns with the Government about the position of scientific advice in Government decisions, especially with the post of Chief Scientific Advisor being vacant for over a year. There is no mention of appointing a CSA in the manifesto, their letter does point to the other positions within government, including the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientist (Health), asserting that the government has drawn on the best science advice. The letter to CaSE interestingly notes that by the time a new government is elected a new CSA should have been appointed. There has been no announcement as yet, but we presume to expect it imminently. More broadly, in light of the loss of an SNP majority, some of the early coverage after the election result discussed it as an opportunity for revamping and reenergising the Scottish Parliament and its committee system. This could mean improved scrutiny of Government business, which could be a great tool for improving and expanding the good use of evidence in the policy making process.

Below is a full breakdown of their manifesto commitments that relate to science and engineering taken from our briefing looking at all the parties’ policies ahead of the election:

On investment in science and engineering

  • will fund three research PHDs in Motor Neurone Disease and a further three in Multiple Sclerosis (p3)
  • will develop a range of specific actions as part of a sustained national programme to boost productivity through innovation, including actions to develop joint research and development initiatives between academic institutions and businesses (p12)
  • will simplify the way in which companies are able to access support for innovation (p12)
  • will continue to support our eight Innovation Centres, to assist the commercialisation of world-class research in big data, digital health, industrial biotechnology, sensor technology, construction, stratified medicine, aquaculture and oil and gas (p12)
  • will seek opportunities to boost growth in sectors such as construction, engineering, aerospace and automotive industries (p16)
  • will support research and action on biodiversity protection and habitat restoration (p31)

On science and engineering education and skills

  • will Make Maths Count through measures to ensure that more children succeed at maths, particularly in achieving qualifications, and are encouraged to seek related further and higher education, training and job opportunities (p9)
  • will continue to invest in the National Libraries Strategy, including initiatives like coding clubs (p9)
  • will introduce standardised assessment in schools from 2017 (p9)
  • will encourage greater external involvement in key aspects of learning, such as enterprise and STEM (p10)
  • a digital learning and teaching strategy will give all children appropriate time and activity to develop digital skills (p10)
  • will develop and implement a new compact for universities that captures our shared vision for education and the economy, and sets out shared priorities for action
  •  regarding job creation they will bring forward a new Labour Market Strategy in first 100 days (p14)
  • By 2020, will deliver 30,000 apprenticeships each year and target the additional places on higher level courses, including graduate-level apprenticeships, including work to address diversity issues (p14)
  • will develop a STEM strategy to make children aware of the opportunities science, technology, engineering and maths can offer (p15)
  • will expand school STEM clusters and develop a Scottish STEM ambassador network and will focus on encouraging more girls and women to study STEM related subjects (p15)

On the use of science and engineering in government

  • Would hold an independence referendum if the UK voted to leave the EU, and yet Scotland didn’t and will work hard to persuade a majority of the Scottish people that being an independent country is the best option for our country (p24)
  • will continue the opt-out of the cultivation of genetically modified crops for the lifetime of the next Parliament to protect the food and drink sector’s international reputation (p26)
  • Do not support fracking and have also put in place a research process and plans for a public consultation so that any decision is based on both evidence and public opinion stating that unless it can be proven beyond any doubt that there is no risk to health, communities or the environment, there will be no fracking or UCG extraction in Scotland (p31)