Skip to content

Where does Theresa May stand on science and engineering?

11 Jul 2016

As Theresa May today becomes the new Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party, CaSE intern, Gerard Westhoff, examines her science credentials and asks, will she be a pro science Prime Minister?

It’s been a tumultuous few weeks in British politics since the result of the EU referendum last month. The country voted to leave, David Cameron resigned, and there is widespread uncertainty about what happens next. As Theresa May enters Downing Street, we ask: who is she, what are her beliefs, and will she be a pro science Prime Minister?

What do we know?

  • Government experience and previous career
    • Theresa May has been an MP since 1997, and a frontbench shadow cabinet member since 1999. She has currently been Home Secretary since 2010.
    • Despite much of the media’s Margaret Thatcher comparisons, she does not have the matching science background, but instead studied geography at Oxford University and went on to work at the Bank of England.
  • Post Brexit vision:
    • During the EU Referendum debate, Theresa May was a quiet remain advocate.
    • She has described British access to the EU single market for goods and services as a “priority”, but has also reiterated the need to “regain more control of the numbers of people who are coming here from Europe.” She has also stated that the ability of EU nationals currently residing in the UK to remain here would be considered as part of the negotiations with the EU on the terms of Brexit.
  • Non-EU Immigration
    • Theresa May introduced a £35k earning threshold for migrants wanting to settle in the UK, after working here for 5 years – restricting the abilities of many business that require highly skilled workers, such as engineers, to recruit enough long term workers. Professions on the Home Office’s ‘shortage occupation’ list are temporarily exempt from the restriction, including nurses and PhD level jobs.
    • May also attempted to introduce legislation to restrict international student visas, forcing these students to return home immediately after graduation. She said that studying in the UK should be a “temporary step” and that “too many students who originally came here for short courses have been staying for years”.  The proposals were eventually scrapped by the Government following criticism in the media from scientists and organisations, including CaSE.
  • Engagement with scientific research in policy
    • Theresa May introduced the Psychoactive Substances Act, banning the sale of all psychoactive drugs, in opposition to the recommendations of many experts, including the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). However, she engaged with the scientific evidence presented to her and in a letter to the ACMD chair outlined the reasons for why some of their recommendations may have been scientifically valid, but were not politically viable.
    • In 2013, she announced the banning of the plant stimulant khat, despite an ACMD report finding there was “insufficient evidence” that khat caused health problems.

What don’t we know?

Due to her ministerial briefs, Theresa May has not been a prominent government advocate of investment in science and engineering or improvements in education policy, nor has she outlined her key policy positions in these areas. 

What would we like to find out?

There are a large number of policy areas where the new Prime Minister will immediately need to make her views clear.  As far as the science and engineering sector is concerned, these are the questions we would like answered:

  • How central is science and engineering to the Prime Minister’s ambitions for the UK?
  • How would she develop the UK scientific sector in a global context post Brexit?
  • How will she ensure the continued access by UK companies and universities to the top talent from across Europe?
  • Will the new PM aim to secure our continued place in EU research programs and collaborations?
  • Will the new PM commit to a sustained upward trajectory for investment in science and engineering?

And as we seek to have these questions answered, we’ll finish with comments made by her campaign manager, Chris Grayling MP, when interviewed by Channel 4 News last Friday, on Brexit and its potential effects on UK science investment:

“I can’t give guarantees about future budgets but what I would say very clearly is science funding is a priority for the current Government. I cannot conceive of a situation where we would not want to carry on funding science, supporting international projects, subscribing to international collaborations where it’s in our interest to do so. I don’t believe the science community has anything to fear.”

“I do not consider it remotely likely that a future government, this government, would want to undermine the future of our scientific research, I just can’t see why we would do that. It’s investment in our future.”