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Reflections on elections (and other events)

06 Jan 2021

At the end of his six year term as CaSE Chair, Professor Graeme Reid looks back on what the organisation has achieved and the challenges that still lie ahead.

During my six short years on the CaSE board, the political landscape for research and innovation has been transformed. Yes, we have had Conservative Prime Ministers and Chancellors throughout. But that veneer of stability masks big changes.

Since I joined the CaSE Board in 2014 there have been:

  • 3 General Elections
  • 3 Prime Ministers
  • 6 changes in Science Minister
  • Brexit
  • The creation of UKRI
  • Unprecedented levels of public spending on research and innovation
  • Reforms to immigration policy and the introduction of the Global Talent Visa
  • A fresh focus on the ‘place agenda’ – referred to now as ‘levelling-up’
  • ….and a global pandemic.

CaSE has been at the table throughout. Robust arguments for R&D investment and penetrating scrutiny of Government spending announcements remain key priorities. Every General Election, annual Budget and periodic Spending Review presents threats and opportunities. Trotting out the same old evidence is not enough. The arguments must be tuned to changes in policy priorities and presented in ways that appeal to the politicians of the day.

CaSE’s long-standing interest in skills and talent was put to good use influencing immigration policy in ways that served the research community. Much of the effort was done in constructive discussions with the Migration Advisory Committee and the Home Office. CaSE also used the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to information when Government was reluctant to publish it. The Global Talent Visa announced earlier this year is a big step forward but is still imperfect so there is more to do.

Another long-standing focus is on scientific advice to Government. We were fortunate to have the Government Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, give the CaSE Annual Lecture during the early weeks of 2020. Sir Patrick said he was spending lots of time on the emerging threat from something called ‘Covid-19’, providing me with my first glimpse of the pandemic.

These established lines of work are only part of the picture. From the autumn of 2016, Government started signalling significant increases in its spending on R&D. These signals first appeared as a commitment to raise overall R&D investment in the UK to 2.4% of GDP (the average level in OECD nations) by 2027. This commitment was reaffirmed by the UK Government who have pledged to invest £22bn a year by 2027. This is great news, not least for an organisation like CaSE whose origins are in the dark days of the mid 1980s when it was – literally – necessary to Save British Science.

However, this support for science raises questions that are worth addressing now to ensure that higher levels of funding persist beyond any initial flush of political enthusiasm.

If the scale of UK R&D increases, should its shape also change? Should the geographic distribution stay the same? Should more funding prompt changes in the funding model so that the full economic cost of research is covered adequately? Is a higher level of research funding politically sustainable at a time when the Covid pandemic and its aftermath will put immense and immediate pressure on public spending. Or is a higher level of research funding a top priority for this country as it finds its new place in the world.

These questions are about public attitudes to research as well as technical analysis of economic returns on investment. They take lobbying and advocacy for science and engineering into a new domain. Fortunately CaSE, Wellcome and Public First have been thinking about this new type of advocacy already. A recent report ‘Advocating for R&D‘ opened new ways of thinking about advocacy.  

The Campaign for Science and Engineering is primed and ready for this next stage in its history. Dr Bob Sorrell has taken over as chair of the Board. Several new Board members have joined, making an exceptional group of trustees even stronger.  The CaSE team, led by the outstanding Sarah Main, have an extraordinary range of experience and expertise. Their energy and commitment have proved invaluable in the past and will be even more so in future.  I wish them all every success in future. I shall continue to support CaSE in any way I can.

Professor Reid stepped down as CaSE Chair at the 2020 AGM at the end of his six year term. He remains Professor of Science and Research Policy at University College London.

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