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Times are hard, but science and engineering matter

29 Oct 2015

David Brown, Chief Executive of the Institution of Chemical Engineers, on the importance of science and engineering for the UK economy

In a few weeks time we shall know the outcome of the Government’s spending review, and for most areas of the economy it won’t be pretty.   Ever since financial crash of 2008, instigated by reckless lending by the banks, the overriding thrust of public policy has been to reduce and control the public sector deficit.  Science and innovation have weathered the storm better than some areas so far, partly thanks to good work by successive science ministers, but there are no guarantees for the future.

The challenge is to protect, build and enhance the UK’s science and engineering base and leverage it to support economic recovery while at the same time working with limited resources. What kind of policy environment will enable us to meet this challenge? I’d put forward three ‘asks’:

First, consistency. The besetting sin of Governments is to chop and change, shifting priorities and incentives with the winds of ministerial opinion. What’s needed is consistent, long-term, steady support for a science and innovation friendly economy, with the right incentives for investment both in R&D and in its application through scale-up, engineering development and innovation. The Patent Box is a good example, at least as far as large companies are concerned: smaller firms too need a positive regime for investment in new product and process development, where upskilling and collaboration with universities are encouraged.

The Catapult Centres are a good example of a policy move that’s remained in favour despite changes of Government, and that is to be welcomed. Although there’s scope to expand the Catapult network, realistically the priority should be to ensure the existing Centres get the support to retain their balanced funding model, combining core public funding, collaborative public-private projects and contracts won from industry in roughly equal ratios.

The second ask, inevitably, is about investment. It would be a massively false economy to cut back investment in science and engineering in universities, when the UK’s university sector is a world beater. But we do need to ensure that the investment is balanced in such a way that the UK has an innovation and engineering base of a quality and a scale commensurate with its first-class science base. And that does mean more investment in areas downstream from fundamental research, while some areas, such as energy research, require significantly more support.

The investment must be balanced regionally, too. Government shouldn’t assume that the best decisions are always made in London. They aren’t; and the needs and priorities of other regions do not necessarily match those of the south-east. One of the most damaging moves the Coalition Government made was to abolish the Regional Development Agencies, which had achieved much in supporting and investing in innovation within their regions. Fortunately some of those RDA initiatives survived. The Centre for Process Innovation, now a highly successful part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, originated through bold and far-sighted thinking by the RDA for the north-east: and the Science City initiatives demonstrated clearly yet again that innovation is not something that is confined to Cambridge, Oxford and London. So science and engineering should form a key part, for example, of George Osborne’s proposed Northern Powerhouse initiative, which can build on real strengths and competitive advantage in the northern regions of England.

The third, and probably most important, ask is about people. The UK is short of skilled and trained people in many areas of engineering: we have the lowest proportion of female engineers of any European country and our failure to attract more girls in particular into physics at A Level looks set to make this situation continue for some time. And looking at that world-beating higher education sector mentioned earlier, we should remember that its most valuable output is not research findings but trained people. Investment in teaching capacity, and a structure of incentives and promotion criteria which gives equal weight to excellence in teaching and to excellence in research, are vital for the future.

Similarly, apprenticeships form an important part of the STEM skills mix – provided that they are of quality, properly accredited by the relevant professional organisations, and not simply mass-market apprenticeships which meet arbitrary Government targets for numbers while disappointing employers and young people alike.

Companies need to be incentivised to invest in STEM skills development: the proposed apprenticeship levy is one way of encouraging this but why not allow tax credits for appropriate, accredited training just as for R&D? That might encourage fewer companies to poach people from down the road, and more to invest in training their own people.

This will take time. Training first rate scientists and engineers cannot be achieved in a year or two.   So the ability to bring the best and the brightest from around the world to the UK remains absolutely fundamental. Indeed, international mobility would continue to be vital even if we had no skills shortages within the UK itself. So the rhetoric we hear from Theresa May and others has got to stop, and more power to the elbow of those brave parliamentarians who are arguing for exclusion of students from immigration figures and for reform of the visa regime so that the UK stops giving out a negative, unwelcoming and economically harmful message to the very people we need.

Scientific and innovation success is not just about money; necessary though that may be. The UK science base doesn’t remain the star that it is by having more money to spend than any other: the qualities of creativity, an insatiable curiosity and interdisciplinary interaction have a lot to do with it as well.

What we will need to be better at – and this is where we look to politicians to provide a supportive policy framework – is translating that strong science into sustainable economic success.

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