Policy leaders share ambitious vision for increased R&D investment post-election

Written by Vernon Hunte, Associate Director, AprilSix Proof
27 November 2019

With the General Election now well-underway and the main party manifestos published, what is the policy outlook for science and technology in the next Parliament? It seems, compared to other policy portfolios, the parties share a significant commonality of ambition, with all manifestos recognising that the United Kingdom is dependent on championing research and innovation to drive the economy and national productivity. Unsurprisingly, however, there are significant party differences as to how to achieve this over the course of the next Parliament. We spoke to Vernon Hunte an Advisor from AprilSix, Let’s have a look.

Common ambition for UK R&D spend

Despite each party’s fundamentally different vision for UK-EU relations, all are committed to achieving a significant increase in UK R&D spend as a proportion of GDP. The Conservatives keep with their goal in Government of 2.4%, whilst Labour and Liberal Democrats look beyond this to a more ambitious goal of 3% of GDP (by 2030 in Labour’s case). Even achieving 2.4% would represent an historic leap forward for UK investment in R&D. According to the most recent figures from the Office for National Statistics, the UK spent 1.69% of GDP in 2017 on R&D – meaning an increase of 42% would be required to reach 2.4% in the next seven years. Securing that investment has been a perennial challenge for policy-makers, with the proportion of GDP invested in UK science refusing to shift. A report by the British Academy detailed that the total spend on R&D as a % of GDP in the UK has remained steadfastly between 1.5 and 1.7% since 1990.

“We are committing to the fastest ever increase in domestic public R&D spending, including in basic science research to meet our target of 2.4 per cent of GDP being spent on R&D across the economy. Some of this new spending will go to a new agency for high-risk, high-payoff research, at arm’s length from government.”Get Brexit Done, Unleash Britain’s Potential, Conservative Manifesto

“Targeted science, research and innovation will be crucial to tackling the climate crisis, dealing with the plastic waste filling our oceans and addressing other societal challenges, such as an ageing population and antibiotic resistance. As part of our plan to usher in a Green Industrial Revolution, Labour will create an innovation nation, setting a target for 3% of GDP to be spent on research and development (R&D) by 2030.” It’s Time for Real Change, Labour Manifesto.

“Liberal Democrats have a transformative plan to make the UK a world leader in responsible innovation by taking advantage of the UK’s strengths… We will increase national spending on research and development to three per cent of GDP. We will publish a roadmap to achieve this ambition by the earliest date possible, via an interim target of 2.4 per cent of GDP by no later than 2027.” – Plan for Britain’s Future, Liberal Democrat Manifesto

Where next for the Industrial Strategy?

The Industrial Strategy, a process put in motion by Prime Minister May following her appointment to the premiership, focussed on productivity, innovation, ‘sector deals’ and four ‘Grand Challenges’ (artificial intelligence, future of mobility, ageing society, clean growth).

Perhaps ominously, the strategy itself doesn’t get a single direct reference in the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto. Though the core components – including the Grand Challenges – are all present in a form with focus on AI application in healthcare, progressing a cure for dementia and dealing with climate change. A Conservative Government seems set to progress with the strategy framework, if perhaps not the ”industrial strategy” packaging and brand established under the previous administration.

The Labour manifesto, in keeping with its radical vision, speaks of delivering a “Green Industrial Revolution”. The party believes this revolution would create one million jobs through the “transformation of industry, energy, transport, agriculture and buildings, whilst restoring nature”. This would see the establishment of a Foundation Industries Sector Council to consider the long-term future for existing heavy industries like steel and glass and fund R&D into newer technologies like hydrogen and carbon capture and storage.

The Liberal Democrats claim credit as the co-parent of the industrial strategy from their years in coalition government, and talk of building on it for sectors critical to international trade and creating more Catapult innovation centres. They also plan to develop Local Industrial Strategies based on the sector and universities’ specialisations within each area.

Securing the talent and skills to power UK through the next five years

Skills and access to talent – an issue hugely affected by the shape of the final Brexit settlement – features prominently in each manifesto.

The Liberal Democrats focus on the development of a national skills strategy for key sectors, including zero-carbon technologies, to help match people to the skills required. A new ambitious “Skills Wallet” will give every adult £10,000 to spend on education and training throughout their lives. As part of their Green Industrial Revolution, Labour would launch a ‘Climate Apprenticeship’ programme to allow employers to develop the skills needed to lead the world in clean technology.

Addressing the challenge of a Brexit which ends freedom of movement within the EU, the Conservative Party speaks of a new immigration system which allows, and “actively recruit for leaders in their field” to come to the UK. Fast track entry would be offered to the “small number of the best” technology and science graduates and winners of top scientific prizes, to allow them to drive scientific process. Underpinning this would be a much vaunted “Australian-style points system” sifting through those wanting to work in the UK.

Settle Brexit, increase R&D, support seed stage investment

It’s a well-established, but nevertheless true cliché that the United Kingdom stands at a crossroads. The common ambition, shared amongst the three main national parties, to drive an increase in R&D spending stands in stark contrast to the very different philosophies – and Brexit positioning – each maintains. Ultimately the outcome of Brexit – withdrawal deal and final trade deal – will dictate the success of any Government in preserving and further advancing Britain’s position as a leading nation for world class science, technology and innovation. With a good settlement the next Government can deliver a transformational approach to R&D investment, especially at the critical seed stage, to deliver increased economic return to the United Kingdom.

As George Freeman, the former Minister for Life Sciences, has noted, the UK’s status as a finance and science superpower stands in contrast to the difficulties in funding exciting seed stage companies emerging out of UK science. Private investors are often less willing to tolerate the earliest and riskiest stage of investment.

This is where UKI2S plays a unique role in commercialising the greatest discoveries and innovations emerging from the Public Sector Research Establishments (PSREs). The UKI2S Board brings together 9 of these research bodies as partners, including STFC, BBSRC, NERC and Dstl, and is backed by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Together, UKI2S partners account for £3.8 billion, or 30%, of all UK Government spend on R&D.

UKI2S has demonstrated its ability to mentor and invest in some of the most exciting companies to emerge out of the UK’s publicly funded research base covering industrial biotech, ag tech, healthcare, medicine, clean energy, materials, artificial intelligence, software and space.

In close alignment with the new UK Research & Innovation, InnovateUK and the Catapults – UKI2S supports the ambitions of the Industrial Strategy to create the best environment for innovation to succeed, and improve the UK’s competitiveness and productivity. It offers the next Government a fantastic investment channel to achieve the shared, ambitious vision for UK science in coming years.