At the Conservative Party Conference it was noticeable that both the Chancellor and the Prime Minister tried to portray themselves as the champions of science. ‘Rising countries invest in technology’, Cameron said. ‘We protected science’, Osborne claimed. But the facts speak for themselves and the reality does not match their rhetoric: the Tory-led Government has cut the science budget by 14% and the slashed science capital spend by 50%. They are out of touch with the needs of our economy in the future.
We know what happened the last time the Tories were in power: rather than a One Nation approach scientists felt under such attack they launched an organisation called Save British Science. But in government, Labour made science a priority, doubling investment and appointing high profile and credible science ministers – Save British Science had to change its name, because science had been saved.
As Shadow Minister for Science and Innovation I am well aware that the circumstances of the next Labour Government will be very different from those of 1997 and if we win the next general election will face a tight fiscal environment. In this context, investment in science will need to be fully and rigorously justified alongside other priorities.
And the world has changed in other ways too. Science is at the heart of many of the great challenges we face – climate change, feeding a world of 10 billion souls, living healthier as well as longer, delivering a more productive economy. At the same time China and Brazil are pouring money into science as they step up competition with western economies, understanding its importance to future growth.
So it’s not enough for us to say when it comes to science and innovation that we will do what we did before. We need a vision for the role we want science and innovation to play in a fairer society and a programme of policies to ensure we achieve that.
Those in Downing Street still have a 1980s mindset, seeing the role of Government as just to get out the way. But we understand the need for a partnership between intelligent government and the private sector. And that most certainly applies to science and innovation, where we are developing ideas to support long term investment and to defend the world-beating position the UK held when we left government, but which is now being put at risk by ministers.
We need a long term funding plan for science, to underpin certainty and spur investment in the long term. Labour put one in place but ministers have scrapped it, so now the funding horizon for the Research Councils is shorter than the duration of a PhD.
But there are other questions: how do we make the right choices about what research to fund and how do we assess its impact? The Research Councils choose which projects to fund so we need to ensure they are accountable to the research community. And we need to find ways to professionalise research, ensuring researchers of diverse backgrounds can build long term career paths.
So research funding is the first area of policy work. The second is around promoting and valuing science and engineering in society. Ed Miliband recently proposed a Technical Baccalaureate, a gold standard qualification for vocational careers, and earlier this year leaders of all three main political parties launched the £1million Queen Elizabeth prize for engineering. But there are still many concerns about the representation of science and engineering in the media, despite Labour setting up the Science Media Centre. Equally important is the role of engineering and scientific advice in Government and ensuring that there are not barriers to career progression within the civil service for those with scientific backgrounds.
Thirdly we have to get better at translating our great science base into growth and jobs. There are many successful examples, but too many barriers still remain which prevent people turning their ideas into businesses and growing them. Technology and Innovation Centres – now branded by the government as Catapults – were introduced by Labour to help bridge the gap between the academic world and the world of business. We should use the ongoing formal review to ensure the model is successful. But the critical obstacle for small, innovative businesses is finance. We are looking closely at plans for a British Investment Bank to help small businesses get the finance they need, while we should also look at the lessons offered by investment vehicles like Innovation ISAs in France.
Government also needs to be more intelligent and strategic in how it uses procurement, for example supporting our high tech firms, building on the Small Business Research Initiative Programme which we set up in government. We need to do more to promote exchange between universities and industry, for example one year industrial fellowships for engineers and improving the incentives for academics to spend time in industry
UK businesses as a whole invest less in R&D than their main international competitors, so incentivising industry to invest in innovation is crucial and the fourth policy theme. Productive companies with a long term outlook invest in innovation to maintain competitiveness in the future, so this is an integral part of the responsible capitalism agenda. We need to be able to better monitor how well be are doing, but, despite significant business support, the Government abolished the R&D scorecard.
Finally we need to work alongside business to identify the key sectors on which our future competitiveness depends, such as green industries, Life sciences, Space and Automotive, and the right policy approaches to support them.
Policies which foster long-termism, built around an active industrial strategy, are central to a One Nation economy. In order to build an economy which is more productive, more resilient, and where growth is more broadly based within and across regions and sectors, and, critically, has fairness at its heart, we need a One Nation science and innovation policy.
Chi Onwurah is a shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills