Getting serious about science, research and innovation

Stefano Gortana

28 April 2017

Plans for a new Industrial Strategy announced in January 2017 set out ten strategic ‘pillars’ intended to support a strong position for Britain in the global economy post-Brexit. 

The Green Paper outlining these proposals includes pledges to invest in science, research and innovation; in skills and infrastructure; in bringing together ‘sectors and places’ via institutions and in cultivating world-leading sectors. Notably, Prof Sir John Bell has been charged with developing further strategy for the life sciences sector, addressing genomics, personalised and precision medicine, and much more.

During the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee evidence session on the implications of the Green Paper for science, research and innovation, expert witnesses were questioned on issues including resource sustainability, evaluation metrics and the STEM skills gap. The report from the evidence session reflects the witnesses’ overwhelming support for the Industrial Strategy, albeit tempered with several significant concerns.


Cautious optimism


Acknowledging the many positive developments outlined in the Green Paper the witnesses welcomed the strong focus on research and innovation backed-up with real financial investment plans. Educational infrastructure, knowledge transfer and productivity also received welcome attention. And the government was praised for its cross-departmental approach that gives a consistent narrative and demonstrates a long-term plan.

But significant concerns were voiced - around government capacity to deliver the proposals, the need for cross-sector rather than merely cross-disciplinary thinking and regulation. The report notes these worries and highlights the need for clarity regarding sector deals, the post-Brexit regulatory environment in the UK (particularly important in the life sciences sector as a globally respected but generally permissive regime) and long-term funding arrangements. The Committee also acknowledges the important role of UKRI to the success of this strategy, as well as the need to balance priorities.        

Questions also remain regarding criteria for the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, key challenges for the commercialistion of research and how to prioritise the latest £10 billion investment in science. The witnesses agreed that predicting the future of technology is difficult and risky. Instead they suggested that the government would do well to support ‘disruptive change’ generally - also strongly advocated with respect to healthcare in the recent House of Lords report The Long-term Sustainability of the NHS and Adult Social Care.

Furthermore, while high risk research plays a crucial role in facilitating innovation, there was agreement that commercialisation is key and an earlier focus on commercial viability and increasing productivity is vital to an effective industrial strategy.


UK science, research and innovation needs Europe


Ahead of Brexit negotiations, uncertainty persists around a host of issues, ranging from funding and collaboration to the movement of people and goods.

Firstly, questions of UK access to programmes such as Horizon 2020 or facilities such as the European Investment Bank (EIB) were raised by witnesses, as well as how UK money saved by leaving the EU will be redistributed. For example, the UK receives more from the EIB than it contributes. Without this, the government will have to invest more than it currently gives to the EU into the UK economy to maintain current levels.

Secondly, it was reiterated that the movement of people and goods is particularly crucial for UK science and research. This includes attracting the best students and experts to pursue their work in the UK, maintaining collaborative links with European institutions and harmonising non-tariff barriers. As the Industrial Strategy avoids addressing regulations, immigration and funding in detail, potential barriers to its successful implementation persist.

These concerns are echoed in the report which concludes that the government should be prepared to cover any shortfall in research funding available through international collaboration as a result of Brexit. The Committee reiterate its call for the government to reassure EU researchers working and studying in the UK that they will have a secure position in the UK after Brexit. An issue which was also highlighted in the first evidence session of the Science & Technology Committee’s Inquiry on Genomics and Genome Editing  - at which PHG Foundation’s Alison Hall provided expert evidence


Strengthening STEM skills


In the evidence session it became apparent that the science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) skills gap persists in the UK and requires investment and reform in education. Witnesses suggested that incentives should be offered to reskill and retrain people as they age. Rather than specialists, the consensus was that individuals with a range of skills across diverse fields provide a competitive advantage to the industry. The final report strongly echoes these conclusions. It urges the government to ‘make encouraging students to have scientific understanding from an early age a priority' – including introducing new programmes in primary schools through to GCSE / A-levels as well as additional routes into skilled and highly skilled paid roles in STEM-related areas as alternatives to university degree courses.

The current Government has maintained a consistent focus on areas of national industrial and scientific excellence, not least in genomics and the life sciences where the aim has been to generate ‘health and wealth’ for the country. Both of these rely on a stron g base in science research and innovation, so steps to underpin and expand this are to be welcomed. Brexit clearly poses risks that require active mitigation; the flip side is that any new opportunities it may offer the sector must also be pursued.


While the snap election in a few weeks will certainly delay critical decisions in these areas, science, research and innovation will require more comprehensive and long-term planning by whoever happens to occupy Number 10 this summer.

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