The coalition government has published more details of its plans in Our Programme for government this morning. It does not add much to the initial coalition agreement with respect to science and engineering policies. It certainly lacks many policies that might be expected from looking at the pre-election promises from each of the parties. The introduction states:
we both want to build a new economy from the rubble of the old. We will support sustainable growth and enterprise, balanced across all regions and all industries, and promote the green industries that are so
essential for our future. (page 7)
The Government has given us an important and ambitious vision of a ‘new economy’, but not enough detail on how science and engineering will help us get there.
Science and engineering have a critical role to play in achieving growth and reducing the deficit. The coalition needs to explain how and when it will develop a long-term strategy for science and engineering. This is necessary to address the technological challenges facing the UK, to secure our international competitiveness, and to make the most of the economic growth that investment in innovation can provide.
Areas affecting over-arching science & engineering policies:
We will promote small business procurement, in particular by introducing an aspiration that 25% of government contracts should be awarded to small and medium-sized businesses and by publishing government tenders in full online and free of charge. (Page 10)
We will consider the implementation of the Dyson Review to make the UK the leading hi-tech exporter in Europe, and refocus the research and development tax credit on hi-tech companies, small firms and start-ups. (Page 10)
I welcome this goal, but the coalition must recognise that industries need to be supported and encouraged to invest in the UK. We consistently hear from industry that it needs a highly skilled workforce, a thriving research base, and a stable and positive plan for science and engineering from Government. R&D tax credits have become an important factor for investment; not only for their monetary value, but also for the signal they send about how Government values industry investment. Changes to how they are implemented have to be fully evaluated for possible repercussions. Any money taken out of the scheme via ‘refocusing’ should be used to support R&D investment elsewhere.
We will support the creation of Local Enterprise Partnerships – joint local authority-business bodies brought forward by local authorities themselves to promote local economic development – to replace Regional Development Agencies (RDAs). These may take the form of the existing RDAs in areas where they are popular. (Page 10)
It is good that the government recognises that some RDAs have been highly valued in their community. It is important to make sure that the science and innovation spending of any RDAs that are replaced continues to be invested for these purposes.
We will review libel laws to protect freedom of speech. (Page 11)
CaSE supports the Libel Reform campaign, and would welcome reforms to protect scientists from our over-broad defamation laws.
Environment, Food & Rural Affairs
As part of a package of measures, we will introduce a carefully managed and science-led policy of badger control in areas with high and persistent levels of bovine tuberculosis. (Page 18)
It is positive that the government is explicit about the importance of science-led policies.
We will introduce an annual limit on the number of non-EU economic migrants admitted into the UK to live and work. We will consider jointly the mechanism for implementing the limit. (Page 20)
CaSE has consistently made the point that international scientists and engineers are critically important for the UK, and that the circulation of researchers is vital for the international collaborations needed for the UK to stay competitive. We will be looking extremely carefully at how the Government intends to implement their plans for a cap.
We will seek to attract more top science and maths graduates to be teachers. (page 29)
Before the election, both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats had made many positive commitments to improving science and maths education, including improving access to ‘triple science’ for GCSE-level students. But all that has made it through to the Programme for Government is a desire to ‘attract more top science and maths graduates to be teachers’. We look forward to greater detail on the Government’s plans for primary and secondary education.
We will take a range of measures to encourage charitable giving and philanthropy. (page 29)
Charity-funded research is a vital part of the UK science landscape. We hope to see a statement from the Government on its plans for the Charity Research Support Fund (CRSF) and a statement of support for the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation.
Universities & Further Education
The Government believes that our universities are essential for building a strong and innovative economy. We will take action to create more college and university places, as well as help to foster stronger links between universities, colleges and industries. (Page 31)
We will seek ways to support the creation of apprenticeships, internships, work pairings, and college and workplace training places as part of our wider programme to get Britain working. (Page 31)
We will set colleges free from direct state control and abolish many of the further education quangos. Public funding should be fair and follow the choices of students. (Page 31)
We will ensure that public funding mechanisms for university research safeguard its academic integrity. (Page 32)
It is unclear what the last point refers to. It could be the use of impact assessments in funding allocations, which has already flagged up as an area likely to receive reform. We will watch for further clarification.
Overall, there are many positive points and indications that the government has taken on board a range of anxieties among scientists and engineers. We now wait to see how the detail fills out across science and engineering policies, and ask the Government how it intends to turn its vision into a long term strategic plan.