The Labour party has a bold vision for a more prosperous, green, and equal United Kingdom. Few things will be more critical to achieving the national missions set out by Keir Starmer than ambitious policies for science and technology. The discoveries coming out of British universities and businesses generate economic growth, cutting-edge treatments for the NHS, and the green technologies that will make Britain a clean energy superpower. They also strengthen the bonds of the Union, with UK public investment backing talent and ideas in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The Conservative government has increased research and development (R&D) funding and overseen a major overhaul of the UK’s science and technology landscape: from launching UK Research and Innovation and the Advanced Invention & Research Agency to a new standalone Department for Science, Innovation and Technology. But the rhetoric of making the UK the ‘next Silicon Valley’ has yet to be met with sufficient action. Strategies for critical technologies like semiconductors have been delayed, funding for overseas development research partnerships gutted, and association to the €95.5bn Horizon Europe research programme has still not been delivered.
Labour has a rich tradition of supporting British genius, from Harold Wilson’s promise to harness the ‘white heat’ of the 20th century technological revolution for national prosperity to Gordon Brown saving British science after years of underinvestment in the 1980s and 90s. In line with this tradition, Labour has already made a welcome commitment to increase R&D investment to 3 per cent of GDP. But it must go further. The world is on the verge of great technological breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, green energy, medical research, and other fields.
What should Labour’s policy agenda for this new white heat look like? Firstly, Labour’s policy must be long-term and mission-based. The Conservatives have consistently failed to harness British science and innovation in the service of a consistent, long-term economic strategy. Instead, there has been ceaseless churn, with each new government junking the policy framework of the last. We have seen eight great technologies, three Plans for Growth, four missions in Theresa May’s abandoned industrial strategy, and now Jeremy Hunt’s five priority growth sectors. This merry-go-round undermines the private sector’s confidence and Britain’s ability to harness new discoveries for economic and social benefit.
Labour should set a small number of ambitious goals for science and technology and, crucially, stick to them. The party’s industrial strategy provides excellent foundations: committing to long-term ‘missions’ in delivering clean power by 2030, harnessing data for public good, caring for the future, and building a resilient economy. A Labour government should ensure each is fleshed out into a specific, measurable, time-bound objective – for example, increasing global UK market share in the quantum, semiconductor and engineering biology industries by 2035, or making the NHS the largest adopter of safe, trusted and responsible artificial intelligence of any healthcare system in the world by 2040. They should be delivered by a small number of ‘challenge-led’ R&D programmes like the Faraday Battery Challenge or the National Quantum Technology Programme. Such programmes would have the flexibility to invest across multiple technologies and research disciplines and could be delivered by experienced leaders from industry. These programmes would be accompanied by capital incentives to attract technology-rich manufacturing companies to buy, make, and sell more in the UK. Finally, a successful government should act in the national interest by showing transparency and accountability, even when it is uncomfortable in the short term. Labour must stay true to its commitment to establish a statutory industrial strategy council that can track progress against the missions and hold the government’s feet to the fire.
But Labour’s goals will be hollow, and the private sector uncommitted, if they are not backed by meaningful investment. The current government is increasing public investment on R&D to £20bn by 2024/25. However, a further commitment to increase this to £22bn by 2026-27 was conspicuously absent from Hunt’s 2022 autumn statement; funding continues to be allocated on short-term cycles under intense Treasury scrutiny, stymieing risk-taking and bogging down delivery. Labour should commit to a 10-year funding settlement for R&D, accompanied by a ‘science funding lock’ guaranteeing the public R&D budget will increase in real terms every year to 2035. This would be the boldest commitment possible to making science and technology the engines of a renewed British economy.
Secondly, Labour must put pay, security and working conditions at the heart of its agenda. Discovery is, ultimately, about unleashing people’s potential. This applies not just to brilliant researchers, but to laboratory technicians, commercialisation specialists, and more. Our success depends on creating an environment where everyone can thrive and collaborate. But recent years have seen research becoming an insecure, poorly paid profession. The University and College Union estimates staff pay has fallen by more than 25 per cent in real terms since 2009. Spiralling house prices make living in major research hubs increasingly unaffordable for young innovators. Draining bureaucracy takes up a disproportionate share of staff time. A large 2020 survey of mostly UK-based researchers by the Wellcome Trust found at least half had struggles with depression or anxiety, nearly two-thirds had witnessed bullying or harassment, and barely 30 per cent felt there was job security in research careers. Research is often a hierarchical and rigid field, preventing talented younger researchers and individuals from marginalised communities from flourishing. Bullying remains a widespread issue.
The status quo is creating an increasingly brittle research base. How can we expect world-changing ideas to come about from an ever-more underpaid, insecure and poorly treated talent pool? Instead of attracting the estimated 150,000 additional people needed for the R&D workforce by 2030, the UK risks seeing it wither. As with nurses, doctors, and teachers, the recent university staff strikes show this is an urgent matter of recruitment and retention. As the party of decent work, Labour should be even bolder in improving research culture and working standards. The greatest incentive available is funding conditions. A Labour government should be unapologetic about weaving tough standards on pay, working conditions, track record of dealing with bullying and harassment, and more into publicly funded R&D grants. As recently proposed by the Tony Blair Institute, it should provide additional funding to teams and institutions, or establish new ones, that empower younger research leaders.
Finally, Labour’s agenda must be just as invested in places as sectors or technologies. Gordon Brown’s Report of the Commission on the UK’s Future rightly noted the success of the UK’s cities and regions relies on growing their strengths in R&D-rich industries, from medical technology in West Yorkshire and clean energy in the north-east of England to precision medicine in Glasgow. But too few innovation hubs in the UK punch their weight and our R&D policymaking architecture historically has an ingrained view that ‘place’ undermines Britain’s ability to deliver world-leading research. The result has been an implicit bias for investment in established centres like London, Oxford and Cambridge over high-potential hubs like Manchester, Sheffield and Belfast. Peers like Germany, France and the USA have been far bolder in using R&D to transform regional economies. The Biden administration is making particularly game-changing investments, including $10bn for regional technology hubs through the CHIPS and Science Act, to rejuvenate America’s industrial heartlands.
There have been moves to address this, including the levelling up white paper’s commitment to increase R&D investment outside London and the south-east. But funding is still being delivered by top-down competitions, tightly controlled by national institutions and slow to move through the cumbersome Whitehall machine. Labour’s pledge of the biggest ever transfer of power outside of Westminster must extend to its science and technology policy. Mayors like Andy Burnham and Steve Rotherham have ambitious local industrial strategies, but not enough tools to deliver them. A Labour government should devolve generous R&D funding settlements to mayoral combined authorities in England and city and growth deal partnerships in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. This could be accompanied by creating a new research institute of the scale and ambition of the Francis Crick Institute in a second-tier city.
This long-term strategy, with the strong foundations of a motivated and well-paid workforce and an unashamed focus on narrowing the UK’s regional divides, would be a powerful vehicle for change. The opportunity to steal a march on the Conservatives and once again become the party of British science and technology is Labour’s for the taking.
Image credit: alh1 via Flickr