Investing in science and engineering has huge long-term benefits for the economy, yet we've heard very little from any of the main political parties about how they intend to secure Britain's future as a leader in the field.
The run up to May has been characterised by a closedness on the issue, with no one setting out exact spending figures, unlike in 2010. This is concerning, considering the current state of affairs – although science was relatively well protected from cuts over the course of the last parliament, there has also been a steady decline in research and development (R&D) spend per GDP.
The Campaign for Science & Engineering (CaSE), an organisation promoting the improvement of science and engineering research in The UK, is concerned about the problems that will arise if the next government does not invest enough.
“UK government and business investment in the science base is low compared to other leading scientific nations,” Naomi Weir, director of CaSE, told City A.M. “The UK science base performs well in spite of this low funding, but it is widely agreed that this situation is unsustainable and that investment is required to ensure future strength.”
She said greater investment would allow the UK to “reap the economic and societal rewards” of its strength in science and engineering, driving UK innovation and creating skilled and valued jobs.
“An upward investment trajectory, exceeding predicted growth, is essential to keep our international collaborators and competitors in sight.”
But it's not just investment that has an impact- other policies have the potential to be damaging to the UK's standing in science, such as immigration. “It is a big issue that parties have diverse views on, but it is a major issue for science if we aren't getting the best people coming into the UK, since it would make it difficult for us to compete at the global level” explained Weir. “If we are less welcoming to skilled scientists and engineers them they won't want to come here – they can go anywhere in the world.”
Education is also important for the future of science in generations to come. “If we want to have young people be enthusiastic about it, we have to equip teachers with the confidence to teach the subject from primary school level upwards.”
To clarify these issues, CaSE sent letters to all the main party leaders, asking them to outline what they would do for science and engineering in the next parliament. Now that the party manifestos have also been released, here are the most important points for you to know.
- David Cameron promises to focus on investing in infrastructure and research, thereby encouraging innovation.
- Unfortunately, we won't find out how much he is planning to spend unless the Conservatives are elected, since this decision would be based on the outcome of their spending review.
- On the point of immigration, he intends to use the “shortage occupation list”, which outlines the occupations where there are a lack of skilled people in the UK. The party would train long-term British workers, but has said nothing about attracting more international students.
- For education, the Tories say they intend to introduce more maths and science teachers to secondary schools, but have made no mention of primary schools.
- Ed Miliband says science plays a “central role” in the party's plan to raise living standards and create more high skill, high wage jobs.
- Just like with the Tories, Labour offers no definite figures, but says it will conduct a review from scratch if elected.
- If voted in, Miliband will produce a long-term funding and policy framework for science and innovation.
- For immigration, he would remove university students from the government's net migration target, to encourage new talent.
- For education, there's no specific mention of science and engineering at all.
- Nick Clegg is the only party leader who has promised to continue ring-fencing funding for science (although the others haven't said they definitely won't).
- The Lib Dems say they will reinstate post-study work visas, in order to encourage the people we have trained in the UK to stay and put their skills to use here.
- On the point of education, the party has suggested it will encourage at least one teacher in every primary school to become knowledgeable in science.
- The UK Independence Party says it wants skilled migrants to come to the UK, and says it will treat students differently to working people. But they have also said they want to have cap of 50,000 in total, which could prevent some skilled scientists from coming to the UK.
- Nigel Farage has also promised to abolish tuition fees for STEM degrees where the student will work in the UK for five years after graduating.
- Like the Lib Dems, Ukip says it will make sure each primary school in the UK has at least one “science leader” to encourage interest in the subject.
- Of all the parties, the Green party has provided the most clarity on investment figures. It says it will double research spend to one per cent of GDP, up from its current level of 0.5 per cent.
- To encourage skilled STEM students to put their abilities to use in the UK, they will be allowed to stay here and work for two years.