There are three ways to grow: do more work for the same money; do the same work for less money; or increase productivity through science and innovation.
In an increasingly competitive global economy, the UK must play to its strengths, and cheap labour isn’t one of them. We must instead support science and engineering, as they will be the drivers of future innovation, productivity gains, and high-value job creation. A strong science base also equips the UK to tackle major challenges, from climate change, food security and future cities, to antimicrobial resistance, national security, and an ageing population.
You just have to look at history to seehow much Britain has benefited from science and innovation. We invented the steam engine, created the first vaccine, and discovered graphene. These kinds of discoveries transformed the way we live and underpinned our fastest period of economic growth in recorded history.
But this success isn’t inevitable. It is founded on sustained, underpinning public investment in scientific infrastructure, research, and skilled people. Without continued investment of this level, we'll fall behind.
The Chancellor’s Summer Budget in June officially fired the starting gun for the government’s spending review, during which all areas of public spending will be put under a microscope and decisions made about what spending will be prioritised, and where cuts will fall. The final outcome will be announced in November, when the Chancellor is due to set out the budgets for each government department up until the end of this Parliament. With the Conservatives looking to shave £20bn off expenditure, and no promises to protect science investment, should we be concerned?
If you take a look at Government’s stated priorities, many depend on science and innovation. From the headlines of repairing Britain’s finances and moving to a higher-wage, more productive economy, through to delivering a modern transport system, reliable and low-carbon energy, world-class digital infrastructure, and, not forgetting, a healthy NHS.
And it seems that this isn’t lost on the current Government. The Chancellor has stated that science is a “personal priority” on a number of occasions, and in a letter to CaSE prior to the election the Prime Minister wrote, “I can assure you that making sure we have a world-class science and engineering industry is part of the Conservative’s long-term economic plan to deliver sustainable growth, create more jobs and help secure a better future for hardworking people and their families…The Conservative Party will ensure the UK’s science and engineering industry remains one of the world’s best.”
And yet, cuts of between 25 and 40 per cent loom over the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which houses the majority of government science funding. We’re hearing that science will be prioritised, but not protected. Further, the Secretary of State, Sajid Javid, seems to only be concerned with short-term cost-cutting, rather than long-term, strategic decisions.
Cuts to science would certainly be short-sighted and damaging, but there is real concern they will come anyway, with serious consequences for the UK. It would mean multinational companies with R&D budgets to invest, will invest elsewhere. UK based innovative companies looking to collaborate with the world’s best minds will have to look overseas. The UK talent pool will shrink, and the UK will struggle to make use of global advances in research and technology.
Unless warm words from the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are backed-up with proper investment in science and innovation when the spending review is announced, it will be an expensive missed opportunity, and another case of political rhetoric not matching reality.